Acupuncture is part of the traditional medicine of China which includes herbs, dietary therapy and massage. Though it is probably the most ancient system of healing in the world, it has been continuously refined during its 4,500 year history. There are now huge hospitals in China that treat patients primarily with traditional medicine and which continue extensive research.
Chinese Medicine is a vast subject, in diverse forms it is practised throughout East Asia, benefiting millions of patients every year. It has its own understanding of physiology (how we function), pathology (how we become ill) and aetiology (what can make us unwell). It has its own method of diagnosis and various means of treating disease of which acupuncture and herbal medicine are the most well known.
Over the last 200 years, during the period when Western medicine was introduced to China, traditional doctors have gradually integrated those aspects of Western science that have proven useful whilst rejecting others.
What follows highlights some of the many differences between Chinese and Western medical thinking.
Mind and Body
It is our everyday experience that mental and emotional distress can worsen a physical condition: and that physical pain profoundly affects how we think and feel. Chinese medicine has established that there is often a straightforward connection between all manner of diseases and personal life experience.
Western medicine will often describe very accurately precisely what has gone wrong, but will not be able to explain why this should have happened to a person at that particular time. For example a heart attack is caused by plaque building up in the arteries of the heart: atherosclerosis, but when patients in a cardiac ward are asked what caused their attack their response is to blame it on worry, anxiety or shock relating to a difficult experience.
Drug therapy is deemed successful if a symptom is completely suppressed. It is understood that a general treatment strategy of suppressing symptoms leads inevitably to a weakening of a persons resistance to disease. Further in many cases the symptom is natures way of forcing us to recognise that something is not right so that we can react appropriately. For example it is clear that if something hurts more when we exercise then the appropriate response is rest. Suppressing such pain almost always leads to further damage. The end result is that the symptom recurs even more powerfully than before.
If a symptom only remains suppressed whilst medication is being taken no cure has occurred. A cure must refer to the whole person enjoying satisfactory health with no outside intervention continuing. For example a patient might say that they used to suffer from insomnia, but that they sleep well provided they take a sleeping tablet. Though the temporary relief is not to be dismissed clearly no cure has been effected.
That the symptom(s) is the disease.
Generally symptoms are treated in isolation by Western medicine, the same symptom is treated in different people using identical drugs. Chinese medicine views a symptom as being simply a sign pointing to an underlying pathology which will be quite unique to the individual.
Yi Bing Tong Zhi, Tong Bing Yi Zhi
The very ancient Chinese saying above refers to something quite unique to traditional Chinese medicine. All of the above symptoms form part of just one syndrome or ‘pattern of disharmony’, in this case it is a syndrome called Liver Yang Rising. Providing that the diagnosis of pulse and tongue agreed all of the above symptoms would be treated as a whole as a single condition. There are more than seventy such syndromes in traditional medicine and between them they cover just about everything that can go wrong with human health. Most people have two or three syndromes in combination, many have more.
The first part of the saying above refers to the fact that every symptom has several possible root causes. For example there are seventeen syndromes that contain the symptom of ‘headache’ and therefore this many types of headache, each type being treated quite differently.
Root and Branch ; Ben and Biao
Treatment with Acupuncture
Acupuncture is a method of using very fine sterile stainless steel needles to stimulate the body’s own healing process. Our bodies are covered with lines of energy. When a symptom arises then by definition the free flow of this energy has become obstructed. Consequently the aim of acupuncture is to remove these obstructions and then to encourage the energy to flow smoothly.
This energy is unknown to Western medicine, but in simple terms it is the vital energy of the body. It keeps the blood circulating, warms the body, fights disease and keeps our minds and emotions free and uncluttered.
This energy is known as QI (pronounced ‘chee’). Its flow through the energy pathways links together the entire body so that it functions as one unit. The general Qi is sub-divided into the Vital Substances
The energy pathways flow from all the organs of the body out to the hands and feet. In Chinese medicine each organ has responsibility for maintaining specific aspects of physical and also emotional health. The acupuncture point is a very precise anatomical location where the energy can be contacted by inserting the needle. Consequently the acupuncturist can promote the healthy functioning of the internal organs by careful choice of one or a number of acupuncture points.
The Causes of Disease
Many different things can obstruct the smooth flow of energy and create disease.
climate: wind, draughts, cold, damp, heat, dryness
emotional states: stress, anxiety, worry, anger, frustration, fear, grief and sorrow or the inability to fully express these emotions.
activity: overwork, overexercising, insufficient exercise or unsuitable exercise.
diet: malnutrition, overeating, too much greasy and/or cold food, eating erratically or in a state of tension e.g. business lunches.
trauma: accidents, falls, scars, operations.
hereditary factors, poisons and epidemics
Response to Treatment
No practitioner would make an unequivocal claim that any identified disorder could definitely be treated successfully, for two reasons. First, because treatment is not directed at the disorder itself but at the person as an individual – and all people are different. And second, because the names of the diseases, disorders and symptoms are a general classification only. For example there are several types of eczema.