How does acupuncture work?

Over two thousand years ago, Hippocrates (considered by many to be the father of medicine) stated: “Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease.” Now in the twenty-first century, scientists all over the world are scrambling to explain how acupuncture works, with varying degrees of success. Though they are discovering bits and pieces of the answer, the bottom line is this: the way that acupuncture works is to enhance, strengthen, and direct these “natural forces”.

Contrary to what you may have heard, acupuncture is NOT a belief system, a religion, superstition, or magic. You don’t need to “believe” in it in order for it to work. Although acupuncture may seem mysterious, the mechanism behind its effectiveness is quite simple. A basic understanding of two concepts is essential to understanding acupuncture.  These concepts are Qi and Meridians.

Although it is unfamiliar to most westerners, Qi not a spiritual or a “new age” concept.  One translation of the word Qi is “that which animates life”—the presence of Qi is what distinguishes a living person or animal from a dead person or animal (or an inanimate object).  Qi is the motive force behind your ability to move, see, hear, heal, digest, and speak. It is the “spark” that keeps your heart beating, your blood circulating, and your brain thinking. It is the energy behind the phenomenal growth of a small child and the remarkable ability of the human body to heal from injury and disease. The main point when trying to grasp the concept of Qi is to consider the possibility that there is an immaterial level of reality that Western science cannot yet quantify or categorize. Acupuncture theory suggests that many of our physical and emotional problems begin at the level of function that is more subtle than our brain chemistry and organ function.

“From the standpoint of Western medical science, Qi is likely to be revealed as some amalgam of endorphins, the bioelectric potential of cell membranes, nervous conduction, circulating hormones and perhaps even photons (light) and infrared radiation (heat). In attempting to define and quantify qi, acupuncture research may end up identifying a whole new system of biological information, such as the conduction of impulses through the body’s connective tissue.”


“Qi is understood to be the intrinsic, dynamic, self-regulating and self-maintaining power of the organism. All healing in Chinese Medicine is directed, ultimately, at conserving, protecting, augmenting, restoring, and facilitating Qi.”

Quantum physics has come to a similar understanding of the material world and the human body by proving that when we break down any material object into its smallest components, it is reduced to pure energy. Our bodies, while seemingly solid, are actually energetic configurations that are constantly changing. Acupuncture is premised on this understanding. The point of treatment is to manipulate the flow of Qi within our bodies in different ways to induce a therapeutic effect. By working on the energetic level, the physical and material levels can be directly affected. In fact, according to acupuncture theory, many forms of imbalance or disease cannot be fully healed simply by intervening on the material level. The underlying energetic component has to be addressed in order to treat the root cause of the problem.

Meridians (also known as channels) are the pathways that conduct Qi throughout the body. Free flow along the fourteen major and innumerable minor meridians of the human body brings life-giving Qi to every cell of your body, including the muscles, nerves, and organs. An obstruction in a meridian is like a dam in a river – Qi builds up and overflows the normal boundaries of the meridian on one side; on the other side tissues lack nourishment. When there is an obstruction, energy stagnates on either side of the blockage and tissue function is impaired. If the blockage is sustained, pain and disease is the result. In Chinese there is a saying, “If there is pain, there is no free flow; if there is free flow, there is no pain.”

Blockages can be caused by injury, contagious diseases, emotional stress, lack of physical activity, excessive physical activity, overuse injuries, faulty diet, and many other factors. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are used to remove blockages, regulate Qi, and restore physiological and psychological equilibrium.

To learn more about Qi and the other vital substances, click here.

To learn more about acupuncture from both a scientific and traditional Chinese medicine perspective, click here.