How does acupuncture work and what does it treat?
On both sides of the Atlantic, respected organisations have recently given qualified endorsements of acupuncture's efficacy.Most are generally in favour of acupuncture as an effective treatment, although there are varying opinions as to exactly how effective it is and the extent of how it can actually help. These are principally dependent on differing understandings as to how acupuncture works.
No-one yet has developed a complete scientific picture as to how acupuncture actually works. The reality is that it almost certainly works through a variety of mechanisms. The last time I gave this a lot of thought, I figured that the list should quite probably be at least eight mechanisms long (one of which would be placebo...). If this is true, then it's plainly a challenge to be able to confidently suggest which mechanism might be the dominant one at any moment - and I think this wuld even within any single treatment and would probably depend upon technique, location, application etc, etc so could even vary between practitioners of the same style. Explaining acupuncture is far from simple!
A "traditional" view of how acupuncture works
In traditional East Asian medicine, health and illness are often seen in terms of the condition of an individual's qi. This can be described as a 'subtle influence' which is said to circulate around the body, providing life to what would otherwise be inanimate - something which, when in a good state promotes health and well-being. Acupuncture points are the surface locations of the body where this qi system can be best accessed and regulated. The acupuncturist's job is to decide exactly how this should best be done. When it's done well, the results, even with very complex intractable conditions, can be surprising.
For a comprehensive list of conditions which the WHO recognise as being potentially helped by acupuncture:
In the context of balancing and regulating this health-promoting qi, a vast array of complaints can be (and have been over thousands of years) successfully treated by acupuncture. It has been suggested that any disease which is physiologically reversible can be treated by acupuncture. I would add to this that any complaint that has a "psychological" factor within it also very much falls within this idea.
Many people find acupuncture beneficial with conditions where other forms of treatment have been unsuccessful. Some find it very useful to help get them back on their feet after operations. Additionally, some people using acupuncture are actively investigating realistic alternatives to long-term prescription medication, with its associated consequences.