What Is Acupuncture? This Is Exactly How Acupuncture Changes Your Body

Updated: Feb. 11, 2021

This ancient therapy has modern science to back it up

The practice of both acupuncture and acupressure (the application of pressure, rather than needles) is rooted in antiquity. The oldest surviving acupuncture needles were discovered in the tomb of a Chinese prince, buried in 113 BC, but the therapy may date back centuries if not millennia earlier in the Far East—and possibly much farther afield, according to Reader’s Digest Doctors’ Favorite Natural Remedies. When researchers examined the 5,000-year-old mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, found in the Austrian Alps in 1991, they noticed a number of tattoos on his body, which were located strikingly close to classical acupuncture points. In fact, acupuncture is one of the 50 natural remedies that really work.

How acupuncture and acupressure work

One remarkable feature of acupuncture and acupressure is that 21st-century science cannot fully explain them. “I explain how acupuncture works in two separate ways: Eastern/traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) versus Western/conventional medicine,” says Lana Butner, a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist with Tru Whole Care in New York City. TCM looks at acupuncture’s mechanisms in terms of meridians, a network of energy pathways that lies within the body. “When this flow energy [qi] is slowed down or blocked, then a phenomenon occurs that is referred to as ‘stagnation,’ which in Western terminology is referred to as pain,” she says. Stimulating certain points with needles or pressure helps to restore the flow through these pathways.

Western medicine, however, approaches acupuncture from a more scientific standpoint. “By inserting a needle into the human body–no matter at what depth–our body’s immune system perceives it as a threat or a micro-trauma. In turn, our immune system sends out red blood cells to bring nutrients and oxygen to the area, white blood cells to fight potential microbes, and fibroblasts to repair any physical damage that occurred,” says Butner. Inserting needles also prompts muscles to contract and then relax in a soothing way.

Finally, acupuncture needles are known to stimulate the secretion of pain-relieving endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain, notes Harvard Health.

Acupressure, on the other hand, involves adding pressure to specific points of the body, says Butner, who adds that using needles remains the most effective way to stimulate healing. Here’s how to find your body’s acupressure points.

Are acupuncture and acupressure effective and safe?

Acupuncture has been shown to treat chronic pain of the low-back and neck, osteoarthritis-related pain, tension and migraine headaches, and relieve side effects from cancer treatments, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

There are some surprising conditions that acupuncture can treat. Butner recommends acupuncture to treat pain to relieve muscle tension and joint pain. She also often recommends it as a treatment for anxiety. “The most immediate effect I see with acupuncture is the patient’s disposition from when they first walk into the appointment from when they get off the table,” she says. Patients move from a stressed-out “fight or flight” state to one of calm, reflected by deeper, slower breathing and a slower heart rate. That may be one reason why patients find that acupuncture done in the evening can help them sleep through the night, she says. And finally, the treatment also bolsters digestive health, addressing problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gas, bloating, and abdominal cramps. “These issues can all dissipate after 20 minutes of acupuncture,” says Butner. Along with those conditions, you may also consider acupuncture to aid in weight loss.

Both acupuncture and acupressure are safe and well-tolerated, says the NIH. Make sure it’s done with a skilled provider and under sanitary conditions using sterile needles. Tell the practitioner if you are pregnant and mention any medical condition you have and other treatments or medicines you are taking.

The truth about energy pathways

In TCM, acupuncture goes far beyond treatment of the physical body. “What every health condition shares in common is the process of habituation: we begin to accept these physical limitations and emotional struggles as inevitable, that our experience is ‘just the way it is’,” says Sean Tuten, founder and director of the Classical Acupuncture Mentorship in Albuquerque, NM. But, he says, there is far more at play that goes beyond what we commonly view as medical treatment. “Acupuncturists use needles, bleeding lancets, cupping, herbal medicine and more to release the muscular tension, inflammation, emotional suffering, and suppressed trauma that informs our posture, our movements, our life choices, and our daily experience.”

A visit to an acupuncture or accupressure practitioner

Acupuncture is practiced by many doctors as well as by TCM practitioners and each practitioner may have a slightly different approach. In Butner’s office, each acupuncture appointment is 60 minutes long. The practitioner will speak to you at the beginning of the appointment to take your medical history; during subsequent appointments, they will “check on progress, changes, and cover any new or pressing issues,” she says.

For both acupuncture and acupressure treatments, patients lie on a padded couch or table “for a minimum of 20 minutes,” says Butner, “I prefer to do front and back treatments. This means, I come in halfway through the appointment, remove the needles and have the patient turn over so I can insert more needles.” Butner adds that patients usually take 10 minutes to fully relax, so ample table time is necessary for sustained benefits.

During acupuncture, the practitioner inserts between three and 15 or more extremely fine needles at certain points along the appropriate meridian lines, gently twisting them as they go in, according to Doctors’ Favorite Natural Remedies.

The feeling of the needles as they go into the body differs by patient and technique. “Some needling styles are barely felt by the patient, while others can produce strong sensations similar to aching or pressure,” says Tuten.

At the end of the session the needles are painlessly removed. After, you will likely feel better. “Most treatments result in a sense of relaxation following the session, and many patients report feeling much more ‘like themselves,'” says Tuten. That’s not to say that the condition will be cured: “occasionally symptoms get worse before they get better, because the goal of acupuncture is to fully release pathology, not to numb or repress it,” he says.

The number of sessions required will depend on the condition and your response to the treatment.

Other TCM treatments

For certain disorders, including menstrual cramps and upset stomach, Butner says that a practitioner may consider using moxibustion—a practice as ancient as acupuncture. This involves holding a burning stick of moxa—Chinese mugwort (Artemesia argyi or A. vulgaris)—close to various acupuncture points, until the skin warms and reddens. Like the insertion of needles or application of pressure, this helps clear the meridian pathways. Be warned, it does have a very “pungent odor,” she says.

“Cupping” may also be used to address muscle tension, pain, stress release, and insomnia, says Butner. In this case, a flame is inserted into a glass cup to remove the air. This creates a vacuum, so that when the glass is placed over the skin, suction holds it in place.

(Have you heard of facial reflexology? Here’s what you need to know about this other alternative medicine treatment.)

Where to find and acupuncture or acupressure practitioner

Ask your doctor if he/she offers acupuncture or you can search for a certified TCM practitioner at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.