How Does Acupuncture Work?

There are many answers to this question, as Western medical science seeks to determine all the physiological effects of acupuncture therapy and exactly how it produces relief for so many health issues.

The classical Chinese explanation states that channels of energy (meridians) circulate in 24 hour cycles throughout the body. Meridians cover the entire surface of the body, and diverge deeper to provide connections between the organs. Energy (called qi or ‘chi’) carried in the meridians promote flow of nutrients, and provide communication between the organs and tissues. Obstruction in the movement of this energy creates a ‘dam-like’ effect resulting in inflammation/pain in some areas, lack of nutrition in other areas, and eventually disruption in organ communication or function.

Providing electrical stimulation through the insertion of fine, sterile, metal needles produces communication through the meridians, and can elimination obstructions. Removing obstructions improves organ communication, and can directly stimulate organs to improve function, or balance the nervous system.

Western Medicine’s Explanation

The modern scientific explanation states that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord and brain. These chemicals will either change the experience of pain, or they trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones that influence the body’s own internal regulating system.

Acupuncture has been shown to change levels of neurotransmitters, hormones, and Immunoglobulins. Acupuncture modulates Substance P, which is produced in the body in response to pain. Immediate changes in the brain and CNS have been observed with acupuncture. Needle sensation affects the peripheral nervous system and local blood circulation. Recent research has incorporated the use of MRI and thermography technology to determine what occurs in the brain and body as acupuncture points are stimulated.

Dr. Shi Yin Lo’s biophysics explanation

I have followed this great teacher’s work for several years, and his explanation makes the most sense to me. Dr. Lo has a PhD in theoretical particle physics from the University of Chicago, and is clearly an expert on the subject.

Dr. Lo asserts that meridians are stable clusters of water. This matches the ancient text referring to meridians as ‘rivers of the body’. ‘If meridians are water, they are more transparent to light than surrounding tissue and will respond differently to different electrical signals. Oscillations along the meridians can be likened to waves in a river, that can be stopped by pressure. Research shows that meridians are in fact transparent to infrared light, while some are weakly luminescent. While water and normal tissue are opaque to infrared radiation at 10um, the special water clusters act like a solid or liquid crystal and could be transparent. Merdians have low impedance. On normal skin, the impedance is lower at acupoints than on neighboring tissues. Normal skin may have an impedance of 600 kilo-ohm, and at an acupoint, the impedance may never exceed 100 kilo ohm. It has been found repeatedly in Japan, Germany, Korea, and China that these low impedance points lie along the meridians or within 5 mm from the meridians.

Dr. Lo’s analogy

A piano wire inside a piano will give the right sound in a normal situation. If some dirt sticks to the wire, the wire will not vibrate very much when a key is hit. The piano is out of tune. If we hit the piano wire hard enough to shake off the dirt, then the wire will vibrate at the right frequency and the piano will emit the proper sound. Similarly, if blockage occurs, and the meridians does not vibrate at normal amplitude at its natural frequency, then we feel pain. When a needle is inserted into the right acupoint to cause additional vibration,so as to shake off the blockage then the meridian vibrates freely and the pain is gone.

We can also consider the broadcasting of a TV station as an example. It emits a certain frequency of electromagnectic waves. Such waves go to all nearby televisions. The television that tunes in the specific frequency of the broadcasting station will receive the signal and show the television program. Other televisions that tune in other frequencies will not amplify the signal and show the program of this particular broadcasting station. In the analogous situation, the meridian system will carry many quantum oscillations to different sites of the body. Meridians are like the cable in the cable television system. The internal organs that resonate with the frequency of waves caused by acupuncture will be cured. Other internal organs will not be affected.

Auricular therapy (ear acupuncture) is explained…”when we turn the ear upside down, it looks like an embryo in development. So the development of the ear from embryo is probably similar to the development of the extraordinary points, except that now a group of cells splits into two parts, Part A and Part B. Part A develops into the ear, and Part B develops into the rest of the human body. The internal organs, such as the heart or lung would have their corresponding points in the ear. Acupuncture at these points in the ear will vibrate the same set of natural frequencies as their corresponding internal organs. The signal of these oscillations will be carried by the network of meridians from the ear to the internal organs or vice versa.


Acupuncture is the most studied form of alternative medicine. Many of the top leading hospitals and research centers (i.e. Mayo Clinic) devote substantial resources to furthering acupuncture research. View reviews of research specific to each condition.