How does acupuncture work?

Restoring harmony

Acupuncture inspires a lot of questions.

  • What does it do?
  • How does it work?
  • Why would I have it done?

People want to connect the dots of its function.

As an acupuncturist, I get these questions every day. My favorite explanation was in a recent newspaper article, which simply stated, “we don’t know how it works.”  Honesty at last!

We don’t know how to really explain it in a way that does it justice. We mention the common sound bites, such as – “It increases circulation; stimulates the release of endorphins; blocks pain signals to the brain; and increases T-cell counts, which stimulate the immune system.”

The Mayo clinic has used acupuncture since the 1970s. In the Mayo Clinic Guide to Alternative Medicine, its states that “scientists don’t fully understand how it works.” They do say that acupuncture studies suggest that it does provide health benefits, from reducing pain to helping manage chemotherapy-induced nausea. The Mayo clinic has licensed acupuncturists on staff.

Acupuncture is not hooked up to a machine, or medical device, and there are no pharmaceutical tie-ins, so we don’t know how to express the bio-mechanisms at play.

So, let’s not. This blog is dedicated to expressing what the goal of acupuncture is, in a good old-fashioned way. It is simple. There isn’t space to regurgitate the several volumes of complicated texts that does explain, in great detail, how it works. Even those do not help the classic western mind because they are old, and again, not tied to the language or products of modern medicine.

The ancient basis for Chinese medicine is Taoism (For more info:


To live with the Tao is to live in harmony with one’s self, others, and the environment. Living in harmony with nature was a big emphasis.

Things like:

  • getting up with the sun.
  • resting with the darkness.
  • being restorative during the winter, like a seed in the soil, waiting for months to burst open when the time is right.

The concept is this: If you live in harmony and in balance, everything runs a lot smoother.

In a balanced state, humans gracefully hold their space between heaven and earth. As a functioning 3-way conduit, the human, the earth, and the sky hum along in a sort of cosmic teamwork. The earth and sky have a natural ability to do this, most of the time. The heavens, the earth, and the organic transient being (that would be you, the human) join together in a harmonic connection. It’s a big picture thing.

Much before I took an interest in acupuncture or Taoism, I saved a caption from an old Cathy cartoon, in which Cathy proclaimed, “When people feel disconnected from their life source, they get weird! When they get weird, all the trouble begins!” She made a good point.

The body, mind, and spirit, in Chinese medicine, are also seen as needing to be connected. Well, they are connected. But injury, stress, emotional distress, disease, poor health habits, can throw the balance off.

It can begin like this:

First a little unbalance, then a lot, and before you know it, you’ve got full-on disharmony. This manifests as:

  • pain
  • poor sleep
  • anxiety
  • illnesses of all sorts

It means things are not as they should be.

As it happens, people get bummed out about this. It is inconvenient and a bummer and uncomfortable. However, in Chinese medicine, we are seen as an ecosystem, an ever-changing landscape. Nothing stays the same, good or bad. We are a variety of moving patterns, not unlike the weather around us.

And what does this have to do with acupuncture?

Each point has been designated to nudge the patient toward balance, wholeness, and health. The acupuncture points have specific functions. These functions interact with internal organs, as well as all parts of the body, from head to toe.

Each point is about restoring harmony; restoring function to dysfunction.

Acupuncture’s main goal is to assist and correct disharmony (pain, illness, injury) by getting the energy (think internal chemical reactions), blood, and fluids all flowing smoothly.

When harmony is restored, balance is restored, illness fades, pain lessons, contentment can be felt again.

Boom! You’re back in business! A western phrase, which makes it all perfectly clear.

why bring Chinese medicine to a hospice patient?

Hospice and traditional Chinese medicine- How do they go together?

I treat patients receiving hospice care. Most are near the end of their life. Some have six months to live; others have a few days to live.

I use acupuncture and acupressure (same points, no needles, just pressure).

Pain, discomfort, and anxiety are the main symptoms that I am asked to help with.

The top concerns often involve stress and anxiety reduction. My main goal with each patient is to bring relief and comfort. My hope for treatment is that by the end of the session, around 20-35 minutes, the patient feels like they experienced relief. Most often, that is the feedback. They say things like, “ I feel more relaxed,” “oh, that was nice,” and “when are you coming back?”

If they are close to death, my goal is to ease their transition.

If death is not imminent, my goal is to improve their quality of life.

Some people are relatively comfortable toward the end of their life. Others are not. My mission is to leave each person better off than when I arrived. Most of the time, that is accomplished, and we are both happy about that.

For hospice patients, I use acupoints that associate with the gentle support of organ function; stomach calming; mental calming; and gentle circulation.

Does acupuncture work?

I get asked this question a lot: “Does acupuncture work?” Based on my experiences and observations of patients receiving acupuncture, as well as many positive research studies, I say, “yes.”

Does it always work, every time, for everything? No. I used to feel bad about this. Then I shadowed physicians on the job. This was fascinating and eye opening. I got to observe each patient interaction and treatment. The treatments didn’t always work.

The patients had the common things: headaches, neck aches, backaches, and body aches. Some had cancer pain.

The most common treatment for these patients was some sort of drug therapy. Do the drug therapies work? Yes. No. Sometimes.

My point is, nothing works all the time for everybody.

Acupuncture, or traditional Chinese medicine, is the longest continuous form of medicine. It started about 3,000 years ago and remains relevant today.

“Can acupuncture fix me in one treatment?” Sometimes. But don’t expect it. It takes more than one dose of a drug to work. One physical therapy session doesn’t usually resolve all issues. Counseling sessions typically involve a number of appointments.

It depends on the issue, but I recommend trying at least five, to possibly ten treatments. I usually see a patient once a week. If a situation is really intense, for example, terrible headaches, twice a week is better.


So you want to be a bodhisattva?

One time I listened to a lot of CDs about how to be a bodhisattva. It was from an ancient Indian text and sort of explained by Pema Chodron. But this is not the point of the story.

Bodhisattvas come in all forms
Bodhisattvas come in all forms

The point is how do you become one? And what is one? One definition: a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. The superstar bodhisattvas are people like Buddha and Jesus. They had it down. But, it turns out, we can all be bodhisattvas.

I went to a poetry reading last month and one person said that to support each others’ work was one form of being a bodhisattva. To be supportive is one way to reduce the suffering of others.

Today, I had a great discussion with two wise friends. One shared a story about something her father did for her mother. Her mother had to live in a mental institution for years. Her father visited every Sunday. Sometimes he would bake a chicken to bring to her. He would heat rocks in the oven and then store them under the chicken so it was warm when it arrived.

I remembered when I was a child, watching my mother wash my grandmother’s hair in the kitchen sink. She did the same with my grandfather. It struck me. I thought they could do it themselves. Maybe they could, but they needed help sometimes. I didn’t think too much about it but I felt something and I’ve always remembered it. My mom gently helped the more feeble in my family. It wasn’t heroic; it was practical.

My two friends and I talked about how caring for our loved ones in these sorts of ways are little bodhisattva acts. They are small habits of bodhisattvas.

To bring comfort is to reduce suffering.

Notice this in your own life. Start making it a habit to be a little bodhisattva.



It’s about time!



I am not hiking the PCT trail. I am not even walking across town. What am I doing? Well, I decided to learn how to play the banjo this week. I made a mental commitment that I plan to follow through.

I have also been turning a lot of dirt over. I grow flowers with a few decorative vegetables every year.

I am an acupuncturist. I get to meet and treat a lot of cool people.

I take pictures. I write haiku.

Let’s have some fun!