Psychology Department

Health Psychology Home Page

Papers written by students providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being

Search HomeWeight LossAlternative Therapy | Supplements | Eating Disorders | Fitness | Links | Self-Assessment | About this Page |


Acupuncture as an Alternative Treatment for Stress

Mark Rosenthal

Outline: Click on a line to go to that section

Claims why acupuncture works
Claims that support acupuncture
Scientific reason for why acupuncture works
Studies done on animals
Study of acupuncture and humans

Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into "acupuncture points," specific nerve endings under the skin. These needles are extremely small, so small in fact that ten to fifteen acupuncture needles can fit in a regular hypodermic needle (http.//

Claims why acupuncture works

There are three claims for why acupuncture is effective: reflexes, hormones, and energy transfer. When the needle is inserted into the skin, the nerves send signals that travel up the spinal cord, into the brain, and block the pain center in the brain. This prevents pain and other signals from entering and exiting the brain and severity of the symptoms is suppressed. This allows the body to heal itself while the individual is unaware of any pain or other distress (

After the needle is inserted into the skin, the surrounding area becomes red. This may be a result of the release of hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones may be the body's natural pain killers, which stimulate blood circulation as well reduce pain (

The third explanation is the ancient Chinese explanation that the acupuncture points are doors to energy channels and that by inserting the needles into these points, one can open and close these doors. This brings about energy circulation and harbors energy balance, resulting in improved health (

Claims that support acupuncture

Acupuncture is believed to be highly effective. In a nation-wide survey of acupuncture users, conducted by Dr. Claire M. Cassidy, 91.5% reported "disappearance" or "improvement" of symptoms after their treatment, 84% see their MDs less often, 79% use fewer prescription drugs, and 70% were able to avoid previously recommended surgery ( Said one man from San Francisco:

Acupuncture had immediate effects on my levels of stress. I simply was not the same person at work. Co-workers could not believe the difference in my disposition. Clients continually comment on my relaxed nature given the stressful environment I have put myself in (CPA, working with taxes). I believe it has helped me stay healthy over the last 9 years... (

Acupuncture is a treatment with few, if any, reported side effects. The most common side effect is deep relaxation and a slight, temporary heaviness. In the treatment of stress, the side effect of deep relaxation is often a desired result. In these cases, very few side effects are noticed.

Most of the information on acupuncture is circulated by acupuncture therapists and clinics, with one such therapist being Dr. Cassidy. Dr. Cassidy heads her own consulting firm, Paradigms Found, in Bethesda, Maryland, and is also the author of several articles about research and medical anthropology ( One may be doubtful about the claims of acupuncture, especially since the claims are made by acupuncture therapists and clinics. What are the facts? Is there any truth to these claims?

Scientific reason for why acupuncture works

First, how and why does acupuncture really work? By stimulating certain acupuncture loci, the sites where the needles are inserted, the body releases cerebral seratonin. Cerebral seratonin has anti-depressant and analgesic effects (Chen, 1992). This release of seratonin results in mental relaxation, the desired result for many who suffer from stress or stress induced headaches. But does this actually work?

Studies done on animals

In an experiment by the Institute of Acupuncture and Channel at Anhui College, a group of rats was divided into two groups--the electroacupuncture group and the control group. Electroacupuncture is the same as acupuncture but with the addition of tiny electrical currents which are sent through the needles into the body. The rats were then restrained and submersed in water to induce stress and gastric ulcers. Electroacupuncture protected the rats from developing the stress induced ulcers.

In another study, rats were again submersed into cold water baths to induce stress. Three pairs of electrodes were placed on the rats and measured the effect of acupuncture on gastro-colon electric activity. Once again, experimenters found that acupuncture was able to inhibit the electric activity that is caused by stress (Xu, 1994).

In a similar study, electrodes were once again placed on groups of rats which were then submerged in water baths. Out of those rats that suffered from stress and did not receive acupuncture treatment, 63.2% show internal bleeding and related internal complications (gland cell swelling, hyperaemia). In the group of rats that acquired both stress and acupuncture, only 16.7% developed internal bleeding (Xiang, 1993).

Study of acupuncture and humans

The Department of Internal Medicine in Denmark studied the effects of acupuncture in 49 patients suffering from angina pectoris. Acupuncture was found to slightly increase exercise tolerance, lower systolic blood pressure, and lower anginal attack rate.

With these results, acupuncture is found to be effective both in laboratory animals and humans. In the final study by The Department of Internal Medicine in Denmark, acupuncture was found to lower systolic blood pressure and anginal attack rate, two symptoms of stress. By relieving the symptoms of stress, one's health improves and this all results in reduction of stress.


Ballegaard S., Karpatschoff B., Holck JA., Meyer CN., Trojaborg W. (1995). Acupuncture in angina pectoris: do psycho-social and neurophysiological factors relate to the effect? Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research, 20, 101-16.

Chen A. (1992). An introduction to sequential electric acupuncture (SEA) in the treatment of stress related physical and mental disorders. Acupuncture and Electro-Therapuetics Research, 17, 273-83.

Shen D., Wei D., Liu B., Zhang F., (!995). Effects of electroacupuncture on gastrin, mast cell and gastric mucosal barrier in the course of protecting rat stress peptic ulcer. Chen Tzu Yen Chiu Acupuncture Research, 20, 46-9.

Xiang L., Zhu F., Weng E., Tang G., (1993). Influences of acupuncture on gastroduodenal mucosal lesion and electrical changing induced by stress in rats. Chen Tzu Yen Chiu Acupuncture Research, 18, 53-7.

Xu G. (1994). Influence of stress on gastroenteric electric activity and modulated effect of acupuncture on it in rats. Chen Tzu Yen Chiu Acupuncture Research, 19, 72-4.


Psychology Department

The Health Psychology Home Page is produced and maintained by David Schlundt, PhD.

Vanderbilt Homepage | Introduction to Vanderbilt | Admissions | Colleges & Schools | Research Centers | News & Media Information | People at Vanderbilt | Libraries | Administrative Departments | Medical 

  Return to the Health Psychology Home Page
  Send E-mail comments or questions to Dr. Schlundt


Search: Vanderbilt University
the Internet
  Help  Advanced
Tip: You can refine your last query by searching only the results by clicking on the tab above the search box
Having Trouble Reading this Page?  Download Microsoft Internet Explorer.