What does the needle actually do?

Objectively— it can seem like a strange premise, using tiny needles to heal the body.

And yet, acupuncture theory is built upon the elegant concept of Qi (pronounced Chee), which loosely translates as energy, life force, or function. You may have even heard yogis refer to Qi as prana. Consider the possibility that there is an immaterial level of reality that Western science cannot yet quantify or  categorize. Acupuncture theory suggests that many of our physical and emotional problems begin at a level of function that is more subtle than our brain chemistry or organ function, but just as potent.     

Quantum physics has come to a very similar understanding of the material world and the human body by proving that when we break down any  material object into its smallest components, it is reduced to pure energy. Many of these ancient Eastern cultures have long understood what Western science is finally beginning to accept. Our bodies, while seemingly solid, are actually energetic configurations that are constantly changing. Acupuncture is built upon this understanding.  

The point of treatment is to manipulate the flow of Qi within our bodies in different ways to induce a   therapeutic effect.  

By working on the energetic level, the physical or material level can be directly affected. In fact, according to acupuncture theory, many forms of imbalance or disease cannot be fully healed simply by intervening on the material level. The underlying energetic component has to be addressed in order to treat the root cause of the problem. The Qi in our bodies is said to pool and gather at specific locations that are spread out from head to toe. The specific locations where Qi gathers are called acupoints, or acupuncture points. These are typically the places where acupuncture needles are inserted to induce various therapeutic effects. There are 361 basic acupoints on the human body. These points are located on acupuncture meridians, which are channels of Qi that flow throughout the body. The meridians correspond to the major internal organs.  

The 12 major meridians that run through the body:

  • Lung
  • Large  intestine
  • Spleen
  • Stomach
  • Bladder
  • Kidney
  • Heart
  • Small intestine
  • San Jiao
  • Pericardium
  • Gall Bladder
  • Liver

There are numerous acupoints on each of these 12 meridians. Each of these 361 points have names, metaphors, and images associated with them that help the acupuncturist utilize them in different ways. The meridians travel through specific regions of the body; they have definite origins and end points. Typically, an acupuncturist will insert tiny needles into a number of the acupuncture points on the meridians that are most in need of balancing.   

But what do the needles actually do?

It is common for the patient to ask, ‘did you really just put a needle in?’ after it is inserted because the procedure is so gentle; but don't confuse gentle with ineffective.


Acupuncture is a relatively painless, deeply relaxing experience. Many people are reluctant to pursue it because it involves the use of needles. Rest  assured, a skilled practitioner can treat you with minimal, if any, discomfort. Most patients are surprised by how little they feel as the needles are inserted. After the needles are in, there is  typically a sensation of dull pressure. Other patients report a feeling of tingling or warmth, while others feel a tangible and strong presence of Qi coursing through the body. On the whole, acupuncture should be a pleasant, calming and safe experience. The needles are hair-thin and are used only once, then disposed into a biohazard container. Most acupuncturists use stainless steel needles which are said to disperse energy and get the Qi moving effectively throughout the meridian that is being worked on. The needle is used as a medium for transferring and manipulating Qi in various ways.  

Western medicine tends to reduce the focus down to one isolated component without regard for how the organism is functioning as a whole. In acupuncture theory, all of our internal organs are part of an inseparable matrix of function; they all have important roles to play that directly influence the health of the other organs in the body.  

Acupuncture's inherently holistic approach enables us to truly see people as whole, and not simply a collection of parts to be fixed.

How an acupuncturist chooses which points to needle is based on their training, expertise, and knowledge. It is very likely that if a patient with a specific health condition were to see three  different acupuncturists, they would receive three unique styles of treatment, all of which could effectively address their presenting health issues. Many acupuncturists assert that the ritual of needling specific points is primarily a way of making therapeutic suggestions to the body. It is like offering the body some new input to work with so it can disentangle itself from the feedback loop and habit of chronic pain, imbalance, or weakness.

Our bodies are miraculous self-healing organisms. When prompted and guided in the right way, the body has the amazing ability to heal itself.  

This is what all forms of holistic medicine intend to induce: A non-invasive, gentle, yet potent method of intervention that naturally offers to the body what it needs to heal itself. Inserting a needle into an acupuncture point is a way of communicating with your body. It is like saying to the body, "WAKE UP!" or "relax..." In fact, there are a number of intentions and suggestions that a skilled acupuncturist can utilize when working on a patient.  

As with all forms of holistic treatment, Chinese medicine begins with the theory that every human being has an innate resource of wisdom, strength, and health that can be tapped into at any moment.

Acupuncture is a way of making contact with this incredible resource. In this sense, it emphasizes the truth that each of us must be held accountable for our health and quality of life. If life circumstances have caused us to feel alienated from this inner wisdom, then we can certainly turn to acupuncture as a way to reconnect with ourselves and awaken to our full potential. A skilled acupuncturist will engage in a therapeutic relationship to help educate & empower you about how to take accessible, meaningful steps to ease your symptoms & correct imbalances.    

Have a question about Qi, needles or acupuncture?