As an acupuncturist, I am often on the defense of the medicine I practice. I know through experience that it works wonders for almost everyone, but skeptics abound.
I would love to see Chinese medicine more widely used, and more integrated within our current healthcare system. So I make the effort to communicate with others outside the field.
Talking Like a Doctor
There’s always a temptation to try to legitimate Chinese medicine by explaining it in Western terms. Many medical authorities, including insurance companies and medical practitioners, reject acupuncture because its language sounds like nonsense to them. It’s not what they learned in school. And I get that. It sounds like superstitious philosophy.
Forget about qi, yin, yang, the meridian pathways. People don’t know what those are. They sound decidedly anti-scientific. So I and others might try to describe what we do in language that sounds more medical.
I might say acupuncture works to increase circulation, because pain happens where circulation is impaired. Acupuncture works to stimulate your own body’s healing mechanisms. Acupuncture reduces stress, and stress is a major contributor to most diseases and physical symptoms. Or even simply, acupuncture reduces pain, reduces anxiety, balances the body.
Some scientific journals will even study acupuncture and make statements about the kinds of biochemical changes that were noted, or the percentage of reduction of symptoms.
Some of these statements may be true, and may provide a bridge between two vastly different systems. But they just describe basic outcomes. Otherwise, they do not describe at all what is happening during an acupuncture treatment.
Ultimately this effort to communicate obscures the power and specificity of working with the acupuncture channels.
The Language of Acupuncture
What I am actually doing is more difficult to describe in terms that fit our Western model of the body. It comes from an entirely different way of viewing the body and thinking about health and the human experience.
To be more truthful to what I am doing, I often tell patients I am tuning their body like an instrument or a stereo system.
The body runs different types of energies, which I have learned as the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water). Each element has a yin and a yang aspect. Each yin and yang aspect has a specific pathway, and serves a particular function as well as a general area of the body. Patterns of imbalance show up quite specifically in the patient’s body, mind or spirit when any one channel or energy is out of whack. Each one can be deficient, excess, or erratic/rebellious.
In my perspective, a symptom can come from just one elemental imbalance, or more likely from a relationship between elements. And then, to go deeper, Five Element acupuncture relies on the assumption that symptoms of any kind can usually be traced to a distress of the spirit. In order to find this ultimate source of the patient’s symptoms, I must determine their current spiritual dilemma and their constitutional element (CF).
While this sounds quite theoretical, it is very concrete. I am trained to perceive subtle frequencies of sound, color, odor, and emotional energy to not only locate the major imbalances, but also to determine the person’s CF.
Sometimes I will say that an element is “talking” because I see it showing up in the patient’s questions, body symptoms, color, etc. This may be the person’s element or it may be the energetic imbalance of the week. I can only be sure of this if I have been working with the patient for some time and I am familiar with their usual way of being.
The changes that occur when treating patients with this approach are absolutely measurable. Their pain levels go down quantifiably. Others who know them say they are much more pleasant to be around. They are able to come off medications. They are sleeping more hours in the night. Their symptoms cease.
To try and explain any of this via a separate medical system that does not recognize channels or energetics is impossible. Further, acupuncture’s mechanisms can not, in my opinion, be explained by our current scientific knowledge. For example, no physical structure has been identified as the channel system of Chinese medicine. This does not mean that a structure or mechanism is not in fact there.
Trusting Clinical Results
Given this problem of fitting acupuncture into our supposedly superior Western system, science cannot fully get behind acupuncture yet. Even some acupuncture practitioners argue that the so-called meridian system is actually the circulatory system of arteries and veins and capillaries. They say that something must have gotten lost in translation.
I regret that these acupuncturists must not be paying attention to the magic of acupuncture and the healing process that must happen daily in their clinic. That’s why I stick to what I am seeing, and trust the results I am getting. I forget (mostly) about what scientific evidence is present or lacking.
I have heard, though, of a new organ that was identified in the human body in the past year, the interstitium, that could explain acupuncture. It’s a thin layer of tissue that runs over the whole body, just under the skin, and into each organ system. I have not read up on this, but it’s the kind of thing that one day will make acupuncture seem like the most mundane idea, like gravity.
I do not stress much anymore about legitimizing my practice. We’ll get there, even if it’s a century from now. In the meantime, my job is just to pay attention to what I am seeing in the clinic.