When asked to explain how acupuncture works, I usually explain it from a Western conceptual model, because the Eastern conceptual model of health and disease is a difficult one to translate into Western concepts and language. Sometimes I’ll offer both Eastern and Western descriptions, and I consider them both equally valid. I’ll do my best here, but will keep it short, since there’s no shortage of information about it, and many different interpretations:
Acupuncture needles interact with the electrical properties of human connective tissue and nerves, much like a battery, by dispersing small electrical currents, at certain frequencies that are conveyed by nerves, to the spinal cord, and to the brain. Since the brain is an amazing organ that converts electrical signals into chemical messengers (hormones, opiates, immune messengers, inflammation and anti-inflammation messengers, etc...), the needles will stimulate certain, fairly predictable and reliable brain responses for the desired effect, based on where the needles are, how much stimulation is applied to them, and the individual treatment time.
From a neurological perspective, acupuncture is known to have direct regulatory effects on the brain’s hypothalamus - the region of the brain that regulates hormones, immune system, and all “autonomic” functions, making them react appropriately to the internal and external environment.
This is based on a beautiful and elegant metaphor, relating human physiology to an ecosystem or environment. The popular “Five Element Theory”, for example, involves the interaction of fire, earth, metal, wood, and water, by relating these elements to characteristics of human physiology and organ and tissue function. Energy flow is transformed and characterized by their influence, and related to blood flow. Energy moves blood, and blood moves energy. “Wind”, “dampness”, “heat”, and “cold” conditions upset this flow and cause identifiable problems, depending on whether they are influencing “fire”, “earth”, “metal”, “water”, or “wood” areas. Herb formulas and needle or other point stimulation (moxibustion) are designed to address each of these problems. Simply put, the idea is to move energy from areas of excess to areas of deficiency, and facilitate a balance.
I recommend the following resources for additional information:
Does acupuncture hurt ?
Sometimes it does - it depends on the person. Some individuals experience no pain, some mild discomfort, and some are uncomfortable with needles in general. Most have no problem with it, and many actually enjoy it. Personally, I’m “needle-phobic” - I have an aversion to needles of any kind, however, I don’t mind acupuncture needles. (They should be called “filaments” instead - they are very fine and flexible)