What is Acupuncture?
Chinese medicine is a complex and sophisticated approach to healing. It has been developed over a period of at least 3,000 years and is based on ancient Chinese medical texts, clinical observation, as well as modern empirical research. Principles of Chinese medicine are based on the fundamental concept that the physical, spiritual and emotional body are connected in their function, and that a network of energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”) flows thru all aspects of the body. Chinese medicine is, thus, holistic in its nature, and focuses on the individual instead of the disease.
Because of its holistic nature, Chinese medicine focuses on a patient’s entire bodily pattern and the presence or absence of harmony between systems and energies in the body. It also focuses on the harmony between the body and the outside environment. When a person is ill, the symptoms experienced are only one part of a complete bodily imbalance. Chinese medicine considers concepts of deficiency and excess, seeking to balance heat and cold, dry and damp, and ultimately, Yin and Yang within the body.
Energy called Qi flows through the body in channels called “meridians”. Most of these channels are named for a physical organ (lung, liver, stomach, etc.) to which it is correlated, though some are named for more abstract concepts or systems in the body. The energy or Qi in each of these channels is associated with specific tissues, areas, and functions of the body, as well as with certain emotions, colors, tastes and smells.
Acupuncture is only one branch of Chinese medicine, which is a complete medical system. Chinese medicine includes diet and lifestyle counseling, herbal therapies, physical medicine (similar to massage and physical therapy), acupuncture and therapeutic exercise. Acupuncture uses very thin stainless steel needles to stimulate specific points along meridians. This stimulation can be directed to unblock energy that is “stuck” or to bring energy into areas that are lacking energy, thus assisting the body to move back into balance. In addition to needles, various other methods used to stimulate acupuncture points include electricity, heat, massage and suction created by special cups.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine will begin by asking many questions about a patient’s general constitution, body function, as well as details about their current symptoms. They will also look at the tone and health of the skin, hair, teeth and nails. The practitioner will feel the pulse in three spots on each wrist to feel the energy of each of the meridians that is represented there. They will also look closely at the tongue, as its color and quality reflect many things about the balance of energy in the body. After collecting information by questions and observation, the practitioner will choose a treatment that is specific for the patient at that time.
If a patient receives an herbal treatment, the practitioner will assemble a specific combination of herbs for their current condition and constitution. The herbs will either be in a whole herb form, like a bulk tea that the patient prepares, or the herbs will be “granules” that just need to be added to water. If the patient is receiving an acupuncture treatment, the practitioner will clean the acupuncture points to be treated and then will insert the needles.
Acupuncture is generally considered very safe. While it is a medical procedure that punctures the skin and underlying tissues, injuries and side effects are very rare and when they do occur, they are usually minor. All acupuncture needles are, by law, sterile. Most acupuncture clinics (including Bastyr) use sterile, one-use, disposable needles. These needles come prepackaged and sterilized and are disposed of after one use.
Acupuncture is considered to be relatively painless, however, with correct stimulation the movement of Qi may be felt by the patient. Qi sensations vary widely and may be described as heaviness, distention, tingling or electric. These sensations may be only at the location of the needle or they may travel up or down the meridian (energy pathway). These sensations are a sign that the patient’s Qi is adjusting towards balance.
1. Connelly, Dianne M. Traditional Acupuncture: The Law of the Five Elements, 2nd Edition. Traditional Acupuncture Institute. 1994.
2. Kaptchuk, Ted J. The Web That Has No Weaver. 1983. Congden & Weed.
3. Beinfield, H. and Korngold, E. Between Heaven and Earth. 1991. Ballantine Books.