NHS Acupuncture Lecture

Lecture given by Paul Brecher BA FAcS MPCHM The Principal of the College of Chinese Medicine at the NHS Conferance on Alternative and Complementary Medicine in Primary Care in London on 29 October 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 an historical perspective.

In 1968 in China an ancient tomb from the Han Dynasty dating from 113 B.C.was excavated.

Among the relics discovered there were four acupuncture needles made of gold and five of silver.

So acupuncture has been in continual use for over two thousand 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 forty 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

1995 Guidelines for clinical research in acupuncture

-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-

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

So 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 leucoytes 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.

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

For example acupuncture may also induce an increase in the anabolic phase of the metabolism through 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 endorphin which has an analgesic effect.

As far as I know these are the current ideas which 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 they are the areas of least resistance to electrical conductivity.

An acupuncture point locator

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

In both china and the west patients have had brain scans whilst undergoing acupuncture treatment of the feet and specific areas of the brain have shown increased activity responding to acupuncture on different meridian acupuncture points.

So I would theorize 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.

Thank you

Paul’s Acupuncture Books are now the standard textbooks in many acupuncture colleges.