What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a health care practice that stems from ancient Chinese medicine. It refers to the insertion of very thin, sterile, stainless steel needles into specific points on the body for the purpose of re-establishing harmony and balance. The needles stimulate the body’s Qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi flows through the body in channels called meridians and is accessible to outside influence at various “points” along their trajectories.
The Qi in the different channel systems corresponds to all aspects of ourselves, both physical and non-physical. When the Qi is abundant and flowing freely, balance and good health prevail on all levels. When the Qi is out of balance, there may be symptoms of disease, dysfunction or pain. Because the Qi is embodied in both our physical and non-physical attributes, we can influence all levels of well being through its manipulation.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
In Chinese medicine, we define our diagnoses on the basis of patterns of Qi disharmony. Qi is a somewhat difficult concept to define in Western terms. It is often translated as “energy,” which is at best a partial definition. My understanding of Qi is that it is more like the energetic matrix that gives rise to our physical form and directs its function. Qi isn’t segregated from the physical aspect of our bodies, but rather interfaces with our physicality in an inseparable web. It operates at that seemingly ethereal place where energy and matter transform, one from the other and back again.
An apt metaphor in describing the role of Qi to our health is the image of an iceberg. The part above the waterline is what we can see, touch and physically examine. It is the physical form and function and is the exclusive focus of mainstream Western medicine. That part of the iceberg that lies below the waterline is invisible from our vantage point, but constitutes the bulk of the iceberg and literally gives rise to what breaks the water’s surface.
This is the part of us that represents Qi - invisible, yet part of the whole. Disturbances in the realm of Qi, if left uncorrected, will ultimately generate some level of disturbance that we can sense “above the water line,” i.e. physically. Conversely, intrusions at the physical level (such as injuries or surgeries) can likewise create disturbances in the Qi complex, leading to more disruptions in the whole "iceberg." These disruptions of normal form or function are called signs and symptoms, from which a Chinese medical practitioner bases the diagnosis and resultant treatment strategy.
As it comes to human health, the notion of Qi is further differentiated into several “types.” One aspect of this differentiation ascribes Qi to twelve separate but interrelated systems named after physical organs. This Qi flows through the body in the channels attributed to these organ systems. Manipulation of the Qi in these meridians is the mechanism for acupuncture treatment.
While the Chinese medical notion of these organ Qi systems includes the idea of the physical organs themselves, the entire medical significance reaches far beyond our Western confines of thought. Every aspect of ourselves - from our physical form and function to our thoughts, emotions and behaviors - is corresponded to these organ Qi systems. Using this system of correspondences, diagnosis is a process of working backwards from the outward signs and symptoms and tracing them to their origins of disrupted Qi patterns.
Acupuncture as Part of Traditional Chinese Medicine
The goal of treatment is correcting the imbalanced patterns. Acupuncture is one among several treatment methods in the gamut of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The most effective treatment strategies may involve any or all of these methods. Acupuncture, its so-called adjunct practices, Chinese herbal therapy, and dietary and other lifestyle adjustments are all utilized as appropriate.
About the Needles
Acupuncture needles are very thin, about the thickness of two human hairs. During treatment, the needles are inserted beneath the surface of the skin and most patients report very little momentary discomfort. For the safety of the patient, only sterilized disposable needles are used in accordance with national “clean needle” standards.
The goal of acupuncture treatment is to stimulate the Qi in the channels. Needles are only one method of achieving this goal. Accordingly, needle free methods of treatment may also be used where appropriate. Such methods include an application on the skin of micro-current electrical stimulation, sometimes combined with color light therapy. This treatment may be appropriate for more delicate patients, such as children and the elderly, or anyone else who prefers non-needle treatment.