Acupuncture: The Anti-Woo Explanation

This post is the ‘Coles Notes’ version of a fantastic article by Chris Kesser.  

How does acupuncture work?

The most common explanation goes something like this:

“Disease is caused by disruptions to the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. Acupuncture stimulates points on or under the skin called acupuncture points or acupressure points, releasing this qi. The qi then travels through channels called meridians”


I used to blurt this out all the time when people asked me how acupuncture works.  Most acupuncturists will deliver some version of the above explanation when queried because this is exactly what is taught in acupuncture schools in the West.  What’s funny about this slightly woo woo explanation, is that Chinese medicine is not actually a metaphysical medicine, it’s a “flesh and bones medicine concerned with the proper flow of oxygen and blood through the vascular system” (Kesser).

Georges Soulie de Morant

The “qi” and “energy” description came from a French bank clerk named Georges Soulie de Morant, who looks like a pretty serious fellow (see photo) but had no experience in translating ancient Chinese nor any training in medicine.  This somewhat mystical view of acupuncture is neither historically accurate nor consistent with our modern scientific understanding of the body.

Broadly speaking, acupuncture does three key things: relieves pain, reduces inflammation and restores homeostasis.

How does it do all of this?

Acupuncture promotes blood flow. This is super important because blood contains the oxygen, nutrients, immune substances, hormones, analgesics and anti-inflammatories the body needs in order to heal.  For example: a decrease in blood flow by as little as 3% in the breast area can lead to breast cancer.

Acupuncture stimulates the body’s built-in healing mechanisms by creating ‘micro traumas’.  These tiny traumas stimulate the body’s ability to heal tissue injuries through our nervous system, our immune system and our hormones.  As the body heals these tiny traumas, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries, bing bang boom!

Acupuncture releases natural painkillers.  When the needles get inserted, it signals the brain to release chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin, some of which are 10-200 times more potent than morphine!

Tense muscles? Acupuncture relaxes them, which in turn releases pressure on joint structures and nerves, and promotes blood flow.

Acupuncture reduces stress. This is huge!  It does this by stimulating our parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system.  Impaired parasympathetic function is involved in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Take home message: acupuncture works by stimulating the peripheral nervous system.  It heals us by relieving pain, reducing inflammation and restoring homeostasis.  In other words, it brings our body back into balance and makes us feel good, and there ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that!