Acupuncture is full of common misconceptions. This generally causes a lot of controversy amongst practitioners and critics alike, often resulting in a lot of confusion for patients. Is acupuncture science, myth, or religion? Perhaps the best answer to this is that acupuncture is none of these, but at the same time it is a little bit of all these.
The Science of Acupuncture
First, let's tackle the science behind acupuncture. Modern research suggests that the therapeutic effects of acupuncture are initiated through the stimulation of small afferent nerve fibers embedded in the skin and muscle at the site of needle insertion that send signals to the spinal cord and brain. This reaction causes the release of neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, hormones, and other chemicals that activate various psychological and physiological responses. As a result, acupuncture is believed to work, at least scientifically anyway, by improving and regulating microcirculation, immunity, respiration, temperature, pressure, hormonal secretion and sensitivity, neuromuscular coordination, and the manufacturing of blood cells.
The problem with the science behind acupuncture is that due to difficulties in test designs, acupuncture often struggles mightily in randomized control trials (RCTs), considered by many in the scientific community as the gold standard in proving medical efficacy for specific medical conditions. However, there are many other procedures and treatments that also perform poorly in RCTs, or do not even undergo the same vigorous testing, that are still widely used in medicine. Most common are the many pharmaceuticals approved and in use today without any RCTs to support their efficacy.
So while the science behind acupuncture will have to wait to gain wider acceptance, its known therapeutic effects can not be ignored.
The Myth Behind Acupuncture
The practice of acupuncture concerns the early history of ancient China that involved archaic, yet by modern standards, sophisticated belief systems that could explain the forces involved in natural phenomena and supernatural events. For this reason, acupuncture is often accompanied by a long traditional story shrouded with ancient folklore, mysticism, and legendary sages.
Perhaps one of the most widely recognized myths behind acupuncture is the concept of "qi" (pronounced "chee" as in "cheese"). Qi was a concept that was developed in ancient China to explain a wide variety of natural phenomena. When applied to medicine, qi was primarily used to explain the essence and spark of life that flows through the body to interconnect all aspects of the human being and stabilize physiological function. But in modern times, while many ideas have been influenced by the concept of qi, it has not been proven to exist nor flow through the body. Despite this, many acupuncturists claim that they are working to improve the flow of qi in the body with acupuncture.
On the other hand, modern medicine still cannot completely explain how the body works or why certain physiological phenomena and pathologies occur. Yet, as bizarre as it may sound, the application of the concept of qi gives acupuncturists an advantage in treating subclinical conditions that often go undetectable and untreated by modern medicine. Maybe with more time and advancing technology, there is still room for qi to be folded into the modern medical paradigm, erasing its mythical stigma. Only time will tell.
Religion and Acupuncture
Acupuncture is not religious, and you do not need to follow or believe in a specific religion for acupuncture to work. It also does not interfere with anyone's current religious beliefs or traditions.
But in the early development of acupuncture in China, the holistic principles of philosophical Daoism played a major role in fleshing out the basic concepts of acupuncture. Then later in the 1st century, Buddhism was imported from nearby India and embraced as China's national religion, further influencing the development of acupuncture and its fundamental principles. Christianity would later be widely influential during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century, also deeply affecting the development of acupuncture. This is a trend that has continued over the centuries into the present day.
As a result, it is reasonable to accept acupuncture has been steeped in thousands of years of holistic integrative medical theory and principles that have been influenced by a wide variety of highly ethical and moral religious standards. Collectively, over the centuries these ideals have fostered the support in acupuncture of the spiritual aspect of human life as a very important component of health and disease. Accordingly, acupuncture is in fact spiritually attuned.
Interestingly enough, many of the same holistic principles employed in acupuncture that embrace spirituality that were once thought to be taboo in Western medicine are now being extensively studied and integrated into hospitals and health care settings across the US that have recognized improved treatment outcomes and recovery in patients who meditate, pray, or have another form of spiritual practice.
So while you may not have to believe in Buddha or God or another deity or the Dao for acupuncture to work, acupuncture is fundamentally rooted in the cultivation of human spirit. As a result, acupuncture treatments will always integrate the spiritual aspect of human life via holistic principles that unify the various interconnected systems of the human being, whether or not the patient or practitioner is willing. Nevertheless, it is always up to the patient to interpret and apply meaning to what is experienced spiritually, if anything at all, during an acupuncture treatment.