How Acupuncture Works

April 20, 2012

Acupuncture 101

This post will not explain how acupuncture works. Fooled you with that title, didn’t I? I mean, I’m going to try to start to explain, but I am not going to succeed. Why? Because I can’t just boil it down for you using some diagrams of the nervous system and facial planes and show you exactly where all the points are and how they relate to the hormones/organs/other areas of the body they supposedly treat (believe me on this one- people are currently out there devoting their lives to this endeavor and I’ll be sure to let you know when they find anything definitive). I very strongly believe that our current Western understanding of biological mechanisms, anatomy and physiological processes is not yet advanced enough to give me the words to replace terms like meridians, qi, yin and yang, which means you have to be at least a little comfortable with the Chinese medicine lingo for the ‘how’ to make sense. Let’s start with meridians, which run up and down the arms and legs and are where acupuncture points are found (the colorful lines below). A schematic diagram of the human body's meridians.

I’ve been tiptoeing around this topic for a while. Honestly, it should have been my first post. In my first year of acupuncture school, when I considered myself a premed-lab coat-wearing-science-person-who-was-going-to-change-the-face-of-Chinese medicine, how acupuncture works had an eloquent answer that never needed to include silly words like qi, stagnation and meridians. I no longer can recall what the hell I was telling people. Instead, I’ll quote from internationally reknown acupuncturist Dr. John Amaro, who gives us a good example of what happens when you try to apply overly sciency terms to an understanding of acupuncture meridians in his article A Simple, Easy-to-Understand Explanation of Acupuncture, which you can read in full here. He states that even though acupuncture meridians (where specific points are located) cannot be seen with the human eye, microscopes or other new or interesting technological advances,

science today is recognizing the electromagnetic potential of the body, which is what the meridian system is based on. Today, we have electrical muscle exams (EMGs), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other tests based on the body’s basic biomagnetic system. Science and the medical profession have accepted the existence of the meridian system as an integral part of human functioning, as it controls and coordinates the electromagnetic system of the body … which might control all other systems of the body.

…the meridian system is very similar to radio, in that radio waves likewise cannot be seen by the human eye, but we all understand they do, in fact, exist. Meridian acupuncture compares to radio in that if a city has 12 radio stations, much like our 12 meridians, it is imperative that each specific station broadcast at its individual frequency. In other words, if a station is operating at 94.5 on the dial, it comes in loud and clear; however, if it comes in at 94.4 or 94.6, the radio broadcast is only static. There is nothing wrong with the radio, it just needs to be tuned to the proper station. A simple adjustment to the radio will bring it into full normalcy. Acupuncture deals with homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to maintain balance. The patient who is out of balance electromagnetically becomes ill and expresses specific symptoms.

It sounds smart, but it’s  a little meaningless. Also, some people don’t read quotes. To put it in more easily accessible terms, consider a pond with a dam leading to a small stream.

Pond near New Place Small dam allows a trickle...

The dam allows just the right amount of water out so the pond stays mostly still water, but just enough to keep the stream flowing. If the dam gets clogged with leaves and other garbage, the stream may dry and stop transporting water further downstream where it needs to go. If the dam breaks, the pond will shunt too much water to the streams and will no longer be able to support the fish, frogs and herons that moved in. In Chinese medicine, that’s how we picture the human body. A reservoir of stuff with streams (meridians) that transport nutrients and qi (sorry) places. When the meridians get screwed up, so do all sorts of places that you wouldn’t have thought were related, downstream. Dams make sense. So does acupuncture, but not when you start talking about electromagnetic fields. More on the points themselves later.

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