How Does Acupuncture Work? Part II

acupuncture meridiansIn Part I of How Does Acupuncture Work? we discovered how qi, blood, yin, and yang interact. Let’s take a deeper look at the way these forces merge to create the major organs of the body.

The Organs in Chinese Medicine

The primary organs in Chinese medicine include the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs, and Kidneys. Each of these organs has a “sphere of influence,” meaning it impacts the function of other aspects of the body and can offer diagnostic clues leading to treatment possibilities based on deep-seated relationships.

Here are a few examples of internal imbalances leading to external signs and symptoms:

The Liver impacts the eyes in Chinese medicine. Virtually all eye symptoms can be traced back to Liver disharmonies. This may sound absurd in Western medicine, but we know that by treating the Liver in Chinese medicine, we can impact eye health.

The same is true for the Lungs. In Chinese medicine, the Lungs are responsible for the skin. Unlike the example of the Liver, the relationship between lung health and skin health is well-documented in allopathic medicine. For example, we know patients with asthma and allergies are more likely to develop eczema.

Through questioning patients about subjective symptoms, the acupuncturist is able to work backward to diagnose imbalances deeper in the body.

Investigating in this way yields many clinical benefits. For one, acupuncturists pay attention to signs and symptoms that may be overlooked by other practitioners. In fact, many acupuncture patients are surprised by the specificity of our diagnostic approach. We often ask questions other healthcare practitioners do not ask.

The next time your acupuncturist rattles off a list of strange questions, know they are gathering important information that will result in a customized treatment strategy designed specifically for your condition.

The relationship between all these disparate signs and symptoms can be confusing to Western patients. But rest assured, it’s the acupuncturist’s job to discover these relationships, not yours.

 

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Acupuncturists also gather objective information on a patient’s health by examining the body.

One of the primary ways we get information about what is happening internally is by feeling the radial pulse in your wrists.

Each wrist offers a window into your internal environment. I feel the pulse bilaterally at a superficial level and deeper, closer to the bone. This technique tells me about the state of each of the organ systems mentioned above, as well as the vitality of qi, blood, yin, and yang.

Acupuncturists also investigate the tongue. Believe it or not, your tongue tells a story about your inner climate. Do you run hot or cold? Do you have phlegm in your intestines or lungs? The tongue will often reveal these conditions. (If you are curious about tongue diagnosis, check out Why Does My Acupuncturist Look at My Tongue?)

We also physically examine the body. We may feel for changes in skin texture, how pain responds to pressure, or if the area is hot or cold. All of these signs and symptoms give us clues to what is happening internally. Once we decide on a diagnosis, we treat these imbalances by influencing the meridian system.

 

Qi and the Meridians

In Chinese medicine the human body is a connected system of relationships. Electrical and metabolic information is sent through the body via a network of invisible channels called meridians.

Meridians connect all parts of the body in a continuous network of impulses. This is why we can insert an acupuncture needle in the foot to affect the hip or one in the hand to halt sneezing. In fact, qi moving through the meridian system is the real “secret” to how acupuncture works. It is how information is conveyed.

When this system of communication is disrupted or blocked, we experience pain and dysfunction. Also, when the body is weak, the signals being sent through the meridians become weak. Acupuncture revives this signal by stimulating the qi and blood. It also directs the qi to correct the flow of these impulses so that the body functions in a healthy way.

Without the meridian system, and the theories of qi, blood, yin, yang, and the organs, there would be no Chinese medicine as we know it. If we ignore the idea of qi, throw out the theory of the organs, and simply stick a needle in a muscle, we will not be able to address truly complex health issues. Patients may experience temporary pain relief, and even a sense of relaxation, but to unravel deeper problems, such as asthma and heart arrhythmias, the ancient Chinese theories are indispensable.

As an acupuncturist and an acupuncture patient, the theoretical scaffolding beneath acupuncture has always made sense to me. It is what differentiates it from practices like dry needling or trigger point therapy, techniques that employ acupuncture needles but abandon Chinese medical theory.

As acupuncture treatment evolves in the United States, it is important that we not forget the importance of balancing qi, blood, yin, and yang, which are the basis of health. Acupuncture helps thousands of people every day all across the world because of its foundational theories, not in spite of them. Ancient Chinese doctors understood this.

We are lucky to have inherited such a profound vision of human health, one that is both applicable to modern illness and flexible enough to accommodate new knowledge. Even as we seek to explain how acupuncture works in contemporary language, we can appreciate its roots in the dynamic balance between yin and yang.

How Does Acupuncture Work? Part I

During graduate school I was part of an acupuncture education outreach effort. When I told our program director the topic of our presentation—how does acupuncture work—she laughed.

“Good luck figuring that out!”

She was right. Acupuncture is not easy to explain—and I watch it in action every day.

Despite this challenge, I’ve learned that educating people about how acupuncture works is important. We are curious beings, after all. Also, patients and practitioners, not to mention insurance providers and medical doctors, all want to understand how acupuncture provides relief.

In this post I hope to shed some light on this difficult question by giving you a short-and-sweet primer on the theory behind this powerful medicine.

 

The Roots of Acupuncture

The answer to “how does acupuncture work?” is embedded in a cultural perspective that is different from Western medical science. While Chinese medicine is based on observation of nature—with humans being an inextricable part of their environment—the ancient Chinese were not conducting double-blind placebo-controlled studies. Nor did they have the concept of germ theory or the endocrine system.

Even still, Chinese medicine is highly empirical, meaning it developed based on visible changes in wellbeing after implementing certain therapeutic techniques. Acupuncture and herbal medicine are not just theoretical—or superstitious—forms of medicine. In fact, Chinese medicine is the oldest and most contiguous body of textual medicine in the world, meaning what we use today has been refined through clinical practice and passed down in books over millennia.

Chinese medicine is also highly adaptable to modern illness, which is why it remains so clinically relevant and important to modern healthcare. Many theories and treatment methods used in the contemporary clinic were discovered over 2,000 years ago and are still applicable to patients with iPhones and Facebook accounts.

So just what was in these ancient texts?

The history of Chinese medicine began with the first herbal medicine text, the Shennong BencaoThe Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica. This book was compiled 2,500 years ago and includes many well-known herbs that are still in use today, including ginseng and ginger.

The first acupuncture text was the Huang Di Nei JingThe Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, compiled 2,200 years ago during the Warring States Period in China. This manuscript introduced the ideas of yin and yang into medicine, concepts that could already by found in the religious philosophy of Taoism.

These ideas were flexible in that they could be applied to broad scenarios, such as weather and climate, or minute workings in the body, like growth and development, death and decay. The flexibility of Chinese medical theory is really what keeps it clinically effective even today.

 

Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang: Navigating the Inner Ecosystem

Much like an ecosystem, Chinese medicine is based on patterns and relationships that are visible in the natural environment.

We think of the outside world as a complex system of elemental interactions: water, soil, wind, sunlight. Similarly, the body is its own ecosystem. However, the primary relationships in your body occur between qi, blood, yin and yang.

Yin and yang are opposites, yin being dark, moist, heavy, cool, and receptive, and yang being light, warm, expansive, and generative. An important thing to remember about yin and yang is that these terms only have meaning in relationship to one another; they are inextricably connected. If we say a person who is cold lacks yang, we can only determine this by weighing it against the yin qualities present in their body.

Qi and blood have a similar relationship. Qi is life-force energy in Chinese medicine. It permeates and animates everything. I like to think of it as the electrical impulse that is always present in living organisms. Blood, like yin, is dense and nutritive. It moves all over the body, feeding the cells of the muscles, brain, and all the internal organs. The qi carries the blood around the body, pulling it forward with a magnetic force.

When qi, blood, yin and yang are in a state of balance, people feel good. When these forces are out of whack, disease comes about. The job of an acupuncturist is to determine what is imbalanced and adjust it through sending a corrective message through the needles.

 

Diagnosing Imbalances of Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang

But just how does an acupuncturist diagnose disease? First, we need to know how the yin, yang, blood and qi are interacting.

As an acupuncturist, I use many methods of investigation to determine what is out of balance in my patients. Some imbalances are temporary, acute, surface-level disease states, such as a cold, flu, or injury.

Other problems run deeper and become a part of a patient’s constitutional makeup. They grow from the little things we do, or that happen to us, over months or years. Sometimes they are even with us from childhood. I often think of these imbalances as “body habits.” They are harder to interrupt and often require maintenance support, including acupuncture treatment or herbal medicine, over a longer period of time.

Your body’s symptoms are subjective messages sent to alert you that something is off. My role is to question you about these symptoms so that a pattern emerges.

Through interpreting the relationship between symptoms (subjective) and signs (objective), I then reach a diagnosis designed to address the imbalances of qi, blood, yin and yang.

Next time, in How Does Acupuncture Work Part II, we’ll look at the role the internal organs play in diagnosing and treating disease. We’ll also learn the theory behind why acupuncture needles impact the health of qi, blood, yin, and yang.

The mystery continues…