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How does acupuncture work to treat pain?

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


Acupuncture is used to treat a wide variety of pain conditions and can be very effective and successful at resolving problems. A common question: how does it work? Acupuncture affects the body in a variety of ways, not just one simple mechanism. This is an advantage and gives it a unique way to address pain that sets it apart from other modalities.


The needles used in acupuncture are very thin, not much thicker than a piece of paper. In general, there is very little pain or discomfort. Sometimes needles aren’t felt at all. And that begs the question, how can it really affect the body in a lasting way?


Acupuncture points often correspond to trigger points, and insertion/origin points of muscles and connective tissue. When these points are needled, they affect tissue in 2 ways –

  1. First, they cause the body to respond with the production of anti-inflammatory compounds that promote healing in the whole region, not just the insertion site.

  2. Secondarily, when needles are gently twirled, the muscle fibers are torqued and wrapped around the needle shaft, which triggers tissues that are chronically contracted, to release and relax. This is only the 1st layer of how acupuncture works to treat pain.


Acupuncture also taps into the nervous system function. Muscle trigger points are innervated by nerve bundles that are responsible for contracting the entire muscle. Needles inserted into these points cause a nerve to depolarize, or in layman terms, it ‘flips the switch’. In orthopedic pain conditions, muscular nerve innervation is often chronically ‘on’, and contracted. Acupuncture can help reset the nerve signal back to a baseline ‘off’ position. In addition, needles can also affect the Central Nervous System, and various areas of the brain, via corresponding nerve pathways.



In orthopedic pain conditions, muscular nerve innervation is often chronically ‘on’, and contracted. Acupuncture can help reset the nerve signal back to a baseline ‘off’ position.

Stimulating acupuncture points sends a signal through the nervous system that causes the production of various pain killing neurochemicals produced in the brain to enter the bloodstream, such as endorphins and serotonin. This gives acupuncture the potential to relieve pain both locally, and systemically for all types of conditions. Acupuncture can have powerful effects on brain chemistry and has been used this way for many hundreds of years, albeit in different terms.


From a psycho-spiritual perspective, acupuncture’s roots go deep. Pain and stress have always been tied together in its practice.


From a psycho-spiritual perspective, acupuncture’s roots go deep. Pain and stress have always been tied together in its practice. Traditional theory looked at the human experience holistically within the environment. Sophisticated and well-organized methods of symbolic correspondences between emotions, body, and environment, developed over centuries of observation and refinement in acupuncture medical practice. This framework guides the treatment process when addressing mental/emotional conditions that affect our health. The psychological holo-map provided by acupuncture theory, can help to reintegrate and process stressful experiences and patterns that we hold in our bodies. When the right channels are stimulated where pain is found, along with related organ systems and their corresponding emotional capacities, psychological blockages that contribute to pain syndromes can be relieved.


When the right channels are stimulated where pain is found, along with related organ systems and their corresponding emotional capacities, psychological blockages that contribute to pain syndromes can be relieved.

Pain is the most common reason people seek treatment by acupuncture, and there is a very successful track record of results to back this up. Acupuncture can help with a wide variety of pain syndromes from many different causes. It works by directly affecting the local pain via tissue and muscle effects, systemic pain via the nervous system and brain, and mental/emotional factors contributing to pain via corresponding symbolic qualities of organ systems and dynamic natural processes as observed by the Taoist medical tradition. If you would like to learn more about how acupuncture can help you, don’t hesitate to reach out and schedule an appointment, or a free consultation to discuss your health concerns.




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