Chances are that most people have heard of the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. Alternative therapies are becoming more and more popular, and acupuncture is one of the most common practices in alternative or complementary medicine. It is also one of the oldest, having been practiced in China for thousands of years.

But what exactly is acupuncture and is it in fact as effective as people claim?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, our bodies contain over 2,000 acupuncture points located along pathways called meridians. These meridians conduct what practitioners refer to as Qi. Qi is the vital energy or life force that runs through our body. Qi is said to be in a continuous state of flux, as energy never dies but only changes its form into something else. When Qi is stuck, however, it can cause injury, disease and other complications within the body.

By the application of very fine stainless steel needles into the acupuncture points, the flow of Qi can be restored thus bringing the body back into balance. It does, perhaps, sound a bit like magic, but there are some scientific theories behind the effectiveness of acupuncture, particularly for its effects on pain.

The insertion of needles into these acupuncture points is thought to stimulate the central nervous system which in turn releases chemicals into the body. These chemicals affect how our bodies regulate things like pain. It is thought that these biochemical changes within the body can help the body to heal itself naturally as well as decrease any mental stress associated with pain.  These biochemical changes in the body are possibly by three different means.

The first is through electromagnetic signals being relayed throughout the body. By stimulating acupuncture points, these signals are transmitted at a higher rate than normal. It is theorized that the signals may induce the flow of chemicals such as endorphins which are known to minimize pain. In addition, they may stimulate the immune system, allowing our bodies to respond to injury and disease.

The second biochemical change involves the body releasing opioids into the central nervous system. An opioid is a naturally occurring chemical that resembles morphine and other opiates. This release of opioids helps to naturally lessen the pain response.

Thirdly, there have been studies showing that acupuncture can actually alter brain chemistry by activating the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. It can affect certain parts of the central nervous system, such as sensation and pain response, as well as involuntary responses such as blood pressure, body temperature and immune system stimulation.

Although many forms of alternative medicine are written off as being quack science, acupuncture seems to have good scientific evidence of its treatment. The World Health Organization released a report in 2003 listing over 200 symptoms that acupuncture effectively treats. Today health coverage for acupuncture is on the rise. The cost effectiveness of the treatment and more evidence of it as a successful treatment, make acupuncture one of the most popular alternative treatments in alternative health care.