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How does acupuncture work? (There are no stupid questions.)

Ever since acupuncture reappeared in America in the 70’s, curious scientists have been working to explain how it works. There are several theories being worked on now including the endorphin theory, brain activity theory and a muscle fascia signaling theory. On the other hand, many scientists and “scientific” people are decidedly non-curious. Being non-curious happens to all of us, it’s part of human nature. Let me tell you a short story about hand washing that will blow your mind.

The non-curious war against hand washing

Can you imagine any doctor laughing at hand washing as superstition. Well, when hand washing was introduced as a way to save lives during childbirth, the physician was ridiculed so harshly he spent his last day in an asylum. A long time ago Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that there were a lot less deaths in birthing hospitals run by midwives.

Doctors are too important to waste their time washing up

At the time, in doctor’s hospitals, medical students would interrupt their very important lessons performing autopsies, run upstairs with filth covered aprons, blood covered hands and deliver a baby without washing up. It was a miracle any baby or mother survived the filth!

Trust me, I’m a doctor

The hospital muckity-mucks refused to believe there was any connection and laughed at the “invisible forces” that were supposedly causing these deaths. Time, as it usually does, sorts these things out, and some bright and curious scientists discovered germs. Now we fire doctors who don’t wash their hands.

The same old, same old

Acupuncturist face the same close mindedness as Dr. Semmelweis did 150 years ago. Acupuncture does not make sense based on our current understanding of anatomy and physiology. When something new, like acupuncture comes along, curious people do what they do, experiment and play, and the non-curious do what they do, complain that the curious are wasting their time and the taxpayers money that should be better spent on the boring research that the non-curious people are doing.

How non-curious scientists dismiss acupuncture

The non-curious scientists simply dismiss acupuncture as placebo - it works because the patient wants it to work. From a clinician’s point of view, you don’t really care so much why the patient gets better, just as long as they do, and you can reliably repeat the process. For a researcher, however, placebo is the kiss of death and places acupuncture in the realm of give the kid a cookie to stop him from crying.

Acupuncture is forcing a new frontier in physiology

I’ve always believed that the scientific explanation for acupuncture will push our understanding of how the body works and will reveal some completely novel mechanisms inside the human body.

Sound waves activate your immune system

Columbia University and Hong Kong University are proving me right. They have discovered a new mechanism in the body where white blood cells are activated by sound waves. The researches pulsed the needle with an electric current which generated an acoustic shear wave. Then using a souped up MRI, they watched the sound wave activate intracellular calcium which in turn activated white blood cells and pain and mood modulating endorphins.

Location, location, location

While the sound wave phenomenon is pretty cool, I might have to stop making fun of the people who use tuning forks on acupuncture points, the coolest thing about the study is what the researches discovered about acupuncture point location.

If they missed the acupuncture point by as much as one centimeter, the intensity of the sound wave was cut in half. This is why feeling the “qi” sensation is so important in 5 Element Acupuncture. Without super accurate point location, you have to use many more needles to get the same effect as one that is carefully placed.

So there you have it, another breakthrough in medicine courtesy of acupuncture. It’s amazing what you discover when you look at a problem from a fresh perspective. Keep an open mind and try to keep a beginners mind. Ask the “stupid” questions like “how does acupuncture work.” You never know what you will discover.


This is the abstract to the paper. It’s super geeky so don’t feel bad if you don’t have a clue what they are saying.

This article presents a novel model of acupuncture physiology based on cellular calcium activation by an acoustic shear wave (ASW) generated by the mechanical movement of the needle.

An acupuncture needle was driven by a piezoelectric transducer at 100 Hz or below, and the ASW in human calf was imaged by magnetic resonance elastography. At the cell level, the ASW activated intracellular Ca2+ transients and oscillations in fibroblasts and endothelial, ventricular myocytes and neuronal PC-12 cells along with frequency–amplitude tuning and memory capabilities.

Monitoring in vivo mammalian experiments with ASW, enhancement of endorphin in blood plasma and blocking by Gd3+ were observed; and increased Ca2+ fluorescence in mouse hind leg muscle was imaged by two-photon microscopy.

In contrast with traditional acupuncture models, the signal source is derived from the total acoustic energy. ASW signaling makes use of the anisotropy of elasticity of tissues as its waveguides for transmission and that cell activation is not based on the nervous system.

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