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Surprising Science

The Science Behind Acupuncture

While many practices in alternative medicine are slowly but surely making their way into the mainstream, acupuncture is one that still produces skeptical eyebrow raises.

What’s the Latest Development?


Acupuncture has been a popular medical treatment for 3,000 years but just how it works is difficult to explain using the Western medical lexicon. One idea called ‘gate control theory’ says acupuncture needles stimulate large nerve fibers to inhibit signals from smaller fibers that are responsible for feelings of pain. Another explanation has to do with the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture. “Just as a mother calms a child through her physical presence, having another human being exert a well-intentioned touch may also do a lot to alleviate pain.”

What’s the Big Idea?

As acupuncture is increasingly accepted as an alternative medical treatment, more people seek to articulate how the procedure reduces pain, which it has been documented to do over and over again. Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Institute of Health’s alternative medicine department says the Western medical lexicon may simply be ill-suited to explain how the procedure works. That many positive effects of acupuncture are felt in sham treatment, when toothpicks are used in place of needles, suggests the ritual of the treatment is as important as the treatment itself. 


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