Promoting the Body’s Ability to Heal: Acupuncture Physiology 101

By Adam Cantor, MS, LAc

Guest writer for Wake Up World

Acupuncture is one of the oldest continually-practised medical modalities in the world, with a rich history that extends several thousands of years. It is a safe, effective and chemical-free way to promote the body’s remarkable ability to heal and self-regulate.

Acupuncture stimulation elicits De Qi, a grouping of complex and unique sensations that are essential for clinical efficacy according to numerous schools of Chinese medicine. While patients have described De Qi as a heavy, achey, or dull sensation, there is a lack of adequate scientific data to indicate what sensations really comprise this phenomena — how intense these sensations are, how commonly they occur, their relationship to acupuncture points, the physiology of De Qi, and how this phenomena compares with other forms of somatosensory stimulus.

While some still argue that acupuncture doesn’t elicit statistically significant research results beyond that of the placebo, we now know that this simply isn’t true. One should consider that animals are not capable of demonstrating the placebo effect, yet many vets use acupuncture as an effective means of pain management. It is also worth mentioning that the analgesic effects of acupuncture can be mitigated if a patient is on certain drugs (opioids and many SSRI’s for example). Both of these facts demonstrate that acupuncture achieves pain relief through physiological not psychological means. (For more information, read: Neurochemistry: Acupuncture vs. Sham Acupuncture).

The vast majority of Western medical studies fail to account for the importance of ensuring that De Qi is achieved in all patients being treated. Without needle manipulation, without the “arrival of Qi” (De Qi) and without targeting a specific point, depth and angle of insertion, palpated and located with precision, the needle might as well be placed in any random spot of the body! I will further address the shortcomings of applying the Western medical paradigm to acupuncture studies in my forthcoming article. While not every acupuncturist will agree that it is absolutely essential for the patient or practitioner to sense De Qi during a treatment, it is my personal experience both on the table as well as standing over one that when De Qi is elicited at a given point, it has a significantly greater effect in treatment.

Understanding the De Qi phenomenon in modern medical terms is important for shedding light on the bio-mechanisms of acupuncture. While there are many schools of thought as to how De Qi is achieved and more importantly how acupuncture works, there are a few of the leading studies that have helped us to better understand this ancient medicine.

A study by Kathleen Hui (et al.) at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School, in conjunction with Case Western University has studied the effects of the De Qi phenomenon on the brain using fMRI imaging. The study posits the following:

“The quantitative as well as qualitative characterization of the sensations associated with acupuncture and their correlations with the known functions of nerve fibers provide evidence in support of the De Qi phenomenon, a concept of fundamental importance in TCM. The sensations are significantly more common in acupuncture than in tactile stimulation control, with aching, soreness and pressure leading the list for… acupoints. The prevalence and intensities of individual sensations show differences between acupoints, with LI4 showing the strongest overall response”.

Read more:

Kathleen Hui and her team have also done extensive research using fMRI imaging to show the relationship of acupuncture stimulation and the limbic brain — acupuncture mobilizes the functionally anti-correlated networks of the brain to mediate its actions. Read more:

From the above we can hypothesize that the De Qi sensation is unique among sensory stimulation and more common with acupuncture than other stimuli. We can also postulate that acupuncture treatment involves the nervous system of the patient and that the messages imparted to the soma (body) send signals to the brain, prodding a sort of “soft reset” via anti-correlated network mediation.

The other leading school of thought on the De Qi mechanism involves the fascial network of the body, a massive web of non-specific connective tissue that creates planes and groupings of muscle and tissue, not unlike acupuncture meridians. This tissue surrounds and connects every muscle, down to the myofibril, and winds around and throughout every organ of the body. It is the matter that connects us and helps to give us shape. Fascia has been shown as an important element in our posture and movement organization. Disruptions, knots, tears or tangles in this tissue super-highway are what prevent us from reaching optimal health and can be viewed as a form of Qi stagnation in Chinese medicine, preventing optimal flow of information or fluids.

(For visual evidence of our myofascial networks and their similarity to acupuncture meridians, please read the book “Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists” by Tom Myers. Please note however, “Anatomy Trains” is not light reading, so for those who aren’t “anatomy nerds” like myself, you might want to look for another source).

These are the most popular schools of thought in the West to describe the neurological and physiological phenomenon of De Qi. But this research gets surprisingly little press in America and even less funding; a fact that is inexplicable considering the efficacy of this wonderful medicine and the millions of people it helps every day around the world.

About the author:

Adam Cantor is an NCCAOM nationally certified Acupuncturist licensed in New York State. After earning an MBA in finance and a brief stint in the business world, it was time for a change. And as a lifelong martial artist and certified personal trainer, Adam was drawn to working with the human body. While training in martial arts he sustained an injury and found himself in the office of an acupuncturist. In awe of how quickly the acupuncturist was able to heal his injuries, Adam decided to pursue a Masters of Science in Acupuncture at the Tri-State College of Acupuncture, graduating with honors.

Adam later travelled to China and studied at the Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine University, one of China’s top medical colleges. Back in the U.S., Adam interned with the senior acupuncturist who healed his injuries, studying how to combine bodywork (tui na) with acupuncture for acute traumatic injuries and sports medicine as taught by Tom Bisio and Frank Butler, the founders of the Zheng Gu Tui Na modality.

Adam believes the beauty of Chinese medicine is its inherent ability to treat the whole person — mind, body and spirit, together.

Connect with Adam Cantor at

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