Understanding Acupuncture

Zili Acupuncture

What is acupuncture? You may have heard of it from a friend, or even received acupuncture from a practitioner yourself. It is a versatile tool used by not only Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) professionals but also physiotherapists and doctors to treat a variety of symptoms and conditions.

It is a powerful modality and extremely versatile in its applications, yet surprisingly simple: all one really needs are needles, cotton balls and a disinfectant.

past & present

Acupuncture was first developed in China thousands of years ago, with the first textbook, Huangdi Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine) written sometime between 300 and 200 B.C, documenting all the accumulated knowledge of acupuncture up to that point. The ancient Chinese saw the world quite differently from our modern Western viewpoints: they understood the universe as made of energy (“qi”), and that is reflected on our own human bodies. Classic acupuncture seeks to bring balance in the body’s energy systems via the 14 energy channels, or meridians, of the body.

Since that time, acupuncture has evolved, and currently, a rising branch in medicine is the integrated approach, where one combines knowledge from both Western and Eastern perspectives. Anatomical acupuncture was first developed by Dr. Joseph Wong in the 1970s, with points are chosen based on a western understanding of anatomy; in this approach, one would choose a point based on the nerve or muscle it stimulates. The integrated approach considers both classical and anatomical indications, combining the two approaches.

How acupuncture works

There have been numerous studies looking into how acupuncture works and its underlying mechanisms. Acupoints are specific points in TCM along the 14 meridians of the body, with most of them located on or adjacent to peripheral nerves. Recent histological studies have shown a greater concentration of neural tissue and neural active components beneath the points (Zhang et al 2012). In other words, cells that release chemical mediators are found to be in greater concentration within an acupoint compared to non-acupoints.

Insertion of a needle within these points will thus elicit a greater neurological and chemical response from the body. Several things happen when inserting a needle into the body. First, local effects occur directly at the insertion site, inhibiting the transmission of pain signals and eliciting immune responses that have an impact on inflammation. These responses often produces redness around the acupuncture needle. Second, nerve signals are transferred to the spinal cord and up towards the central nervous system, activating areas in the brain that inhibits pain via the release of various neurotransmitters, endorphins and monoamines. These responses can have overarching effects on the body that goes beyond simply pain inhibition. Needling acupoints have also been shown to affect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, normalizing their function. These include points that helps inhibit pain on a systematic level, reduces nausea/dizziness, and points that helps calm the mind and helps with sleeping.

Is acupuncture for you?

Medical Acupuncture, if used correctly, produces very few side effects. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) has reported that acupuncture has lower adverse effects compared to prescribed medications and other medical procedures for treatment of similar conditions. For instance, acupuncture may be used for the treatment for conditions such as tennis elbow, fibromyalgia and other pain symptoms. These conditions may also be treated with anti-inflammatory medications or steroid injections; both of these modalities will produce far greater side effects compared to acupuncture, but yet are still widely used and are considered acceptable treatments.

As such, acupuncture makes a good complementary therapy, to be used in conjunction with physiotherapy with few adverse effects. As mentioned above, acupuncture works very well, not only as an analgesic to alleviate various pain symptoms, but could also be used to normalize the autonomic nervous system, and treat symptoms such as dizziness and headaches.

Certain conditions may warrant caution or contraindication to acupuncture. If you are pregnant, have diabetes, have had or are waiting for a joint replacement, have osteoporosis or if you are taking anti-coagulant medication, please advise your therapist as extra precautions would be needed.

If you have additional questions on medical acupuncture and its usage in treatment, feel free to contact us directly (info@vansportsphysio.com), and our experienced therapist will be more than happy to provide you with additional information.


  1. Zhao, Z.Q. (2008). Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia. Progress in Neurobiology, 85(4), 355-375.
  2. Zhang, Z.J., Wang, X.M., McAlonan, G.M. (2012). Neural Acupuncture Unit: A New Concept for Interpreting Effects and Mechanisms of Acupuncture. Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2012(429412).
  3. National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Conference Statement on Acupuncture. (1997) Retrieved from https://consensus.nih.gov/1997/1997acupuncture107html.htm