THE BLOG
12/01/2010 08:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Acupuncture: What Is it and Why Does it Work?

It might not make sense why it works. You don't have to "believe" in it. But it works anyway. This is one of the great mysteries of medicine and probably of life. Oh, you want examples?

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical practice. I've tried it. Friends have tried it. Many have had good results. But we don't know why it works.

I have also been trying qi gong lately, another ancient Chinese practice that involves moving energy around by standing with your arms extended in front of your body or waving them around like a lunatic. This, too, seems to have healing effects. Don't know why. We're fighting off flu and colds around here. At the suggestion of my sister, a doctor, we tried something called Apitherapy Honey Elderberry Syrup. It's basically raw honey, elderberry and some herbs like echinacea. It doesn't make sense that it would work, but it works incredibly well.  This grapey-tasting stuff that tastes agreeably like a liquid lollipop just knocks down a cold.

A friend of mine recently told me a story. He was an engineer for 10 years, and he did Kung Fu. One day he pushed too hard and tore something. He went to an acupuncturist who was Korean. There was a language barrier. My friend figured that the acupuncturist didn't understand a word about his injury. The guy fixed it anyway.

My friend, being an engineer and used to scientific proofs, had an interesting problem. Acupuncture worked, but could not be explained. So he became a licensed acupuncturist himself, spending three thousand hours to get a masters degree in acupuncture and oriental medicine so he could practice in California.

My friend's name is Eric Schmidt and he runs an acupuncture clinic here in Santa Monica.

Being an amateur engineer myself I like to know why things work, so I asked him to explain acupuncture. He gave it a shot, starting by explaining about the fascia, a fibrous tissue that binds blood vessels, nerves, muscles and groups of muscles. "These fascia work together and they communicate with each other," Eric told me.

"Fascia might be a physical expression of what the Chinese call meridians, often described as energy channels. They connect in ways you might not have considered, and they're the reason an acupuncturist can treat frontal jaw pain by inserting a needle in the frontal part of your foot."

That's a six on the scale of weird as far as I'm concerned. Shall we go to eight? When an acupuncturist inserts a needle an inch or so into the skin it touches deep nerve centers that connect to a part of the brain involved with activities not wholly under our conscious control, like digestion, respiration and the sleep cycle. The body reacts powerfully when we stimulate these nerve centers associated with such deep regulatory processes.

"The body is launching a strong response to a trauma that's never occurred," Eric explained, and the curious thing is that response can be a healing force. In this way, the acupuncture needle is "tricking" the body into sending energy into a trouble zone. The body can't tell the difference, or chooses not to perceive the difference, between real trauma and the minor trauma of an acupuncture needle.

If you've ever had a dream about falling and woke up breathing hard and in a cold sweat you've experienced how something that is "just in the mind" can be so real.

Maybe this is why there may never be a scientific response to the "reason" acupuncture works. Simply by becoming involved in it you are involved in your own healing. You're not a passive patient, but instead a co-creator of your own wellness. Maybe we shouldn't ask why it works, but instead, is it effective?  For many problems treatable by acupuncture, the answer is a resounding "yes."  That makes the real question: Why don't more mainstream doctors refer people to acupuncturists?

There's a lot to be learned from something that we might not understand. But that would go to 10 on the weird scale.