How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture, a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the insertion of fine needles into points of the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine is outside the scope of this article, so we will discuss acupuncture and how it is used in modern day physiotherapy practice.
Musculoskeletal acupuncture is mainly used to treat pain. There are two main effects that are at play when you have this type of acupuncture – local and central effects.
Local effects of acupuncture
The insertion of the needle has numerous local effects. The insertion of a foreign object in to a muscle or tendon will increase blood flow to that area. The blood flow increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to that area, and removal of waste from tat area. This is aimed at speeding up and aiding injury healing. There is also increased cellular activity in the area where the needle is inserted. These cells could be fibroblasts that produce collagen or macrophages, an immune cells that clears inflammation and debris.
The insertion of the needle can also mechanically stimulate the muscles into which it has been inserted, this stimulation, often referred to as dry needling, can be quite painful and is believe to mechanically deactivate tension points in the muscles.
We also know that acupuncture causes stretching of the fascia that can aid tissue healing and flexibility.
Central effects of acupuncture
MRI studies have demonstrated that acupuncture changes the activity in the brain. One of the areas that is affected is the pain areas. Pain is a multimodal output from the brain, and acupuncture can modulate this output, thus reducing the pain that you experience.
The second main central effect that acupuncture stimulates is the production of brain chemicals. These include endorphins, endomorphins and serotonin. These chemicals make you feel happier, more relaxed and experience less pain.
Acupuncture is very useful for low back pain and sciatica, neck pain, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow and runners knee. It usually takes a number of sessions to see a marked improvement in symptoms.