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Ancient Chinese Medicine and Mechanistic Evidence of Acupuncture Physiology

(National Institute of Health-- Edward S. Yang, Pei-Wen Li, Bernd Nilius, and Geng Li--Published online August 26, 2011)  Acupuncture has been used in China from its very beginning some 2,500 years ago [26]. But it has been a puzzle for the West since it was brought back by the Jesuits in the 17th century. In its recent form, acupuncture became popular only after an unexpected treatment of a New York Times reporter in 1971. Since then, it has been widely deployed with clinical success for migraine, knee and back pain, chemo-induced nausea, vomiting and hot-flash among other aches and pains. Yet the typical Westerner, particularly the American doctor, is still looking at it with a suspicious eye. The main reason is the lack of a satisfactory scientific theory of its basic mechanism. Why can the little needle perform such a miracle without any help from drugs? How do the needle and the muscle interact? What is the driving force? Do tissues and cells know the needle is working in the neighborhood? What is its sphere of influence? How is it possible to produce the biochemical reaction that gives rise to pain suppression? Why are there no side effects? Why do the so-called sham, Korean, and Japanese acupuncture also work? Is it just a placebo effect? These are some pertinent questions people would like to have answered.

In the last four decades, a great deal of research in acupuncture has been performed [38]. This review plans to take a look at the basic mechanisms from its long history to find out how far we have come and what is still missing. A number of theoretical models have been proposed. The crucial questions to ask are whether the model is science based and reproducible, whether it covers the complete healing process, not just a part, and whether it conforms to the clinical and experimental data. These are exacting demands in order to arrive at a self-consistent explanation.

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