A Scientific Perspective on Acupuncture

Endogenous Opioid Effect

One way that acupuncture treats pain is by stimulating the release of your body’s endogenous opioids. These opioids are known as endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins. These are compounds that occur naturally in our brains. The brain can also be stimulated to make these opioids when we receive acupuncture. Endogenous opioids are our bodies natural pain killers. They also help us feel better in general and improve our mood. They help us out when the going gets rough!

Endorphins: a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system and having a number of physiological functions. They are peptides that activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing analgesic effect.

Enkephalins: either of two compounds that occur naturally in the brain. They are peptides related to the endorphins, with similar physiological effects.

Dynorphins: members of the opioid peptide family and preferably bind to kappa opioid receptors. In line with their localization in the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, striatum, and spinal cord, their functions are related to learning and memory, emotional control, stress response, and pain.

So basically we can sum this up as: these are neuro-compounds that make us feel good! When we feel better we can more easily cope with pain or life stressors.

*Note:  Physical Activity of any variety is another wonderful way to stimulate our brains to make endogenous opioids!


Another way we can explain the therapeutic effects of acupuncture through a western medical viewpoint is by considering what it is an acupuncture needle is doing underneath the skin layer. Many of the acupuncture points are located on or near nerve bundles, or muscle trigger points. When a needle is inserted into these trigger points is can cause the nerves to fire and can actually send a signal to the muscle and surrounding tissues to release the pattern of tension. A tissue called fascia is a thin film that surrounds all of your muscles. Fascia is one continuous tissue layer that wraps around all the muscles in your body and in a sense connects all your muscles together. When an acupuncture point is needed there are specific techniques that can be used that may cause the needle to entwine, or grab the fascia. Because all fascia in the body is connected, the effect isn’t limited to the local tissue but can spread through the entire fascial plane. That is one explanation for why a needle placed in the back of the knee can provide relief for back pain.