In full disclosure, I’m not sure that it’s possible to fully understand the treatment modality of acupuncture as a Westerner. The language of Traditional Chinese Medicine is very different from what we’re used to hearing in America, and this can pose some cultural barriers in interacting with other perspectives of healthcare. However, without getting into the scientific minutiae of acupuncture, it’s possible to develop a functional understanding of it — what it is, how it benefits the body, and the importance of preventative care.
So, the purpose of this post is to help set a foundation for someone who has had a limited exposure to acupuncture.
Energy Medicine: Qi
Just like we have blood flowing through our bodies in distinct channels (arteries and veins), the Chinese have noticed other patterns in the body, one of which being the flow of “qi.” East Asian Medicine defines qi as a sort of energy, almost like electricity. The way I visualize this for myself is as a hybrid between blood (a liquid) and the electrical energy of the nervous system.
When the flow if qi is interrupted in the body, whether by a blockage or an abundance, disease results. Just like too much or too little blood flow to an area of the body causes predictable signs and symptoms, a disturbance in the flow of qi to a certain body area can cause predictable signs and symptoms. This is the basis for diagnosis in Chinese medicine.
Based on the signs and symptoms a patient presents with, a diagnosis can be made according to the 12 different energy channels of the body. These energy channels are called Meridians, and they are named according to anatomical structures that we’re already familiar with, such as “Liver,” “Kidney,” “Pericardium,” and “Spleen.” This is another area that Chinese medicine can be confusing in the Western context: the meridians don’t always correspond to the organs they’re named after. For example, an imbalance of Liver qi may or may not present clinically with any correspondence to the anatomical liver organ located in the human abdomen.
Another way that Chinese Medicine differs from Western is that a diagnosis is often made before the patient even recognizes signs and symptoms. Clinical diagnosis in Traditional Chinese Medicine is made according to more subtle factors such as temperament, slight changes in skin tone/color, the appearance of the tongue. In these cases, the treatment starts early, and is thought to prevent things like pain, fatigue, or nausea — things that would ordinarily bring an American into a doctor’s office. In the Chinese perspective of thought, the pathology has progressed significantly by the time the patient notices a difference in his or her health.
In this sense, Chinese Medicine is largely preventative. In fact, a few centuries ago, patients paid doctors only as long as they stayed well. If the patient became ill, the doctor was considered to not be doing his or her job well.
Once an imbalance of qi is diagnosed, the doctor will then restore the balance of qi. This is accomplished through several means, including nutrition, herbs and supplements, behavioral changes, and — yes — stimulation of points along the meridians.
The way to stimulate these points most intensely is actually using a lancet, and “bleeding” the points by allowing a small drop of blood to form. This is pretty rarely done in a clinical setting, and usually is only done in certain cases that are considered necessary.
somewhat more subtle means is by inserting a very thin needle and allowing it to remain under the skin for 10-20 minutes. The needles can be stimulated further by spinning them or by attaching them to electric leads with very low voltage. The needles are so thin and small that many find their insertion to be entirely painless. A non-invasive method of stimulation is applying pressure to the point (acupressure) or by applying a small magnet to the point under a bandage to induce the flow of qi electromagnetically (as with a small motor).
So, does it work?
In short, absolutely yes. In Asia, the thousands of years of history provide a firm foundation for its efficacy, and it is extremely common in the healthcare setting because there is cultural acceptance and understanding of its efficacy. In the US, acupuncture seems new and different because it’s unfamiliar. In the last hundred years, numerous studies have been done that demonstrate the efficacy of acupuncture for very specific purposes. While we don’t yet have scientific evidence “proving” that acupuncture “works” for every single disease, symptom, or imbalance in the human body, I personally don’t feel it’s necessary. The fact that some research exists (with statistically significant results) is enough for me, considering the enormous history of medicine in China that dates back significantly further than the Western world — and the fact that East Asian countries have historically been among the healthiest. Having the longest life expectancy and lowest rates of chronic diseases is pretty convincing.
However, it’s also important to remember that acupuncture serves to restore balance in the body, helping return it to the homeostatic state that was originally designed. A single acupuncture session can create a noticeable difference after a single session, it’s not the same as taking a pharmaceutical drug that has an intense and immediate but short-lived effect. Acupuncture is essentially a slower and longer-lasting solution, and arguably one that cures
Overall, East Asian Medicine is fascinating, helpful, and arguably very important. Even if a person never receives an acupuncture treatment, I believe it is important for every individual to take an active role in his or her health, and partner with a physician to employ preventative treatment means.
Good medicine treats disease, but excellent medicine prevents it in the first place!