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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.

How Does Acupuncture Really Work?

One of the best examples of the power of acupuncture to "channel" energy is the use of acupuncture in treating a condition known as myofascial pain syndrome. This condition is a bewildering ailment often experienced by otherwise healthy people who get lots of exercise.

Pressure on one muscle can cause excruciating pain in another, sometimes at considerable distance in the body. Doctors used to think that the condition was factitious, that people who complained of myofascial pain syndrome were really deluded or malingering, but a more sophisticated understanding of the fascia, the thin connective sheets that hold muscles together so they can move in harmony, has made this common condition far more credible to the medical profession. 

About 30% of sports injuries are now known to result in myofascial pain syndrome.

As you might imagine, it's not easy to diagnose a tear or injury to a muscle when they cause pain somewhere else in the body. The pain relief spray has to be applied to the site of injury, not the site of pain. Doctors frequently treat myofascial pain with trans-cutaneous electroneural stimulation (TENS), muscle stretching exercises, post-isometric relaxation (stretch and relax exercises), high-voltage galvanic stimulation, biofeedback, injected steroids, injected pain relievers, and systemic pain relief drugs like Vicodin (hydrocodone). 

But the most frequent recommendation for myofascial pain syndrome is watchful waiting. If the doctor can persuade the patient to wait out the pain long enough, the disease often just goes away. This usually takes about two weeks.

Acupuncture for Instant Relief

Acupuncture offers an effective alternative treatment for myofascial pain syndrome. If the needles are placed correctly, pain may be resolved in just minutes with no medications at all. But how do practitioners know where to place the needles?

It turns out that acupuncture relieves this kind of pain by deactivating all the "pain circuits" controlled by the spine at the same time. Once the acupuncturist has applied enough pressure with a needle on a "pain Meridian" to elicit a muscle twitch, the brain says "enough already" and "turns off" pain circuits all over the body. Just as pain seems to flow from one place to another in the body, "energy" also travels from one place to another in the body, and the net result is a re-balancing of energies that turn off pain without drugs or extensive physical therapy.

Answers Waiting to Be Discovered

Of course, it's still a stretch to explain how putting needles in acupuncture points could stimulate ovulation in women seeking to become mothers, or tone down the immune system to prevent allergies or allergic rashes, or even offset the nerve damage caused by diabetes. But the primo vascular channels may be at work in these applications of acupuncture, too, waiting to be discovered by research.

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  • 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.
  • Photo courtesy of Marnie Joyce by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/marniejoyce/5080411848/
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