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Western-trained doctors have reluctantly come to agree over the past 30 to 40 years that acupuncture really works, but scientists are only now beginning to understand why.

Acupuncture gained acceptance outside of Asia only after a great deal of resistance from the medical profession in North America and Europe. The initial reports of patients able to receive operations without anesthetics and relief of pain from injuries after the insertion of needles in distant parts of the body were very hard for Western-trained physicians to believe.

And no one could really blame American and European doctors for their skepticism. After all, the traditional explanation of how acupuncture works is anything but scientific.

The Energy Medicine Explanation of Acupuncture

A mysterious, invisible vital force called chi in Chinese (or ki in Japanese), the scholars of energy medicine tell us, circulates up and down lines known as Meridians. These Meridians pass through the body across invisible, equally vital inner organs.

The connections between organs defy an physical understanding of human anatomy. The liver and the eyes, for example, lie on the same energy channel. A point in the webbing of the skin between the thumb and the index finger is connected to the stomach.

Energies can become excessive and express themselves as anxiety or anger, but the same energies can become blocked and transform into literal, tangible, physical phlegm and blood clots. Phlegm, however, can be the result of emotional energy as well as physical energy.

Combinations of needles could redirect chi into its proper channels, and the Japanese also discovered that combinations of herbs could get the same results as combinations of needles. The system of acupuncture and herbal formulas certainly worked, but it just didn't make any sense, that is, until now. Recently scientists in the Republic of Korea have been able to explain acupuncture in terms of a newly recognized anatomical entity, the primo vascular structures.

Channels of Information Throughout the Body

The primo vascular channels, which previously were termed the Bonghan corpuscles and ducts, are a physical structure that has been identified on the surfaces of human and animal organs. Tiny threads that are only visible under an electron microscope, the primo vascular vessels are studded with electrically charged nodes that attract nutrients, oxygen, and regulatory hormones. The relatively high negative charge of the nodes on the primo vessels can compensate for the weakly negative electrical charge on "run down" cells, literally recharging them so they can respond to nutrients and hormonal instructions from the central nervous system.

The primo vascular vessels are characterized by high resistance and low capacitance. It takes a lot of energy to activate a primo vascular vessel, but once it is activated, it passes on its charge very quickly to neighboring cells. It is possible to activate one part of a primo vascular channel and block another part of the same vessel, acting something like the dial on a radio. One part of the channel can be toned up, or another part of the channel can be toned down.

A Plausible Explanation for Acupuncture

Although the existence of primo vascular vessels was first proposed by a North Korean scientist, Bong-Han Kin, in the 1960's, he was not able to share his complete findings with the rest of the world, so his theories never became well-known. Since 2010, a series of researchers in South Korea have noted the usefulness of Bong-Han's discovery in explaining acupuncture:

  • Vessels transmit energy to organs.
  • The organs use the energy to become more responsive to oxygen, glucose, and hormones.
  • Changes in electrical charge at nodes on the primo vascular vessels can attract or repel white blood cells.

No researcher has yet found a network of microscopic vascular channels that exactly corresponds to the channels for chi as they are used in acupuncture. But it may be that ancient sages of traditional medicine stumbled on a theory of circulation that worked but took advances procedures of electron microscopy to explain in modern, scientific terms.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Jun X, Murray F. Magic Needles: Feel Younger and Live Longer with Acupuncture. Basic Health Publications, 2011. Park ES, Kim HY, Youn DH. The primo vascular structures alongside nervous system: its discovery and functional limitation. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013. 2013:538350. doi: 10.1155/2013/538350. Epub 2013 Mar 31. PMID: 23606882.
  • Stefanov M, Kim J. Primo vascular system as a new morphofunctional integrated system. J Acupunct Meridian Stud. 2012 Oct. 5(5):193-200. doi: 10.1016/j.jams.2012.07.001. Epub 2012 Aug 14.
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