You've Heard of Acupuncture, but Do You Actually Know How It Works?

POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim
POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim

Chances are, you've heard of acupuncture, and you've possibly even thought of trying it. But do you actually know how it works and what it does? It's purported as a drug-free solution to a laundry list of ailments, and for many people, that's exactly what it is. And while Western medicine is only recently warming to this ancient Chinese practice, those who have been using alternative medicine as part of their regular health routines are already huge fans of this natural wellness practice.

I don't want to sound like a stereotypical San Francisco girl (maybe I do?), but acupuncture changed my life this past year. Maybe even more than SoulCycle. And while I could personally sing to you the praises of what acupuncture has done for my slew of personal health problems, I figured it was best to bring an actual expert into the mix. Dr. Magnolia Ng, D.C, CCSP, L.Ac from Advance Health SF — part-time goddess, full-time acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner — gave us some in-depth insight as to how it works and what those needles are doing to your body.

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the "placing of acupuncture needles at certain acupuncture points to help irrigate and nourish the tissue" to treat a variety of ailments and pain, which are rooted in the blockage of energy.

Depending on your particular case, an acupuncturist will evaluate your needs and which parts of your body need the needles. During your treatment, you'll lay down on a table, relax as best you can, and the practitioner will insert needles into different areas specific to you and your needs. You can close your eyes and even sleep during a treatment, which can range from 30 to 60 minutes or more.

How Does It Work?

You — yes you — have "meridians" of energy flow all throughout your entire body. This energy is called your qi (pronounced "chee"). "We all have a network of energy channels and meridians that flow through our body, making us feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually vital and healthy," said Dr. Ng.

These meridians are kind of like a highway system. The start point of energy is in your abdomen, around the base of your belly button. "This circuit of energy moves from the crown of our head down and out to our limbs and bottom of our feet and toes; from the base of our naval (where the energy originates), flowing up and out through the head." So think of your qi as a car — but like, a really nice car that your entire well-being and healthiness depends on. A Tesla, perhaps. The meridians are the roads your Tesla-qi drives on. Everything is all fine and well until there's an accident on the road and all lanes are closed. This is where acupuncture comes in.

"When there is an obstruction in energy flow, the acupuncture needles can help move and shift the energy to unblock areas where the energy is stagnated and reestablish the regular flow through the channels," said Dr. Ng. "Disease, discomfort, and pain are the result of disharmony to the vital flow and strength of our body's energy channels." With this "traffic-jam" blockage of energy, your brain might not be getting the right signals to help alleviate pain. "We attend these obstructions with acupuncture so that we can adjust the balance of our body inside and out."

Once the needles are inserted into the proper points, the nervous system is triggered, and the body is essentially able to heal itself — without drugs. "Needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the brain, spinal cord, and muscles. These chemicals will either change the expression of pain, or they will trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones, which influence the body's own internal regulating system. The improved energy and biochemical balance produced by the acupuncture results in stimulating the body's natural healing abilities, thereby promoting physical and emotional well-being."

What Does It Feel Like?

If you're relaxed, painless. As mentioned, you can (and might want to, if you're anxious) fall asleep during your treatment. If you're tense, you'll feel more of the prick. Let your acupuncturist know if this is the case so they can help.

In my experience, I can actually feel things moving. I feel a weight in certain areas, despite the fact that these needles are super thin and essentially weightless. It's a pretty surreal experience.

What Can It Treat?

It's somewhat of a cure-all, in a sense. "Acupuncture treatments can help with the body's internal organs to correct any imbalances in digestion, reproduction, and/or any physical or mental ailments," said Dr. Ng. Here are some of the things that she uses acupuncture for.

  • Weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Headaches
  • Reproductive problems, including fertility, irregular periods, and cramps
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Joint pain, including jaw pain and tightness
  • Allergies
  • Cold symptoms
  • General pain
  • Digestive disorders