Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine: Getting to the Point
By Jane Gregorie, DOM
In July of last year, the Georgia State legislature passed the "Georgia Acupuncture Act," making it possible for national board certified and qualified practitioners of acupuncture to obtain a state license and practice under the regulation of the medical board. Until that time, only medical doctors, required to have far less training in acupuncture than a national board certified acupuncturist does, were licensed to practice acupuncture in the state. Currently acupuncture is regulated by licensure or registration in at least 40 states, and is covered by insurance plans in many of those states.
Having recently relocated here from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where acupuncture is widely used and accepted, I have been surprised and refreshed by the questions I have been asked as an acupuncturist about what I do. And I have realized that although acupuncture is literally thousands of years old, here in Georgia it is newer than sliced bread. So let's start with the basics. What is acupuncture good for, anyway? How does it work? How big are the needles? And the most frequent and burning question of them all- Does it hurt?
Although many people assume acupuncture is only used for pain relief, acupuncture as a component of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) encompasses a whole system of internal medicine. The modalities of TCM include acupuncture, moxibustion, Oriental bodywork, Chinese Herbology, and nutrition and are useful in treating a wide range of disorders from the common cold to anxiety to the side effects of chemotherapy. The World Health Organization has recognized 43 conditions that are amenable to treatment by acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Over 12 million Americans received acupuncture in 1995, and the numbers are steadily rising.
What makes TCM distinct from Western allopathic medicine is its focus on treating not only the symptoms of illness, but also the deeper imbalances that lead to such pathologies. Traditionally, we refer to this as treating the root along with the branch, or treating the underlying disharmony along with its concomitant symptoms. Acupuncture has always embraced the concept that superior medicine is preventative medicine. This is evidenced by the words of the Yellow Emperor to his student in the ancient (written in 200-100 BCE) treatise on Chinese Medicine, the Neijing:
In the old days the sages treated disease by preventing an illness before it began, just as a good government or emperor was able to take the necessary steps to avoid war. Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty, or forges weapons after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Are not these actions too late?
Treating the root also means that an acupuncturist will not use a set, rigid protocol for any given condition. A patient's treatment plan is entirely dependent on his or her individual presentation. While patient A may be treated a certain way for migraine headaches, patient B may receive an entirely different treatment for migraine headaches, based on the nature of the headache itself, specific organ system imbalances, and constitutional makeup. Chinese medical theory includes a sophisticated system of differentiation that distinguishes syndromes so that the practitioner can pinpoint both the specific qualities of an imbalance and its underlying causes as well. In the case of a migraine for instance, one would treat not only the headache, but also the deficiency or excess or stagnation that caused the pain to arise in the first place. For this reason, one person's migraine may respond to a treatment that is entirely different from a treatment that was effective in treating someone else's migraine. This is what makes acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine so very subtle and powerful. The acupuncturist must act not from rote memory when treating an illness, but must regard every detail of an individual's presentation and history in order to come up with an entirely unique treatment plan that is best suited to the person as a whole.
Acupuncture works by using needles to access the Qi (pronounced "chee") or vital energy at acupoints, and manipulating that energy in specific ways. One can either supplement, drain, or move the Qi in order to restore the proper flow of energy through the meridians (pathways for Qi) in the body. Meridians are similar to rivers or little energy highways in the body. They are all interconnected and correspond to specific organ systems and flow in designated directions. Whenever Qi is stuck in a specific area, something happens like a logjam in a river or a traffic jam on a highway, and that part of the body will react, becoming painful or manifesting signs of pathology in an area associated with its correspondent organ system. Similarly, when there is not enough Qi flowing in a certain meridian, symptoms such as weakness and fatigue may occur, signaling that not enough nourishment is being circulated to all or part of the body. Or if the energy goes the wrong way in a meridian, like an errant car traveling the wrong way down a one way street, other types of imbalance will arise.
In any of the above cases, the acupuncturist accesses the Qi through the use of tiny, hair-like, sterile, disposable, filiform needles, and restores the proper flow. And no, acupuncture needles do not really hurt. Usually the insertion of the needle is completely painless. Rarely, one experiences minor stinging or pricking upon insertion. But once the Qi is accessed, one feels an interestingly achy, or electric, or distended sensation at the site of the needle. Sometimes this sensation radiates, and sometimes it sends waves of warmth or energy throughout the body. At any rate, acupuncture needle sensation is nothing like a hypodermic needle stick, and actually has been reported to be pleasant by some. While the needles are being retained (20-45 minutes), people often doze off, or find themselves in a deeply relaxed and euphoric state of being.
As the Yellow Emperor so eloquently put it, "When the energies are able to circulate smoothly and freely, and the energy of the mind is not scattered, but is focused and concentrated, illness and disease can be avoided." This pithy statement expresses the use of acupuncture at its best. By restoring the smooth and proper flow of energy in the body and inducing a state of mind that is peaceful and composed, acupuncture can be used not only to treat, but to prevent illness as well. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a beautiful, refined system of healthcare that is based on an age-old model of well being and harmony that is still applicable today. The job of the superior acupuncturist is to reunite a person with his or her own natural state of body-mind balance, nurture the roots of vitality, and ultimately enable them to thrive.
What are acupuncture points and meridians? Acupuncture points are those areas on the body that have been shown to have an influence on pain or body function when stimulated by a needle, pressure or heat. These points are quite small, and exact location is important for attaining maximum benefit from a given treatment. By inserting needles into points on the meridian pathways, the normal flow of energy may be restored and balanced. The points are organized into twelve classic meridians which are named after the organ systems to which they correspond. There are also eight extra meridians which have distinct functions and address specific conditions.
How long does a treatment take? The initial visit usually last one to two hours due to the time required for the extensive intake of questions and examination. Follow-up treatments tend to take only 30 minutes to an hour. To learn more attend one of the upcoming lectures at the SLI.
Supportive Therapy for other chronic and painful disorders
The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture and traditional Oriental medicine's ability to treat over 43 common disorders including those listed above. US FDA has approved acupuncture for the management of pain. Jane Gregorie is a Nationally and State Licensed Acupuncturist in the states of Georgia and New Mexico. She received her M.S. in Oriental Medicine from Southwest Acupuncture College in New Mexico. She completed her undergraduate degree at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to her formal education, she has spent time in Japan, Nepal, India, and Tibet. She was staff acupuncturist and herbalist at the Saleeby Longevity Institute. Now practices in NM.