American patients would not spend $500 million a year on acupuncture, mostly from their own pockets, unless they believed that it worked. Now the procedure has got the endorsement of a panel of scientists convened by the National Institutes of Health who judged it effective in controlling nausea from pregnancy and chemotherapy as well as pain after dental surgery. Whether it works for other ailments, such as lower back pain, is less certain.
The 2,500-year-old Chinese therapy involves inserting extremely fine needles into the body at specific points. It is based on the classic Chinese concept of regulating the flow of bodily energy, or qi (pronounced chee), an idea unknown to Western science. Persuading the mainstream medical community to prescribe acupuncture will take more than showing that it works. There must also be explanations why it works that are compatible with the Western biomedical understanding of the body. When the Chinese explain acupuncture as unblock-ing a qi channel, it sounds like quackery. But viewthe procedure through the lens of Western science using Western terminology, and acupuncture can begin to sound as rational as acetaminophen.
Many studies have shown that acupuncture can cause biological responses.There is considerable evidence that pain-suppressing endorphins are released during acupuncture. Changes in the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones have been documented. Acupuncture may stimulate the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, though it is unclear how those changes lead to therapeutic effects. There is even evidence that acupuncture affects immune responses.
Why these mechanisms are triggered remains unexplained. But studying the acupuncture phenomenon could lead researchers to a better understanding of the mysteries of the pathways in human physiology. What they find, recast into modern concepts, the Chinese long ago named qi.