Acupuncture Theories

Acupuncture involves terms of emerge flow through the body along the meridians called Qi (pronounced “chee”).

Yin and Yan

The principles believe that there is a continuum of energy that flows in the body between two opposite poles called the Yin and the Yang.

The system believes that the balance of these two poles constitutes health in the body. These two poles are related and inseparable from each other despite being opposites.

The Yin and Yan are interdependent and interchangeable as well. A disturbance in the balance of the Yin and the Yang in the body results in illness, infections, injury etc.

Qi and meridians

Qi is the vital energy force that circulates throughout the body. The Qi is balanced, collected and enhanced by the dietary intake and air according to the principles of acupuncture.

Meridians are channels that carry Qi throughout the body. When illness leads to an unbalanced, obstructed and irregular flow of Qi, acupuncture can help.

The meridians are composed of acupuncture points that form a specific pathway. The principles of the therapy state that there are fourteen main meridians in the body. There are energy systems in the body that receive, rebuild, and regulate the organs and systems.

Effectiveness theories

There are no clear theories on how exactly acupuncture works.

The Gate Theory of Pain

One of the theories is the Gate Theory of Pain. This was introduced in 1965 and it explains that acupuncture works through the nervous system to alleviate pain.

The theory states that in the nervous system, there are nerves that both transmit and inhibit pain. These fibers come together in the substantia gelatinosa of the spinal cord. The substantia gelatinosa then sends pain signals to the brain, depending on the amount of pain input.

Acupuncture helps in pain relief by stimulating the pain inhibitory nerve fibers, which lowers the pain input and therefore, relieves the pain. This can explain the effectiveness of acupuncture in short term and acute pain conditions.

The Two-Gate Control Theory

Man and Chen in 1980 came up with another theory to explain the effectiveness of acupuncture. This was called the Two-Gate Control Theory.

In this theory, there exist two main nerve fibers: A-beta and C nerve fibers. The A-beta nerve fibers are large, fast conducting, and have a low volt threshold while the C nerve fibers are small, slow conducting, and have a high volt threshold.

The theory states that when high amount of impulses coming from A-beta fibers closes the gate in the substantia gelatinosa there is prevention of passage of painful impulses from the C fibers.

Acupuncture acts as a pain-reliever by stimulating the acupuncture points, which affect the A-beta nerve fibers. The needles move to create a steady stream of non-pain impulses transmitted to the substantia gelatinosa causing the gate to close. Once the gate is closed the pain impulses are stopped. Thus, no pain is felt.

The impulses from the A-beta fibers can transmitted to the thalamus, which serves as the final gate. This gate is closed to produce pain relief in the entire body.

Counter-pain treatment

Yet another theory is the counter-pain treatment. This theory states that when pain comes to one part of the body, pain on another part of the body will be less noticeable. This is also applicable for short term pain control rather than long term pain control.


Some theories suggest that acupuncture causes release of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are natural pain relievers found in the central nervous system.

Nitric oxide

Recently, acupuncture has been shown to increase the nitric oxide levels in treated regions. This leads to increased local blood circulation and may help in preventing local inflammation and ischemia and relieve the disease condition.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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