Ever since acupuncture’s introduction into the scientific community, there has been huge speculation about how the stimulation of acupuncture points affects the body. There is still no comprehensive theory to explain this phenomenon, but a study by Dr. Langevin and Mr. Yandow from the University of Vermont College of Medicine reveals that “the network of acupuncture points and meridians can be viewed as a representation of the network formed by interstitial connective tissue.”
I’ve highlighted the main points from their study entitled “Relationship of Acupuncture Points and Meridians to Connective Tissue Planes.”
Needle grasp is stronger on acupuncture points versus non-acupuncture points.
If you have ever had an acupuncture needle inserted into your body, then you have felt the aching, tight pressure that acupuncturists call de qi, or “obtaining qi.” Simultaneously, the acupuncturist feels a tug of the needle, which is described in classical texts as “a fish biting on a fishing line.” The biomedical term for this is “needle grasp.”
So, what is the significance of the needle grasp? The Huang Di Nei Jing (HDNJ) (the fundamental doctrinal source of Chinese medicine) states, “acupuncture therapy does not take effect until the arrival of energy.” This means that acupuncture provides its affects when the patient and/or the acupuncturist feel the needle grasp, indicating that qi is being moved along the meridians in the body.
Therefore, if needle grasp is stronger on acupuncture points than on non-acupuncture points, there is a greater therapeutic effect (according to HDNJ). Dr. Langevin quantified the strength of needle grasp by measuring the force needed to pull a needle out of the skin. She took 60 healthy human subjects and needled 8 acupuncture points on one side of their bodies, and 8 control points (2 cm away from the real acupuncture points) on the other side. On average, pullout force was 18% stronger on acupuncture points than on control points! This concludes that needle grasp is not limited to acupuncture points, but are definitely enhanced.
Acupuncture creates a mechanical stimulus that may cause long-term changes in the extracellular matrix surrounding the needle, which in turn causes change to cells that share the connective tissue matrix.
Both in vivo and in vitro experiments show when a needle is inserted into connective tissue and slightly rotated, the connective tissue adheres and whorls around it. This allows manipulation of the needle to further pull and deform the connective tissue. This mechanical stimulation is called “needle-coupling,” and affects the connective tissue in 3 ways.
1. Mechanical signals are involved in cellular communication
2. Mechanical signals can be transduced into bioelectrical and/or biochemical signals.
3. Mechanical signals can cause changes in gene expression, protein synthesis, and extracellular matrix modification.
Thus, the mechanical stimulation that causes change in extracellular matrix may influence cell communication within the tissue, affecting immune, vascular, fibroblasts, and sensory afferent cells.
Most acupuncture points are located on intermuscular or intramuscular connective tissue, a network that is connected to organs, nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatics.
Connective tissue envelopes and connects your entire body; from your arms and legs, to your torso, head and neck. It connects the muscles, bones and tendons, and even extends to more specialized tissue such as the periosteum, peritoneum, pleura and meninges. The fact that more than 80% of acupuncture points and 50% of meridian intersections of the arms are located on intermuscular or intramuscular connective tissue planes, shows that acupuncture points stimulation may permeate to organs, nerves, blood vessels and lymphatics. This explains why an acupuncture point on one part of the body can treat another part of the body.
Dr. Langevin summarizes her study with this simple chart explaining each TCM concept with its corresponding anatomical and/or physiological equivalent.