There are many explanations for the mechanisms of acupuncture. With regards to the nervous system, acupuncture can stimulate or inhibit transmission of nerve impulses with respect to the needle location and type of stimulation applied by the acupuncturist. It can promote circulation to specific areas in the body, releasing muscle tightness and allowing for both adequate oxygenation of tissues and removal of metabolic waste products. Acupuncture can promote lymphatic return. Likewise it can stimulate an immune reaction, reminding the body to repair damaged tissues. There are more…but for now let us focus on this last mechanism.
In chronic injuries the damaged tissues have not sufficiently recovered, thus leading to weakness, pain, and intermittent inflammation. This may be due to a rushed recovery period or an inadequacy of the body’s own self repair function. In Chinese medicine this is known as Qi deficiency and/or Yang deficiency. Additionally pain without range of motion restriction nor inflammation may be due to pain memory. Acupuncture has been a very useful clinical tool in dealing with these issues. Upon insertion of the acupuncture needle an acute immune reaction is stimulated. This alerts the body to damage locally and promotes a rebooting of the self-repair mechanisms. Clearing away of damaged cells and metabolic waste begins anew, while healthy cell regeneration commences. Additionally chronic pain without signs of inflammation may be due to hypersensitivity changes of the peripheral neurons, “wind up” of the spinal neurons, or cortical changes. Acupuncture both locally and distally can help regulate the nervous system and return the body’s nociceptive mechanisms back to normal.
Last month a study comparing the effects of platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections against saline injections for treatment of tennis elbow was released by the European League Against Rheumatism. A summary article can be found here. Research results showed no difference in speed of recovery between the two groups. Instead they discovered that both groups recovered at very similar rates. In other words the mechanism that promoted the recovery was not the injected medicine nor placebo, but rather the action of inserting the needle itself.
Acupuncture is effective in just the same way. By reminding the body that there is still need for tissue repair, the healing process can be restored and accelerated.
PRP injections are far more invasive than acupuncture treatment. Hollow, thick gauge, serrated tip needles are required for injection; whereas acupuncture needles are flat tipped and narrow gauge, thus minimizing damage to local and surrounding tissues. Additionally PRP injections may include simultaneous injection of anesthetics. This both mitigates the effect of the needling and may further compromise the nervous system.
The use of acupuncture needles to alleviate chronic injuries has long been known by Chinese medicine doctors and clinically has shown remarkable results. It is safe, dependable, and non-habit forming—qualities which all medical therapies should strive to obtain.