Acupuncture: An Explanation


Acupuncture in the US is an unlikely success story.

It’s widely embraced by both individuals and institutions—including the NFL and the US military.

Not bad for a procedure once (and still) dismissed as a “theatrical placebo” and condemned as “does not work—for anything.”

But try telling that to my patients and to the millions of Americans who know it works, relieving ailments from common chronic pain to battlefield wounds to the nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Acupuncture is here to stay—and this is a good thing. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes more than 50 different health issues that have been or can be relieved with acupuncture.

What is acupuncture and how does it work?

Our science recognizes that the earth and our bodies use and produce minute amounts of electricity. This is what the ancient Chinese called the invisible “life force,” ch’i, or qi (pronounced chee).

Ch’i flows throughout the body via channels known as meridians. Stress, trauma and illness can block this flow—just as arterial plaque constricts the flow of blood. When we identify where a constriction occurs—we can intervene with acupuncture. This involves inserting super-thin filaments—the word I prefer to “needles,” because they’re one-third the size of a human hair—into the affected point on a meridian, where they remain for up to an hour.

That’s a relaxing hour during which your body heals itself, reducing inflammation (which is at the root of virtually all diseases), driving toxins out of your system, stimulating internal organs, creating calming hormones … the best kind of healing.

Now, please don’t think “NEEDLES!” and rush for the door. The most you’ll feel when acupuncture filaments are inserted is a slight pinch—usually it feels more like being gently tapped with the tip of a finger. Oftentimes you feel nothing at all.

A friend explains his experience.

I had knee pain that often made walking almost impossible. Doc in NYC recommended orthoscopic surgery. No way. Decided to try acupuncture. First, asked doc to explain. He said, “There’s electro-energy—ch’i—inside us and all around us. The filament is like an antenna that takes in the ch’i around us and re-balances it with our own ch’i.”

My friend said that after one session, his pain was gone, and didn’t return for ten years. Some conditions require more than one treatment, but my friend’s experience is not at all uncommon.

Benefits Of Acupuncture

I try to keep my lists as short as possible—usually no more than 10 items. But acupuncture has proven effective in so many conditions, I’ll make an exception. Especially because so many conventional treatments of the following ailments involve invasive, side-effect-burdened drugs.

Acupuncture has been shown to relieve (partial list):

  • Pain—anywhere in the body
  • Arthritis
  • Stress
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Crohn’s disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Insomnia
  • Digestive disorders
  • Mental health and emotional issues
  • Addiction and drug dependence
  • Sinusitis, hay fever, and the common cold
  • Constipation
  • Brain fog and attention span issues
  • Cravings
  • Menopause symptoms
  • Smoking
  • Skin ailments
  • Bladder and kidney difficulties
  • Sciatica
  • Migraines
  • Tendonitis

What Is Acupressure?

If that’s you, I recommend acupressure. This is a massage-like technique that’s guided by the same principles as acupuncture. But instead of inserting a filament into the meridian point, the acupressurist puts finger or hand pressure on it.

Acupressure is often called “acupuncture without needles,” because it replaces needles (I still prefer filaments) with manual manipulation. I call it “acupuncture lite” because it doesn’t have the “antenna effect” that balances your internal ch’i with the earth’s external chi’i.

What Is Electro-acupuncture? same rules, new tool

Some practitioners now offer magnetic resonance stimulation of the constricted meridian. One study showed that it’s getting results similar to traditional acupuncture—again, without the filaments. Another showed that placing EKG-type conductive pads on the skin over meridian points had the same effect.

Find a practitioner?

If you decide to try acupuncture, acupressure, or electro-stimulation, one way is to visit the web site to find accredited, licensed practitioners in your area. They should have a minimum of 4,000 hours of training.


  • Cho ZH, Fallon J, Wong EK. Neuro-Acupuncture, Vol I: Basic Neuroscience. Los Angeles: Q-Puncture Inc; 2001.
  • Fee, E, Brown, TM, Lazarus, J, and Theerman,P. “Exploring Acupuncture: Ancient Ideas, Modern Techniques.” Am J Public Health American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 10 (2002): 1592-593.
  • Colquhoun, David, and Steven P. Novella. “Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo.” Anesthesia & Analgesia 116, no. 6 (2013): 1360-363.
  • Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Controlled Clinical Trials.



Last Updated: June 22, 2021
Originally Published: March 18, 2016