What is acupuncture?
What is Acupuncture?
Channels or meridians?
Acupuncture is a system of healing, generally believed to have originated in China, which is based on the conception that a continuous network of functional flow lines traverses the body surface and penetrates deeper to connect with the internal environment. This network is thought to be part of the many layers of complex control systems that help regulate the body both internally and in our relationship with the environment. In the west, these flow lines have popularly become known as meridians but ‘channels’ would be a better translation. The Chinese describe influences that circulate through these channels. These influences are collectively referred to as Chi (also written ‘Qi’ and pronounced ‘chee’.). The free and unimpeded flow of this Chi is thought to have a powerful relationship to health and wellness.
In more contemporary terms, there appears to be a primitive communication or signal system in our body, which has its roots in our embryological development. It is neither the Nervous or Endocrine system yet appears to interact with them and appears to have been masked from view by these more advanced and complex control systems. These pathways are not structural in the way that we envision nerves or blood vessels.They do however appear to have some relationship to Fascia and the Fascial compartments of the body. Thus this original signal system is hard to find or see and this lack of objective evidence means it is routinely dismissed by medical science. What is becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss however, is the ever-expanding body of evidence that points to the therapeutic effectiveness of Acupuncture.
As part of the body’s complex communication systems it plays a part in the monitoring of internal and external changes and in regulating the body by transmitting this information. In medicine this phenomenon is called Homeostasis. It is through these layers of the information systems of the body that the functions and effects of acupuncture take place.
What is Chi?
When one reads about acupuncture one very quickly bumps into this word ‘Chi’. Though often translated as ‘life energy’, ‘life force’ or ‘vital force’ these are poor translations and often lead to the belief that chi is something esoteric or mystical. Indeed, wikipedia’s page describes it as a pseudoscientific, unverified concept. The problem with this is the assumption that the chinese are describing something unique to their experience, as if no one outside of China ever felt a subjective sense of vitality or feelings of warmth moving through their limbs.
Firstly, it’s important to consider that the source material of the chinese philosophies that underpin Chinese medicine predate western scientific understanding of the body, its physiology and descriptions of anatomical structure by thousands of years. Secondly, the Chinese doctors of old observed the same phenomena in illness and dysfunction that are universally observed. They simply described what they saw with the language, imagery and metaphors of the times
they were living in. Misunderstanding of the true meanings within these texts continues today, even in China itself! The simple fact is, there is no adequate translation for chi as the concept does not exist in any western traditions. As a concept, It also clearly went through quite an evolution throughout China’s history.
For now, we might view chi as the functional intelligence and organising principle of metabolic life. While further, scientific study may ultimately give more clarity, it is perhaps more helpful for now, to simply think of Chi as that which is being influenced when the acupuncturist stimulates an acupuncture point.
Acupuncture points are the informational nodes or control centres within this messaging system. One locates them on the body surface though they generally lie at some depth hence the use of needles or pressure to effectively reach them. There are various classifications of acupuncture points, from the long established points along the channels to the temporary appearance of sensitive points often referred to as trigger points (these are what your physiotherapist is needling when you receive Dry Needle Therapy.). Acupuncture points can be stimulated in a number of ways, the most common and well known being by insertion of fine metal needles. The use of heat stimulus is also common and integral to the practise of Chinese acupuncture. It is referred to as Moxibustion. The word is a combination of two terms – Moxa (which refers to a dry, processed form of the plant Mugwort or Artemisia Vulgaris) and combustion. Moxa is burnt either on or directly above the acupuncture point. Pressure may also be used as in acupressure massage ( the most well know of which is the Japanese Shiatsu system). More recently, the use of electro and laser stimulation have also become commonplace.
What will I feel?
Within the framework of acupuncture, chi is a tangible thing. When an acupuncture point is needled correctly there is a very clear response felt by the patient. In Chinese this is called De Chi (‘duh chee’) – ‘catching’ or ’obtaining’ the chi. Many people are anxious about the idea of needles and whether or not it will be painful. The very localised, sharp, pricking sensation most associate with a needle is something an acupuncturist is actually trying to avoid. De Chi however is something the acupuncturist is actively working to achieve. A key characteristic of De Chi is a radiating, often achy feeling. It is broader and more diffuse than what one would expect from a very slender needle. It can also be a slight numbing feeling, tingling or even warm. feedback from patients varies significantly as some people are so anxious about the experience that they anticipate even the slightest response and immediately describe it as pain. The vast majority however find it completely tolerable. The De Chi sensation varies in quality from point to point and its intensity can also vary significantly.
How does it work?
This is a complex question with no easy answer. People asking this question are usually looking for a mechanism in modern biomedical terms. In that regard, there have been many different mechanisms put forward in an attempt to explain the effects of acupuncture. These include:
a. Stimulation of the nervous system.
b. Stimulation of the release of neurochemicals such as endorphins.
c. Action through non-specific counter-irritation effects (causing pain reduces pain).
d. Stimulation of trigger points known to have specific musculoskeletal effects.
e. Vascular effects (constriction and dilation of blood flow).
f. Specific effects on structures in the brain.
g. Transmission of piezoelectric signals through myofascial networks.
All of these mechanisms have involved much research yet no single mechanism has come close to being able to explain the full range of therapeutic effects displayed by acupuncture and moxibustion. Significantly, the structuring of research studies into the fundamental mechanisms of acupuncture is often biased by erroneous presumptions about acupuncture. For example, the entirely incorrect assumption that acupuncture is primarily a therapy for pain control led to much research based on known mechanisms of pain mediation. The mechanism of acupuncture is a very active field of research and much knowledge is likely to emerge in this area in the future. However, knowing or not knowing ‘how’ it works is not and should not be a prerequisite for its successful use. Many therapies in medicine are routinely used without their full mechanism being understood. In all likelihood, the system of channels and points mapped on the human body by ancient Chinese physicians reflects all of the mechanisms listed above and more not yet thought of or investigated. The channels and points of acupuncture represent an elegant and sophisticated map of the body-mind system that stands on its own. Deconstructing it into simplistic bits and pieces may satisfy research intrigue but may, in the end, have little to offer the clinician working with real people and their real healthcare needs. Traditionally, the Chinese were very practical people. If something worked, they were happy to use it. How acupuncture worked was not a question that was often asked. And if it was asked, the answer would have been that it works through the mechanisms of Chi circulation and the dynamics of the channel relationships.
What does it do?
Stimulation of acupuncture points appears to trigger the body’s inherent healing potential and self-regulatory responses which, from a biomedical viewpoint, involves quite a number of different physiological processes and levels of activity. Some of which are – analgesic (pain relieving or reducing); immunologic, homeostatic, sedatory and psychological. This manipulation of the chi stimulates physiological changes in at least three areas: locally (at the site of needle insertion); along the course of the channel and internally (within the organ systems contacted by that channel pathway).
As the healing effects of acupuncture are inborn and intrinsic to the body one immediately gets some idea of the benefits and limitations of acupuncture – You can’t achieve something with treatment that is beyond the body’s inherent potential. That being said, Acupuncture will often achieve excellent results in conditions that have been resistant to conventional medical approaches.
What can it treat?
When we ask such a question, we tend to be thinking about specific clinical conditions like ‘asthma’ or ‘colitis’, for example.
Acupuncture, at least within the framework of Traditional Oriental Medicine, focuses primarily on the person, and secondarily on the illness. The reason for this is that Acupuncture doesn’t intervene, directly, on an illness. As discussed, earlier, it stimulates self-regulation and thus healing. To fully understand this, you have to turn your thinking on its head a bit. The Acupuncturist usually views your symptoms (the reason you are coming for treatment) as a ‘branch’ expression of an underlying or ‘root’ imbalance. Your practitioner uses the diagnostic principles and systems of Chinese Medicine to evaluate your root imbalance. Through the diagnostic process, a pattern (or patterns) of disharmony will begin to appear that describe this disequilibrium both on a constitutional and a symptomatic level. A treatment program is then tailored to address the two aspects of your circumstance, the root and the branch. There are situations where the symptoms are so extreme, they must be the exclusive focus of the treatment but it is more common to receive root and branch treatment in the same session. In many cases, root imbalance diagnosis enables your practitioner to offer appropriate and meaningful lifestyle suggestions in addition to an acupuncture treatment. One interesting feature of this approach is that different root imbalances can produce the same symptoms or patient complaints. So, for example, five patients with asthma may all present themselves with the same symptoms or Western Medical diagnosis yet Chinese medical diagnosis may reveal five distinct root imbalances hiding behind the symptomatic expression. These five people would all be treated very differently despite the fact that the conditions for which they seek treatment are all seemingly the same.
So what about specific conditions? Because Acupuncture treats the whole person, it has something to offer almost every condition. However, some conditions respond readily to acupuncture treatment and some are notoriously difficult to treat. In many cases, acupuncture can bring about a complete cure; in others, it is an effective management strategy. Of course, in cases of life-threatening trauma and emergency conditions, your first visit should always be the hospital!
Conditions and circumstances for which acupuncture treatment can be effective
General: Allergies, Asthma, Sinusitis, Headaches, TMJ, Back Pain, Sciatica, Musculoskeletal Problems, Insomnia, Anxiety, Dizziness, Depression, High Blood Pressure, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Addictions, Indigestion, Constipation, Sexual Dysfunction, Post-Operative Recovery.
Women’s Health: Menstrual Irregularities, Menopausal symptoms, Conception Difficulties, Pregnancy and Childbirth, Lactation Difficulties, Postpartum, Ovarian and Uterine Problems.
Men’s Health: Prostate, Infertility, Impotence.
Paediatrics: Asthma, Cough, Digestive Problems, Behavioural Problems, Ear Infections, Sleep Problems.
Preventative Health: Prevention, Stress Management, Wellness, Seasonal Attunement.