At first glance they appear very similar, needles are inserted into various places in the body and they are then stimulated either by hand or electrical impulses before being taken out again. However the two approaches vary in application and philosophy. Western medical acupuncture involves making a medical diagnosis and then using needles to influence the physiology of the body and thus enhance healing, and a traditional acupuncturist looks for disturbances in the body’s ‘balance’ and energy flow which they can correct with needles. You may sometimes hear the term “dry needling”; this simply refers to the use of non-injection needles for the treatment of trigger points and in essence is the back bone of western acupuncture. Here at Morningside chiropractic clinic we practice this style of acupuncture, we are often asked how it works so below is a quick description of its believed mechanisms.

How does western medical acupuncture work?

There are 4 known mechanisms, each of which will be described briefly below.

Local effects:  The needle stimulates nerve fibres in the surrounding skin and muscle causing the release of various substances which in turn cause the local blood vessels to dilate resulting in an increase in blood flow. This increase in blood flow encourages tissue healing in minor injuries and often results in flushes of redness around the needle.

Segmental analgesia: The locally stimulated nerve fibres also send information to the spinal cord which results in the depression of the spinal cord nerve cells responsible for pain sensation to that specific area and hence pain reduction is achieved. Therefore acupuncture inhibits pain sensations from any part of the body which sends nerves to that particular segment of the spinal cord, e.g. nerves from a painful spine joint enter the same segment as the nerves from the surrounding muscles and as such spinal joint pain relief can be achieved via stimulation of the surrounding muscles.

Extra-segmental analgesia: The information travelling from the locally stimulated nerve fibres does not stop in the spinal cord in fact  it carries on up to the brainstem, where it stimulates the body’s own pain suppression system. The brain stimulates descending nerves in the spinal cord to release neurotransmitters (chemicals) which cause a reduction of pain signal transmission and thus in turn pain relief occurs. This effect extends throughout the body as its actions are not only limited to one segment within the spinal cord.

Central regulatory effects: From the brainstem the information travels on up to the brain and to specific areas such as the cerebral cortex where it stimulates deeper structures such as the hypothalamus and the limbic (emotional) system. This causes general calming effects for the patient and improves their wellbeing. A patient may still feel their pain but it bothers them less as they often become more cheerful and motivated with a positive outlook on life.