Medicine, including acupuncture, is only needed when that natural and innate healing process needs a bit of extra help. The best medicine stimulates, complements and reinforces that natural healing. Suppose for instance that you have sprained your ankle. People have, presumably, been spraining ankles since time immemorial, and most of them have recovered. The human body is amazing; the damaged ligaments will be repaired, providing you put your feet up for a bit, which you will be inclined to do anyway because it hurts to walk or run. (The reason it hurts is maybe just this: so that you rest up and let it heal.)
The best treatment for a sprained ankle, therefore, is rest. The next best treatment is anything that supports and promotes the natural healing response. One of the simplest ways to do this is to gently increase the blood flow in and around the damaged ligaments. Acupuncture is a useful treatment for such problems because it can do just this – increase the local blood flow. After the initial inflammation has died away, warmth is also good because it stimulates blood flow. Gentle massage has the same effect.
The first thing many people reach for is anti-inflammatory medication, but it is a moot point whether this helps or hinders healing – some research suggests that its effect on tissue healing is to slow it down. After all, the inflammation is part of that natural healing response that has evolved over thousands of years, so perhaps we should not be too quick to inhibit it! Of course you might want the anti-inflammatories to stop your ankle hurting so much, but in that case you are trading off pain relief against healing time. And sometimes too the inflammation may be a bit excessive – Mother Nature is not perfect – in which case toning it down with such drugs might be a good idea. But this is the thin end of the wedge; the poet W.H. Auden’s father, who was a doctor, used to tell him that healing is not a science, but ‘the intuitive art of wooing nature’. If we think we are so good at healing these days that we can forget about nature, we are making, I think, a big mistake.