Before answering this question, it’s important to understand that acupuncture is a very ancient practice. One of the earliest written textbooks of acupuncture, the Huang di Neijing, was compiled in China in around 250BC. However, the practice of acupuncture predates this by a long way. There is evidence (in the Ebers papyrus) that the ancient Egyptians used needles in the ears to cure painful conditions. Also the tatoos found on Ötzi the iceman (the ancient body discovered in the ice near the Austrian-Italian border in 1991) indicate that the inhabitants of the Ötzal alps may have been tatooing acupuncture points onto their bodies 5000 years ago. Acupuncture predates modern medicine. It is a tried and tested healing art which has developed over several thousand years.
Acupuncture has developed organically. People used it because it worked, not because they knew how it worked. Protocols and systems have developed to help acupuncturists predict what will happen when needles are inserted at particular points. Even today, there is no definitive answer as to how acupuncture works. However, I have witnessed the effectiveness of acupuncture and, having read alot around the subject, I have my own ideas about how it works, which I’m happy to share with you.
All classical acupuncture texts refer to qi flowing in the acupuncture channels. The concepts of qi and channels are key to understanding what we are trying to do with acupuncture. Unfortunately, Western Medicine does not have a direct equivalent for qi or the acupuncture channels, but this does not mean that there is a conflict. As I understand it, the Channels are pathways of communication within the body, which are activated when an acupuncture needle is inserted. The channels are not the nerves, they are not blood vessels and they are not any particular structure that can be dissected out. The channels are a much more subtle, deeper connection than this. Many acupuncturists now think that the acupuncture channels are pathways of communication in the fascia and connective tissue of the body.
How did this acupuncture channel system come into being? Consider a child developing in the womb. It starts out as a single cell and ends up as a baby. Interestingly, the brain is not the first thing to develop. For the first three weeks, cells split and organise ‘on their own’ before the embryonic spinal cord and brain are formed. During the first 3 weeks, how are the cells communicating with eachother, how do they know where to go and how to develop? I believe that the force behind their orderly development is what the Chinese called ‘qi’ and the communication channels between the cells are the embryonic acupuncture channels. After the formation of the brain and nervous system, the role of the qi and the channels becomes less obvious. It seems that the brain has taken control. But has it? I believe that the qi and the acupuncture channels continue to guide development and repair within the body, even after the brain has taken on its functions.
The collagen fibres forming the fascia of the body have peizoelectric properties, so needling into the fascia induces small electrical currents in the fascial network. Moreover, the fascia have been shown to conduct both electricity and light along fascial planes, but not across them. As I understand it, the information passed through the connective tissue/channels tends to keep the body organised correctly, according to the blueprint layed down in our DNA. When the body is diseased, the connections within the acupuncture channels get blocked. I think acupuncture is a way of resetting the communication channels within the fascial network to promote a normalising healing response.
I am aware that this is not a very satisfactory answer, but it is the best one I can give at the moment. Acupuncture does work and when somebody finally finds out exactly how, they will almost certainly receive a Nobel Prize!