Acupuncture is one of the two main therapies in Chinese medicine. Understanding acupuncture should be started from its original meaning in Chinese language. It is translated from Chinese words Zhen Jiu (针灸). Zhen means acupuncture, Jiu means heating with maxa (a herb). Acupuncture is more practical and popular, so people refer to acupuncture when they mention Zhen Jiu. A Chinese just say "I have Zhen Jiu" when he just actually Zhen (needle) poking. Besides needles, it contains moxa heating, cupping, acupressure, gu sha, herbal seeds embedding, TDP lamp heating, electronic simulating, etc.
Understanding acupuncture is something subject to understanding TCM theoretical system. This system includes physiology, etiology, pathology, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Acupuncture is a treatment just like herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicine treats disease by treating syndrome (zheng, 证). Recognizing syndrome is also a precondition to apply acupuncture.
If say it take one month to master the majority of acupuncture needling technique, then it would take one year to learn the majority of the tricks to understand TCM theoretical system. Many acupuncturists spent time on improving their needle manipulation skills, that is great, but understand stand a disease (its cause, its natural course, its prognosis) is even more important.
If an acupuncturist does not understand what is cancer, he may encourage his patient to have a constant acupuncture treatment, thus let his patient lose the best time of surgery and may indirectly kill the patient. Many diseases appear the same as common cold in their very early stage, like myocarditis. if an acupuncturist does not know ominous outcome this disease, he might let his patient's heart get permeant damage.
So acupuncture treatment is not just inserting needles into the body, it requires an acupuncturist to advice his patient when he should go to see his family doctor and what food should be avoid and what physical exercise needs. Many times, these advices are more important than insertion and manipulation of needles.
A very special concept to help a better understanding acupuncture is Channels and collaterals (jing luo, 经络) system. This system is a network connecting all parts of the body. It links the internal organs to four limbs and orifices. Qi and blood flow in this network and reach to all parts of the body. This network also conducts senses or impulses to and from different parts of the body.
There are 14 main channels and many other supplementary channels which travel down and up the body. There are about 365 regular acupoints distributing along these channels. There are also lots of points not on those regular channels, they are called empirical points and extra-channel points.
These acupoints are the spots where acupuncture needles are inserted. Channel and Colleterial system covers most part of cardiovascular system, endocrine system and nervous system in Western medicine. By stimulating these spots will bring impact on these systems, so to result in many therapeutic effects.
A real understanding acupuncture is based on a real understanding "syndrome" (zheng, 证). Syndrome is a summary of heat / cold, excess /deficiency, causes, and specific part of the body. After syndrome is certain, an acupuncturist is ready to choose channels and acupoints and operate needles.
Choose acupoints which have cooling effect like Rong - spring points or Jing - well points to treat a "heat" syndrome pattern, and select acupoints which have warming effect like Ren 3 and Ren 4 to treat a disease with "deficiency cold" syndrome pattern. These are examples of Chinese acupuncture treatment, or classic acupuncture treatment.
There are other some what popular styles of acupuncture treatment, like Japanese acupuncture, five elements acupuncture. Their application is not under TCM theory, and is not Chinese acupuncture, thus they are not regulated by CTCMA.
Inserting and stimulating acupuncture needles at relevant acupoints crossing skin, conducts sensations through channels to inner organs. The inner organs respond to the stimulation by re-balance yin yang and activate qi and blood. As result, zheng qi (正气, resistance) rises and xue qi (邪气, pathogen) retreats.
There are many scientific research found that acupuncture can reduce the levels of inflammatory biomarkers and increase the levels of serotonin and endogenous opioid neurotransmitters, so to stop pain. It also increase the pain sensory threshold in the central nerve system, so it can stop various kind of pain.
There is a easily imaginary mechanism to help understanding the pain relieving mechanism of acupuncture therapy. Our body is much smarter than we can imagine. Our body is consistently damaged here and there and it at the same time repairs itself to maintain normal the bodily function. when a metal needle invaded the body, the body smartly find and fight against it. Instead of removing the needle, it repairs the area where the needle in and restores the balance of the whole body.
Back to our TCM theory, the cause of pain is understood as obstruction by some pathogens like blood stasis (clots), or qi stagnation, or phlegm. Acupuncture is good at opening channels and promoting the movement or circulation of qi and blood, thus it can remove the cause of pain "obstruction" to stop pain.
As in literature, just like herbs, acupuncture could be used to treat all kind of diseases, but in fact no medicine is able to treat everything. Acupuncture is especially good at fixing certain disease and is not good at treating some disorders, the same as Chinese herbal medicines.
As ancient doctors said, acupuncture works on disease from the exterior, while herbs from the interior. Acupuncture sounds better to treat a “shallow” condition or disorders at the exterior, and herbs sounds better for a “deeper” disorder. For most functional disorders, the effect of acupuncture is amazing.
Most acupuncturists prefer acupuncture for various kinds of pain syndromes (headache, migrant, body ache), anxiety, depression, insomnia, and more. If a condition is relatively severe, it is better to combine both of acupuncture and Chinese medicine therapies.