What is Acupuncture, anyway?
by Douglas Eisenstark L.Ac.
“Acupuncture” as we know it in the West encompasses so many modalities it may be more appropriately called Traditional Oriental Medicine. At the heart of it is the concept is that there is Qi (aka: Ki, Chi), a physical “energy force” that exists in every part of the living world.
The flow of Qi in the channels of humans is familiar to anyone has seen the lines on the body of an acupuncture chart or model.
Most practitioners believe that these Qi meridians exist as a separate system although sometimes in conjunction with the nerve and blood systems. These Channels of energy are named after the body’s organs but do so only to describe a system of how one portion of the body works. For example, the liver in oriental medicine is described not as a physical organ as much as its role in moving Qi throughout the body.
Acupuncture, as we know it in the United States, is actually a mixture of herbology, acupuncture and other healing arts. Your practitioner may or may not use needles, herbs, magnets, crystals or his or her own Qi. Each of these modalities has its own rich tradition and it is not necessary for a practitioner to use all of them.
Acupuncture itself is the placing of very thin stainless steel needles into appropriate points around the body. The needle may go from 1/5 of an inch to 3 inches into the body depending on the treatment and the part of the body. We cannot say that this is always painless but it is certainly less than the hypodermic syringes we are all afraid of. Any pain usually dissipates within a few seconds. In its place may be a distending or slight heat sensation. The needles may go in the abdomen, arms or legs, head or in the ears.
There are two notable recent offshoots of traditional acupuncture. Ear acupuncture says that all the organ functions can be seen in the ear. Even smaller needles are precisely placed in different sections of the ear for treatment. Scalp acupuncture is used extensively in China and elsewhere for the treatment of stroke and other cerebral originating diseases. The needles are inserted horizontally (not into the brain!) and often vibrated to affect the different lobes of the brain.
What can I expect from my practitioner?
Oriental Medicine is the dominant form of medicine for much of the worldâs population and has been so for thousands of years. To paraphrase Mark Seem (acupuncturist and writer), each patient seeks treatment on three levels. The first is for aches and pains, the second for systematic problems of the organs and the third for the deeper issues of life and existence. Oriental Medicine can address each of these and your practitioner may choose to treat you in any one, two or all of these levels. To generalize greatly: acupuncture is very good at pain, herbs at system “re-structuring”, while the deeper issues are best dealt with a combination of acupuncture, herbs and a skillful practitioner. Many people may be surprised that Oriental Medicine does indeed have a psychology. It posits that the functioning of the Qi on the organs can influence emotions, moods and personality and vice versa. As David Chan (OMD, L.Ac.) states, “Acupuncture is the hyphen between mind and body”.
How long does it take get better?
In the past practitioners got paid when they kept their patients well, not when they got sick. In general we say that treatment for chronic illness takes one month for every year that one is ill. Oriental Medicine is superior at preventative medicine. Acute diseases should see results in 3 or 4 treatments. In mainland China, patients are routinely given 10 acupuncture treatments and then they are re-assessed. After they have been cured of their original complaints, many people come back periodically for “tune-ups”. For this type of person, Oriental Medicine means a life-long commitment to keeping one’s body and mind in balance. Let it be emphasized that if you have an acute life-threatening situation you should seek the help of Western Medicine. Oriental Medicine is capable of treating many serious diseases but it does have limitations. If your life is on the line take advantage of what Western Medicine has to offer. X-rays, ultra sounds and blood tests have no parallel in Oriental Medicine. If you decide for surgery or radiation therapy continue to see a good Oriental Medicine practitioner. He or she can help to ameriolate side effects and to help re-build your energy. .
What is the modality of your practitioner?
It used to be that one could only learn Oriental Medicine by being born into a family of practitioners or by sweeping the floors of the master’s clinic. Now Oriental Medicine Schools in the West have allowed many of us to practice who otherwise would not have the chance. Some of the best practitioners in the world are now in the West, spreading the traditions of their home countries. For example, acupuncture has a long history in France through the colonization of Vietnam. In a sense, all of Oriental modalities in the West are regional traditions which now have a chance to intermingle. It is perhaps a conceit that many Western practitioners feel that acupuncture will best thrive and grow outside the constraints and historical bondage of their home countries.
Below are brief descriptions of 4 of the best known ‘schools’ of acupuncture in the United States.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Many of the schools in the United States follow Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a compilation of many Chinese traditions formed by Mao in 1956. TCM tries to reconcile the two separate branches of acupuncture and herbology in China. Western Medicine has been well entrenched in China since the turn of the century and TCM is very much aware of Western science. Although the TCM system has its limitations, it is a complete system that perhaps has the best chance of interfacing with Western Medicine.
Worsley School and “5 -elements”
This intriguing modality was developed in England. It is almost “homeopathic” in its approach. Patients are interviewed extensively to discover their Causative Factor (CF), the most earliest and deepest mental or physical trauma from which all other diseases spring. Patients do not take herbs and are discouraged from other modalities while undergoing treatment. Emphasis is placed on the patient taking responsibility for their own illnesses. Many Western practitioners on the East Coast were schooled in â5-elementsâ.
Probably least known among western patients, Korean acupuncture has a rich tradition. One aspect of it posits that by placing needles in the hand one can treat all of the organs. This is said to be a very powerful treatment modality.
Although there are hundreds of styles of Japanese acupuncture, in the west is best known through the energetic teachings of Keiko Matsimoto. She emphasizes physical touching of the body and in particular the abdomen for diagnosis. The treatment methods often follow the “extraordinary vessels”. Needles are often placed much shallower that in TCM. In Japan herbs can only be prescribed by a M.D. so acupuncturists must rely on intricate and sophisticated needling techniques.
Why is there so little research into Oriental Medicine and acupuncture?
More than anything Oriental Medicine is a clinical science. There are thousands and thousands of books written about Chinese Medicine. There are books about theory, herbology, acupuncture and case studies. Unfortunately for us, these books are written in Chinese and other Asian languages. There are other reasons why Oriental Medicine has yet to be accepted as a (Western) science.
1. In Asia it is considered immoral to withhold a treatment from a patient if it is believed it will help. For that reason there are few “control-group” studies in the 2000 years of Oriental medicine. The control-group is a mainstay of western scientific proof.
2. Oriental diagnosis does not neatly translate into western diagnosis. A disease category such as asthma has a dozen or more causes in Oriental Medicine. “Asthma” could be from Cold Excess, Heat Excess, Heat Deficiency, Excess Above-Deficiency Below, etc… Each of these has a completely different treatment strategy and uses different herb formulas and acupuncture points. The medicine itself demands that the treatment is modified according to each patient. In addition, the acupuncture or herbs change with the progression of the disease or cure.
It would be bad medicine to prescribe the same herbs over a series of treatments when the patients conditions change.
3. The constituents of the herbs are so complex that it will take years to analyze them. Most herb formulas use from 1-20 different herbs. These are used in differing amounts according to the signs and symptoms of the patient at that time. (Formula writing is one of the major signs of the superior Oriental doctor.) A single raw herb used in a formula may contain a dozen or more chemical constituents.
3. The constituents of the herbs are so complex that it will take years to analyze them. Most herb formulas use from 1-20 different herbs. These are used in differing amounts according to the signs and symptoms of the patient at that time. (Formula writing is the real art and science of the superior Oriental doctor.) A single raw herb used in a formula may contain a dozen or more chemical constituents.