Western medical acupuncture is the use of acupuncture to stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue. This results in the body producing pain relieving substances, such as endorphins. It is likely these substances are responsible for any beneficial effects seen with this form of acupuncture. Endorphins enter into the nerve pathways of the brain and spinal cord and help to relieve pain in the corresponding part of the body. For example, acupuncture needles are inserted into the tender areas of muscle in the neck and shoulders to treat headaches.
The release of other substances, such as serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone, as a result of acupuncture stimulation, may explain the sense of wellbeing that many patients experience as a result of treatment. Functional neuro-imaging or brain scanning of people receiving acupuncture, shows complex reactions in the central nervous system (Esch et al 2004), and further research in this area may help our understanding of the ‘holistic’ effects of acupuncture.