What is Acupuncture? How does sticking a bunch of needles into your body make you feel better? Is this stuff for real? These are all questions I’ve asked myself, and have heard from others over the years. Acupuncture is a system of complementary medicine that involves pricking the skin with needles. It’s used to alleviate pain and to treat various physical, mental, and emotional conditions; is one of the key components of Traditional Chinese Medicine; and is among the oldest healing practices in the world.
In a 2007 Consensus Development Conference, The National Institute of Health determined that “According to the traditional Chinese medicine approach, stimulating specific acupuncture points corrects imbalances in the flow of qi through channels known as meridians. ” Acupuncture can be dated back thousands of years, and as with any topic that old, there is a plethora of information available, and it sometimes can be hard to decipher.
After researching the topic, and because of the context of the assignment, I narrowed my focus down to three specific areas: theory, which covers qi, meridians, and acupuncture points; history, which can be broken down into antiquity, middle history, and the modern era; and lastly the length, diameter, and material of needles. The basis of acupuncture deals with manipulating the flows of qi throughout the body.
According to Daoist principles, qi is the active principle forming part of any living thing, and it is the central underlying principle in both Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of “qi” is breath, air, or gas; however, it is frequently translated as “life energy”, “life force”, or “energy flow. ” In A Clinical Introduction to Medical Acupuncture, the authors, Aung & Chen, state, “Traditional Chinese medicine distinguishes not only one but several different kinds of qi.
In a general sense, qi is something that is defined by five “cardinal functions. ” These cardinal functions are what keep the body alive. The first function qi provides is keeping the body, especially the limbs, warm during cold temperatures. The energy from it heats the blood, the extremities, and allows us to live and our biological processes to take place. Qi also enables the actuation of the biological processes such as breathing, sweating, it controls the nervous system, and most importantly the circulation of all the body fluids such as blood in its vessels.
Qi also provides containment of those fluids in their proper spot; it keeps blood, sweat, urine, and semen from leaking or excessive emission. We know now that food broken down by the digestion process, and that various enzymes convert it into blood, nutrients, and that there’s a process for making the air we breathe into oxygen for our lungs. The ancient Chinese believed that qi did the transformation of food, drink, and breath into qi, blood, fluids, and the transformation of all of the latter into each other.
The last function provided by qi, is defense against the Six Essences. The Six Essences are allegorical terms sometimes used to describe disharmony patterns in the body and their names are derived from environmental elements that were thought to pattern, or mimic, the symptoms. The first of the Six Essences is Wind, which is characterized by rapid onset of symptoms, wandering location of symptoms, itching, nasal congestion, “floating” pulse; tremor, paralysis, or convulsion.
The second of the Essences is Cold, which manifests itself in cold sensations, aversion to cold, relief of symptoms by warmth, watery/clear excreta, severe pain, abdominal pain, contracture and hypertonicity of muscles, (slimy) white tongue fur, and hidden, string-like, or slow pulse. Fire (or heat) is the third of the Essences. Its symptoms are recognizable by aversion to heat, high fever, thirst, concentrated urine, red face or tongue, yellow tongue fur, and a rapid pulse.
The last three Essences are Dampness, Dryness, and Summerheat; the symptoms of which are, respectively, sensation of heaviness, fullness, and symptoms of Spleen dysfunction; dry cough, mouth, throat, lips, skin, stool, and nosebleeds; and either heat or mixed damp-heat symptoms. In order fulfill its functions, qi has to steadily flow from the inside of the body to the “superficial” body tissues of the skin, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints. It is assisted in its flow by “channels” referred to as meridians.
Traditional Chinese Medicines identifies twelve “regular” and eight “extraordinary” meridians. (Aung & Cheng, 19-20) At various points along the meridians, are acupuncture points. The number of points has varied considerably over time. Initially they were considered to number 365 acupuncture points, symbolically aligning with the number of days in the year; however, the modern total, while once considered 670, has been subsequently expanded due to more recent interest in auricular (ear) cupuncture and the treatment of further conditions. These acupuncture points are mainly, but not always, found at specified locations along these meridians and acupuncturists use the points to manipulate the qi and restore harmony and balance to the body. Though most of these points are found along the meridians, there is a second group of points, called extraordinary points, which are found outside the meridians and are credited with special therapeutic properties.
Examples of these are the pressure points in the webbing between the thumb and forefinger, just inside the arch of the foot, the temples, and the anterior base of the neck. Lastly, a third category of acupuncture points called “A-shi” points have no fixed location but represent tender or reflexive points appearing in the course of pain syndromes. The history of acupuncture can be broken down into three distinct eras: that of antiquity, which goes back to its origins; its middle history dating, from the early 11th century through the 1800’s; and the modern era, which picks up in the early 20th century.
The precise start date of acupuncture’s use in China and how it evolved from early times are uncertain; however, there are a myriad of theories and explanations as to how it came about. One explanation is that soldiers wounded in battle by arrows were believed to have been cured of chronic afflictions that were otherwise untreated. Another is the sharpened bian shi stones found in China, which evidence suggests the practice may date back to the Neolithic or Stone Age (Acupuncture in Medicine 10: 92–9). There have also been hieroglyphs found dating from the Shang Dynasty, which ran from 1600 through 1100 BCE.
It is believed that Korea was the second country acupuncture spread to outside of China, and in 1023, the emperor of China ordered the production of a bronze statuette depicting the meridians and acupuncture points then in use. The practice of acupuncture lost a lot status after Song Dynasty. In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries were among the first to bring reports of acupuncture to the West, and a Dutch surgeon traveling in Asia described the practice in both Japan and Java; however, in China itself the practice was increasingly associated with the lower-classes and illiterate practitioners (Barnes, 58–9. The middle era of acupuncture came to an end in 1823, when an edict from the Emperor banned the practice and teaching of acupuncture within the Imperial Academy of Medicine, as unfit for practice by gentlemen-scholars. The modern era of acupuncture came in to being around the time of the Chinese civil war, 1927-1949. Early Chinese Communist Party leaders ridiculed Traditional Chinese Medicine, claiming that it worked against the party’s dedication to science as the way of progress.
Chairman Mao reversed that position, and rewrote its theory in order to make it fit into the Chinese political doctrine. Acupuncture gained attention in the United States when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, and his delegation was shown a patient undergoing major surgery while awake; however, it was later found out patients were chosen because they had naturally high pain tolerance, were indoctrinated into the method, and were on morphine IV’s which were claimed to have been essential nutrients and fluids.
The greatest exposure in the West came after a New York Times reporter received acupuncture in Beijing for post-operative pain in 1971 and wrote about it in his newspaper column. From there, the first legal acupuncture center was opened in Washington D. C. in 1972, and in 1973, the IRS declared acupuncture was allowed to be deducted from taxes as a medical expense. The last aspect of acupuncture, and arguably the most essential, is the needle. While there are certain methods that do not involve needles, most of them do.
The needles have evolved over the years, originally starting out as bone, or stone; now, however, most of the acupuncture needles are made of stainless steel, with some cultures using copper. Needles vary in length ,between 13 to 130 millimeters (0. 5 in to 5 in. ), with shorter needles used near the face and eyes, and longer needles in more fleshy areas, and range in diameter from 0. 16 mm (0. 006 in) to 0. 46 mm (0. 018 in), with thicker needles used on more robust patients.
After this brief overview of acupuncture, I’ve answered a lot of my own questions and concerns with acupuncture The three aspects of acupuncture theory are qi, meridians, and acupuncture points. It long history has unknown origins, and edict from Chinese Emperor banned teaching in academy, but it brought back my Chairman Mao, and made popular in America by a reporter in the 70’s. Needles are mostly made of stainless steel, and they vary in length, and diameter,