Acupuncture healing is founded on Meridian theory. About 5,000 years ago, Chinese healers discovered fourteen energy pathways. These pathways, or channels, may be likened to electrical antennas sending “Chi” – electromagnetic vibrational waves – throughout the body.
Chi is everywhere but remains invisible to the naked eye, even during dissection. However, modern imaging techniques (such as a Gas Discharged high frequency camera) have confirmed both the presence and location of the traditional pathways. Basically, upon inserting a needle into an acupuncture point, the Meridian network is mobilized. Acupuncture treatment actually comprises many components and variables – needling (choice of acupoints, needle gauge and other characteristics: depth of insertion, manipulation techniques and frequency, time in situ).
Ancient Chinese physicians recognized that neurovascular nodes (acupuncture points) on the surface of the body could reflect disease conditions in the internal organs, and that these same nodes could be stimulated to relieve pain and treat internal organ problems. This was a revolutionary discovery that formed the theoretical basis for acupuncture treatment. It was not until the early 1890s that this phenomenon of organ-referred pain was discovered in the West, by British physician William Head.
When the terms qi (oxygen), mai (vessel) and jie (neurovascular node) are properly translated, it becomes clear that there is no disagreement between ancient Chinese medical theory and contemporary principles of anatomy and physiology.
Energy is an abstract concept that means “in work”. It can’t be circulated in the blood. However, the potential for energy, in the form of oxygen and glucose, is transported through the cardiovascular system.
Energy production within each cell is initiated by breaking down each molecule of glucose (from absorbed nutrients) to form two molecules of pyruvate. Pyruvate produced in the cell cytoplasm is taken up by the mitochondria and enters the Krebs cycle.
The Krebs cycle involves a cyclic seris of reactions that convert ADP to ATP, the fundamental unit of energy in the body. This requires inhaled oxygen supplied by the red blood cells via capillaries.
This energy production cycle was discovered by Albert Szent-Györgyi and Hans Adolph Krebs in 1937. The energy is transmitted in its potential form, oxygen and glucose.
How acupuncture works from a western scientific perspective?
As mentioned earlier, there is no disagreement between the fundamental anatomical and physiological concepts of western and Chinese medicine. However, as methods of scientific inquiry have progressed, the mechanisms of acupuncture are beginning to be more clearly understood. Acupuncture effects every major system of the body, including the cardiac, gastrointestinal, circulatory, cerebral, genitourinary, endocrine and immune systems.
Broadly speaking, acupuncture has three primary effects:
- It relieves pain.
- It reduces inflammation/infection.
- It balance focal temperature (hot and/or cold)
- It restores homeostasis.
Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to regulate its environment and maintain internal balance. All diseases involve a imbalance of focal temperature, disturbance of homeostasis, and nearly all diseases involve some degree of pain and inflammation. In fact, research over the last several decades suggests that many serious conditions like heart disease previously thought to have other causes are in fact primarily caused by chronic inflammation. If we understand that most diseases are characterized by imblance of focal temperature (hot and cold), pain, inflammation and disturbance of homeostasis, we begin to understand why acupuncture can be effective for so many conditions.
As a nutshell, acupuncture is a remarkably simple technique that depends entirely upon one thing: the stimulation of the peripheral nervous system and collagen fibers. It’s important to point out that when nerves supplying acupoints are cut/blocked or collagen fibers are damaged that would weaken acupuncture effect.
A large body of evidence indicates that acupoints, or “superficial nodes” as they are more accurately translated, have abundant supply of nerves, capillaries, veins, collagen fibers and ganglions.
The following is a list of mechanisms that have been identified so far:
- Acupuncture promotes blood flow. This is significant because everything the body needs to heal is in the blood, including oxygen, nutrients we absorb from food, immune substances, hormones, analgesics (painkillers) and anti-inflammatories. Restoring proper blood flow is vital to promoting and maintaining health. For example if blood flow is diminished by as little as 3% in the breast area cancer may develop. Blood flow decreases as we age and can be impacted by trauma, injuries and certain diseases. Acupuncture has been shown to increase blood flow and vasodilation in several regions of the body.
- Acupuncture stimulates the body’s built-in healing mechanisms. Acupuncture creates “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s ability to spontaneously heal injuries to the tissue through nervous, immune and endocrine system activation. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries.
- Acupuncture releases natural painkillers. Inserting a needle sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain, where chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin are released. Some of these substances are 10-200 times more potent than morphine!
- Acupuncture reduces both the intensity and perception of chronic pain. It does this through a process called “descending control normalization”, which involves the serotonergic nervous system. 2 I will explain this process in further detail in the next post.
- Acupuncture relaxes shortened muscles. This in turn releases pressure on joint structures and nerves, and promotes blood flow.
- Acupuncture reduces stress. This is perhaps the most important systemic effect of acupuncture. Recent research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone and signaling substance that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system. You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response that is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has been called the “rest-and-digest” or “calm-and-connect” system, and in many ways is the opposite of the sympathetic system. Recent research has implicated impaired parasympathetic function in a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including arthritis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
While I agree that there we don’t yet fully understand how acupuncture works, I think it’s vital that practitioners of acupuncture are able to explain what we do know about it from a biomedical perspective to their patients and colleagues in the medical profession. As practitioners we have a moral obligation to provide each patient with the latest medical understanding available in terms they can understand and relate to. Doing this will improve patient outcomes and open the door for acupuncture to be integrated into the healthcare system, which is needed now more than ever.
I would also suggest that explaining the mechanisms of acupuncture in scientific terms should not in any way lessen our appreciation of its uniqueness. The fact that inserting fine needles into the skin can have such a broad range of powerful effects is just as remarkable when those effects are explained in terms of the nervous system as when they are explained in terms of “energy” and “meridians”. When you consider that the Chinese made these discoveries hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, acupuncture is even more impressive.
What’s more. acupuncture is inherently holistic even without the “energy meridian” theory because it restores internal homeostasis through the simple act of piercing the skin with a needle.
Most people in the US don’t know much about acupuncture. They might have heard it’s good for pain, that it can treat infertility, or that it can help you relax. What most people don’t realize is that acupuncture is a more complete and effective method of healthcare than western medicine.
A. Acupuncture not only treats your foci area, but also your whole body
Acupuncture isn’t directed toward a particular disease or condition. It works instead by activating the body’s self-healing ability. This is why acupuncture can address everything from irritable bowel syndrome to back pain to the side effects of chemotherapy.
When you get an acupuncture treatment for elbow pain, your elbow pain will go away but it’s also likely that you’ll see improvements in other areas. The headaches you’ve had for ten years will get better, you’ll have more energy, you’ll be better able to handle stress, and you’ll sleep better.
The reason acupuncture can do this is that it focuses on treating the root cause (pulling the culprits) of your health problems. The ancient Chinese knew that symptoms
don’t arise out of nowhere. Symptoms are manifestations of an underlying malfunction and disease process. The progression from Yin (cold)-Yang (hot) inbalance > malfunction > disease process > symptom can take many years. If you just address the symptom without addressing the malfunction or disease process, healing doesn’t occur.
The Chinese also knew that a malfunction or disease process could result in many different symptoms that may seem unrelated. For example, headaches, heartburn and skin rashes may all be expressions of the same underlying problem.
Western medicine, on the other hand, often mistakes symptoms for disease. Treatment is almost always directed at the symptom, not the disease. Western medicine is based on the Cartesian paradigm that has dominated both scientific and philosophical views of the body for the past three hundred years. This philosophy created the notion that the body is a machine composed of many separate parts, and that health can be achieved by simply addressing each part in isolation. There is no consideration for how the parts are connected and related.
This is why in western medicine we have doctors for every different part of our body. We’ve got cardiologists for our hearts, gastroenterologists for our guts, podiatrists for our feet, gynecologist for female reproductive organs, neurologists for our brains, etcetera. We’ve carved our body up into various parts and put different doctors in charge of taking care of each part. In a perfect medical system these doctors would be communicating frequently and sharing ideas about their patients.
While this does happen in some cases, all too often it doesn’t. I don’t believe this is the fault of the doctors themselves. They are as much victims of the deficiencies of our healthcare system as patients are.
Acupuncturists have a different perspective, because Chinese medicine is based not on Cartesian dualism but on Chinese philosophy, which is inherently holistic. Acupuncturists look at the body as one interconnected whole. From this viewpoint it is impossible to consider a specific part (like the knee, or the heart) without considering it in relation to the whole. This is of course much more consistent with what we know about how ecological and biological systems (which the body is an example of) operate. And it explains why a single therapy like acupuncture can treat your entire body at the same time.
B. Acupuncture curees diseases by restoring the function of the body so that the patients do not have to keep take prescriptions for the rest of their life.
What is a cure? One definition is that a cure has been achieved when the treatment is removed and the dysfunction or illness doesn’t come back.
With the exception of antibiotics, chemotherapy and selective surgery, western medicine does not cure disease. It suppresses symptoms.
How do we know this? If you take a drug for a problem you generally have to take it for the rest of your life. The problem doesn’t go away – it’s being suppressed by the drug. The drug has just replaced a certain function of your body. But as soon as you stop taking that drug, the problem will come back. And often it will be worse than before.
Blood pressure medication is the perfect example of this. It will certainly lower your blood pressure, but it doesn’t do anything to fix whatever was causing your high blood pressure in the first place. People find this out the hard way when they try to stop taking their medication, and their blood pressure skyrockets to a level higher than it was before they started taking the drug.
Why does the problem get worse after taking a drug? Because drugs don’t only suppress symptoms. Drugs also suppress functions. Though drugs provide symptom relief in the short term, over time they may worsen the underlying condition because they interfere with our body’s self-healing mechanisms.
For example, many people take ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to cope with arthritis and inflammatory conditions. While NSAIDs are effective in reducing pain and inflammation in the short-term, they are also known to reduce blood flow to cartilage. Since blood carries all of the nutrients and immune substance necessary for tissue repair, NSAIDs can actually worsen the original problem when taken chronically.
Drugs also have side effects. Drugs may correct a specific imbalance, but in the process they cause at least one other and often several other imbalances. When this happens in western medicine, other drugs are prescribed to address the side effects caused by the first drug – and so on until the patient ends up on a cocktail of drugs treating the side effects of drugs. (See my article Problem With Your Pill? Take Another Pill! for more on this phenomenon.)
There’s nothing wrong with symptom relief. Anyone who has suffered from a debilitating health condition can tell you that. I believe that symptom suppression with medication is necessary, and even life saving, in certain cases. The problem occurs when symptom suppression with drugs takes the place of other approaches (such as nutritional and lifestyle changes) that address the root of the condition.
Acupuncture, unlike most drugs, has the potential to cure disease. Why? Because as I mentioned above, acupuncture stimulates the body’s self-healing mechanisms. And the body’s ability to heal itself far surpasses anything western medicine has to offer.
The discovery of antibiotics is certainly one of the greatest achievements of medicine (though not without problems, as the recent phenomenon of antibiotic resistance indicates). However, these medications are like children’s toys compared with the extraordinary complexity of the immune system’s ability to heal disease.
The body is capable of spontaneously healing wounds, regenerating tissue, neutralizing toxins, and keeping cancer cells at bay – all while we catch the latest episode of Lost on TV or pick up the kids from soccer practice.
As evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald puts it:
Put bluntly, medicine’s success at vaccination and antibiotic treatment are trivial accomplishments relative to natural selection’s success at generating the immune system… We will probably obtain much better disease control by figuring out how to further tweak the immune system and capitalize on its vastly superior abilities than by relying on some human invention such as new antimicrobials (antibiotics, antivirals or antiprotozoal agents) 1.
Acupuncture does just that: it “tweaks” the immune system and capitalizes on the body’s vastly superior ability to heal itself. That is the strength of acupuncture. However, this strength can also be a limitation. Since acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s built-in healing capacity, if that capacity is impaired or damaged (by poor nutrition, excessive stress, etc.) then the healing power of acupuncture will be limited.
C. Acupuncture not only cures disease, but also prevents disease
The superior physician makes it his prerogative to treat disease when it has not yet structurally manifested, and prevents being in the position of having to treat disorders that have already progressed to the realm of the physical. The low level physician finds himself salvaging what has already manifested in physical form, and treating what is already ruined. 2
Amazingly enough, this quote comes from a medical text in China written 2,500 years ago! The idea of “preventative medicine” has received a lot of attention in the west during the past decade. But as the quote above indicates, the Chinese have been aware of the importance of preventative medicine for thousands of years.
Acupuncture and the other branches of Chinese medicine (nutrition, herbal medicine, tai qi, qi gong) restore homeostasis and keep the body functioning at an optimal level. When the body is functioning at an optimal level, we’re far less likely to get sick, and far more likely to recover quickly when we do get sick.
Another way to put it: acupuncture is an effective method of healthcare.
Healthcare, which may be defined as a method of promoting and maintaining health, is not the focus of our current medical system. A more accurate term for the focus of Western medicine would be disease management.
Disease management is important and we certainly need it in the modern world. Yet it’s a mistake to confuse disease management with healthcare. They aren’t the same thing at all.
Western medicine is focused on the treatment of serious disease.
Many of the tests, for example, performed in western medicine will not be triggered as abnormal unless the person being tested is already very sick. If a person goes to see a doctor complaining of headaches, digestive problems, fatigue and insomnia, the doctor will run some tests. If the tests come back “normal”, the patient is told that there’s nothing wrong with them! But of course the patient knows that’s not true. They know it’s not normal to have all those problems, and they know that something is wrong.
In fact, until recently doctors thought serious health conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia, and physiological changes related to normal life stages like menopause, were “all in the patient’s head”.
Why is western medicine so oriented towards serious disease? Part of the reason is that there is no concept of health in western medicine. If you look in the index of any western medical textbook, you’re not going to find a definition of health. Doctors don’t study health, and what it takes to be healthy, in medical school. They study diseases and the drugs that are used to treat those diseases. This puts western medicine at a serious disadvantage when it comes to promoting health.
I want to emphasize that I am making generalizations here. There are surely many doctors (and I have seen quite a few of them myself) that are deeply committed to the health and well-being of their patients, recognize the interconnectedness of the body and mind, emphasize the importance of preventative care, and prescribe nutritional and lifestyle changes to their patients. In particular I see this with many younger doctors who have graduated from medical school in the past ten to fifteen years. They tend to be much more open-minded to alternatives to drugs and surgery, and more inclined to recommend these alternatives when appropriate. This is an encouraging trend in medicine.
D. Acupuncture improves your quality of life and stamina
The goal of Chinese medicine is to improve your quality of life and keep you healthy right up until the end. This means you’re rock climbing, snowboarding, playing with your grandchildren, or doing whatever else you enjoy until you pass away in your sleep at a ripe old age.
Western medicine, on the other hand, is focused on the treatment of serious, life-threatening conditions. It is an unsurpassed intervention for trauma and acute emergencies. Doctors can achieve almost miraculous feats to keep people alive, including reattaching severed limbs and literally bringing people back from the dead. It’s also true that antibiotics have nearly eliminated the risk of dying from the infections that were the primary cause of death all the way up until the mid-20th century, and that medications like insulin for Type 1 Diabetes have made a normal life possible for people who otherwise would have died at an early age. These interventions have extended our average lifespan considerably, and their contributions to our quality of life shouldn’t be underestimated.
So I’m certainly not “against” Western medicine. Believe me, if I get in a car accident or someday have a heart attack, I’ll go straight to the hospital. However, if I were to develop type 2 diabetes, I would begin by changing my diet because in many cases type 2 diabetes can be completely controlled with diet alone.
(Of course it’s very unlikely that I will ever get diabetes, because my diet and lifestyle make it virtually impossible for that kind of blood sugar dysregulation to occur.) These examples explain my guiding principle in making decisions about my health care: for any given condition, I will choose the treatment that does the most good and causes the least harm. In my experience, acupuncture and Chinese medicine fits this guiding principle far more often than drugs and surgery.
E. Acupuncture won’t kill you or make you sick
Primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm” is one of the principal precepts of medical ethics that students are taught in medical school. Another way to state this principle is, “given an existing problem, it may be better to do nothing than to do something that risks causing more harm than good.”
Somewhere along the line this important precept got swept under the rug. While western medicine has made tremendous contributions to disease management, it has also proven to be dangerous to our health.
We may have the most advanced disease management system in the world, but the US is far behind most other industrialized countries when it comes to health. The U.S. ranks just 34th in the world in life expectancy and 29th for infant mortality. Of 13 countries in a recent comparison, the United States ranks an average of 12th (second from bottom) for 16 available health indicators. 3
Even worse, a recent study (PDF) by Dr. Barbara Starfield published in 2000 in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated that medical care is the 3rd leading cause of death in this country, causing more than 250,000 deaths per year. Only heart disease and cancer kill more people. Although this study was published in one of the most reputable medical journals in the world, it received little media attention and my guess is that few doctors have heard of it.
Dr. Starfield estimates that, each year, medical errors and adverse effects of the health care system are responsible for:
- 116 million extra physician visits
- 77 million extra prescriptions
- 17 million emergency department visits
- 8 million hospitalizations
- 3 million long-term admissions
- 199,000 additional deaths
- $77 billion in extra costs
As grim as they are, these statistics are likely to be seriously underestimated as only about 5 to 20% of medical-care related incidents are even recorded. Analyses which have taken these oversights into consideration estimate that medical care is in fact the leading cause of death in the U.S. each year. 4
As a result, acupuncture treatment is able to achieve the following:
1. melt down the lipid embedded in the blood vessel wall
Fat build-up can harden the blood vessel, block blood flow and prevent blood vessel resonance with the heart organ. However, after a number of acupuncture treatments, specifically with the warming needle technique, the fat imbedded in the blood vessel wall will be melted down, making the blood vessel soft, elastic and pliable for dilation and contraction. Such blood vessels facilitate the heart’s vibrational rhythms to keep the blood circulating throughout the body and prevent the formation of blood clots (thick blood).
2. redirect and redistribute blood flow to an ischemic area.
Where an acupuncture needle is inserted, the blood circulation will be temporarily locked to allow the central nervous system to send the blood retrograde toward the brain, then, to the needy area. It is like the highway repair staff temporarily block a ramp to allow the traffic detour to other direction. For instance, when an acupuncture needle is inserted under the foot, it allows the central nerve system to send the blood retrograde toward the brain as a means to rescue the patient who has stroke and in coma, desperately in need of blood and oxygen.
3. regulate the body temperature for cooling down or heating up.
If you are sensitive to heat, acupuncture can cool you down and save you tremendous electricity for air conditioning during the summer. If you are sensitive to cold, acupuncture with warming needle technique can warm you up to save your heating cost during the winter. Acupuncture treatment is very effective in regulating your body temperature by balancing the Yin (cold) and Yang (hot) of your body.
4. relieve pain
When the electrical potential of a cell membrane is above 70 mv, which is beyond the pain threshold for most of people, you will feel pain. Acupuncture treatment is effective in relieving the pain by removing cardiovascular and meridian blockages, releasing the pressure of blood vessels and nerve cells while helping the limbic system of the brain to release endorphins and enkephalin.
5. remove Chi blockage and blood clots
6. restore function of the immune system and visceral organs;
7. revitalize the energy metabolism; which facilitates drug withdrawal;
Questions concerning Acupuncture Treatment
Q. Are acupuncture needles sterile and safe?
A: Yes. The state government requires licensed acupuncturists to follow clean needle technique and sterilization procedures as strict as a surgeon.
The needles used in the clinic are pre-sterilized, and shipped in sterile containers by a GMP manufacturer for single use.
Q. What are needle treatments like? Are they painful?
A: Unlike conventional medical injections which may cause pain, the needles that Acupuncturists use are as thin as a thread. When a thin needle is inserted through the epidermis, you hardly feel it, or it just feels like an insect bite.
Q. What diseases are treatable by Acupuncture?
1. Most chronic diseases e.g. Allergies, arthritis, chronic fatigue, cough, depression, fibromyalgia, infertility, migraine headache, panic attack, psoriasis, skin rashes and sleep disorders.
2. Organ functional excess or deficiency
Syndromes related to Liver function:
Fatigue, disrupted sleep, neck/shoulder pain, irregular bowel movement (constipation and diarrhea in rotation), gastric distension (bloated stomach), high cholesterol/triglycerides, low pH (acidic body), rashes/itch/dry skin, poor vision, irritation/frustration/impatience, high blood pressure, biochemical imbalance such as gluconeogensis, glycolysis (breakdown glucose not requiring oxygen) causing excessive acid build-up.
Syndromes related to Kidney function:
Sluggish venous blood circulation (kidney-heart disconnection), lumbo-sacral and sciatic pain, osteoporosis, hearing loss, hair loss, frequent urination.
Syndromes related to Spleen function:
Pain on the left side of rib cage, weak heart-Chi (sluggish cardiac output), early menopausal symptoms or irregular menstruation, thick blood due to inadequate excretion of estrogen, fatigue, vertigo, migraine headache, allergies all year around, and low platelets.
Syndromes related to Gall Bladder function:
Foggy eyes, prostate inflammation, sciatic pain, ear ringing (tinnitus), irritation, rib cage pain on the right side, food allergies, sluggish food absorption, skin rashes, mouth odor, amber colored urine.
Syndromes related to Urinary Bladder function:
Unknown disease, spinal pain, coronary disease, irregular blood supply to each organ due to dysfunction of sympathetic nerve chain which consists of many ganglions, each of which regulates the dilation and contraction of blood vessels for its adjacent organs dynamically to echo the blood dispensing from the heart. Their function goes far beyond that of adrenalin, which only regulates the calcium ion and urine excretion volume of the kidney
Syndrome related to Large Intestine function:
Insomnia, burning heat, IBS, ear infection, upper teeth problem, constipation, dry skin, hair loss
3. Pain symptoms
Arthritic pain, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome chest pain, foot pain, headache, knee pain, lumbago, neck pain, sciatica, Tennis Elbow, etc.
4. Drug addiction
Quit smoking, alleviate drug withdrawal syndromes.
5. Weight Control for obesity or weight gain
6. Emotional Stress
ADD/ADHD, Autism, Depression, panic attack, phobia etc.
The WHO has endorsed the treatment of numerous conditions with acupuncture, including menopause e.g.
- Hot Flashes
- night sweats