NHS Acupuncture Lecture

Lecture given by Paul Brecher BA FAcS TCM at the NHS Conference on Alternative and Complementary Medicine in Primary Care in London (2007)

Today, I would like to talk to you about the possible mechanisms through which acupuncture works to heal the body.

 

First, I would like to put acupuncture in a historical perspective.

In 1968 in China, an ancient tomb from the Han Dynasty dating from 113 BC was excavated. Among the relics discovered were four acupuncture needles made of gold and five of silver.

So acupuncture has been in continual use for over 2,000 years. However, this great age does not prove acupuncture’s effectiveness.

 

It was not until 1979 that the World Health Organization formally announced that acupuncture can be used to treat over 40 different diseases.

The World Health Organization has since then published the following books:

  • 1993 Standard International Acupuncture Nomenclature
  • 1995 Guidelines for clinical research in Acupuncture
  • 1999 Guidelines on Basic Training and Safety in Acupuncture
  • 2002 Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials of Acupuncture

I would just like to read to you a small paragraph from this book:

The guidelines aim to encourage the use of systemic laboratory and clinical studies as a way of validating acupuncture, improving its acceptability to modern medicine, and thus extending its use as a simple, inexpensive, and effective therapeutic option. It sets out guidelines that incorporate the established methods and procedures of scientific investigation. The guidelines respond to both growing interest in the therapeutic applications of acupuncture and the need to validate these applications through the compilation of reliable and comparable clinical data.

1995 Guidelines for Clinical Research in Acupuncture

With this in mind, I would today like to discuss both the Western and Chinese explanations for how acupuncture works to heal the body; how it works directly on the site of an injury or infection and also how acupuncture can indirectly have a controlling or healing effect on a part of the body some distance away from the area that is being needled.

First, a western possible explanation of how acupuncture works locally on the site of an area of inflammation or infection.

It would seem that acupuncture can increase micro-circulation due to vasodilation resulting in increased activity of the macrophages and leucocytes which through the process of phagocytosis can destroy bacteria and other harmful toxins and inflammatory components.

And now, a possible western explanation of how acupuncture can effect areas of the body that are distant from where the needles are inserted. 

The mechanism could be via the dermatomal zones which are the areas of sensory innervation on the skin of each spinal nerve.

It is possible that through this mechanism the surface stimulus created by acupuncture may effect distant areas of the body, and in addition through the deep layer of the nerve may also influence organ function as well.

dermal zones

These mechanisms that I have described so far may also initiate a cascade of further processes in the body that further increase the body’s own self-healing ability.

For example, acupuncture may also induce an increase in the anabolic phase of the metabolism by influencing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. This would promote tissue regeneration, counter immune deficiency and reduce inflammation and pain.

There is also a possibility that acupuncture may affect the nerves in such a way as to influence the brain stem at the top of the spinal cord and regulate the hypothalamus which is just above it.

The hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland and is responsible for producing endorphins which have an analgesic effect.

As far as I know, these are the current ideas that need to be further researched for us to understand the mechanisms of acupuncture from a western perspective.

I would now like to discuss acupuncture from the Chinese perspective.

Measurements of the acupuncture points and acupuncture meridian pathways have found that these are the areas of least resistance to electrical conductivity.

There are a number of processes by which these electrical signals travel through the body along the meridians. When they travel through the nervous system, it is through the activity of the neurons. When the signals travel through the body fluids, they do so by the ionic transfer of electrons. And they travel through the tissue via the cell membrane which has got selective protein pumps that can pump positive ions to one side and negative ions to the other, creating a potential difference across the membrane and so creating a current.

In both China and the West, patients have had brain scans whilst undergoing acupuncture treatment of the feet. Specific areas of the brain have shown increased activity responding to acupuncture on different meridian acupuncture points.

So I would theorise that one of the mechanisms of acupuncture is to send electrical signals via the meridian pathways to the brain which then increase or reduce certain processes in the body and regulate organ function. More research is needed to clarify the various possible mechanisms that I have outlined here today.