The Science Behind Acupuncture

Acupuncture has been healing ill health for over 2,000 years, western science is now exploring how it works.

An eminent scientist once said to me ‘There is no doubt that acupuncture works. The job of us scientists is to figure out how exactly it does what it does.’

Acupuncture has a direct effect on your immune system. It promotes the release of different bio-chemical substances, such as endorphins. These support your body to cope with stress or injury and produce a sense of wellbeing. Acupuncture supports the cardiovascular system, and blood pressure. It promotes secretion of digestive fluids, and production of red and white blood cells.

Research into How Acupuncture Works

The Gate Theory of Pain

This was introduced in 1965 by Melzack and Wall, to explain acupuncture analgesia (pain relief).

The Gate Control Theory proposes that acupuncture may activate peripheral nerves. It shuts the ‘gate’ on pain signals traveling through the spinal cord. Stopping pain signals is the basis for Transcutaneous Electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

Acupuncture works with the central nervous system. It stimulates these nerve fibers, inhibiting pain signals and thus the pain response. Most acupuncture points are located where there is a higher density of nerve fibres, blood vessels and lymphatics.

The central nervous system nerve fibres both transmit and block pain through the substantia gelatinosa of the spinal cord, and signals to the brain.

Trigger Points

Trigger points are areas of the fascia (connective tissue or muscles) that hold tension. They often feel like a very tender knot or lump where the muscle fibers have tightened. This muscle tension can be due to poor posture, injury, or emotional stress. Trigger points often arise from more than one of these factors.

Trigger points are often associated with chronic muscular skeletal pain. It may involve the neck, shoulders, upper and lower back and pelvic area. It can also be located away from the area of pain.

Symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, lower back pain can also be as a result of trigger point pain. The person can often experience a ‘trapped nerve’ type of pain and have a reduction in movement.

Your acupuncturist will palpate points around the localised area of pain. They will also palpate away from the area for distal points, which may also be painful or tender.

The Release of Nitric Oxide

Nitric Oxide (NO) has a pivotal role in homeostasis. The Chinese Medicine view of balance is similar to homeostasis. Symptoms are viewed as the body’s way of struggling to maintain equilibrium.

Nitric oxide (NO) is important in regulating and moderating the complex processes involved in the cardiovascular system, nervous system and immune system. Nitric Oxide widens the blood vessels thereby increasing blood flow, decreasing resistance and lowering blood pressure. Increased blood flow and oxygen can help produce an anti-inflammatory and analgesic response.


The golden anniversary of Melzack & wall’s gate control theory of pain: Celebrating 50 years of pain research and management.

Pain Research and Management

Katz J, Rosenbloom B 2015 Nov-Dec; 20(6): 285–286.

Trigger points and acupuncture points for pain: correlations and implications. Melzack R, Stillwell DM, Fox EJ

Pain 1977 Feb;3(1):3-23.

Response of Local Nitric Oxide Release to Manual Acupuncture and Electrical Heat in Humans: Effects of Reinforcement Methods

Sheng-Xing Ma et al

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Volume 2017, Article ID 4694238,