But it hurts up here! not down there!
People who are new to acupuncture may not expect treatment to include body parts away from the site of their complaint but often that’s what they need. Understanding acupuncture theory is helpful for your comfort and security during the treatment. When you understand that treatment might include a point on the leg or foot for a symptom on the head you will enjoy your treatment and benefit more from it since you can relax in confidence.
You might come in for treatment of a sore shoulder, somehow it was injured and now it hurts whenever you move a certain way, maybe it aches, maybe you can’t pick up the bag of groceries with that arm since the injury. You may have had x-rays, gone to physical therapy, it may have been months since the injury, now you are trying acupuncture.
The acupuncturist asks some funny questions like, how are your bowel movements? (and you think, what has that got to do with my shoulder?) To make a correct Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis she needs to know things you might not think are related to your problem. She might ask if you prefer warm or cold drinks? Or what time of day does a symptom occur? Then she will probably ask you to show her your tongue and checks your pulse.
For a musculoskeletal problem some acupuncturists will evaluate your range of motion, they may touch or press into the muscles or the joint, ask you to point to the exact location of the pain, ask what makes it better or worse, read the x-rays, lab results and reports from other treatment providers that you brought of with you. Others will just select points they know will help that problem.
The acupuncturist may then use what is called dry needling to loosen the knots in the muscles and bring blood flow to the area. Some physicians in the past had experimented with injecting numbing solutions or saline into muscle spasm for relief but then discovered that even without the injection the spasm could be relieved and they eventually began using the solid core needles used in acupuncture.
Acupuncturists have been doing this for a long time, those sore spots or knots are called Aschi points in Chinese, like “Ow!” in English. When stimulated by acupuncture those spots soften up and relax and stop hurting. Acupuncture brings circulation to the spot that was so tight it hadn’t been getting any Qi or Blood flow to it and that had caused pain and loss of function.
But then the acupuncturist may also use other points elsewhere in the body that have been known for hundreds of years to help with your specific complaint but are nowhere near the site of the injury. These are points related to your condition by various acupuncture treatment theories.
Your acupuncturist might use points on channels that actually flow through the area. She might use points that are known to refer to the area. She might use points that are known to treat the type of problem you have. She might use points that address some aspect of the problem other than location. She might use points that are part of a microsystem that affects the location or type of problem but is not anywhere near the site, for instance they might stimulate points in the ear to help with your shoulder. She might use points that treat the imbalance that led up to the problem or that keeps the injury from resolving. The points are chosen to work together to provide the best outcome for your individual constitution and complaint. Sometimes the collection of points used is a classic prescription that has been known for hundreds of years.
A helpful aspect of acupuncture is that whatever the points used our bodies will often sort out what is needed and use that and discard the effects from the rest. This is easily done because we are working with Qi here.
Qi is the electromagnetic energy that makes up matter, that animates living beings, that is the motive force powering all the functions of our bodies from cellular to system levels. Stimulating acupoints has the effect that is needed most at that point to rebalance the whole being.
We talk about Qi as if there were different kinds because it does so many things, but that is just to make it easy to talk about. Acupuncture influences the different functions of Qi just like you might be asked to do different things in your different roles. Your acupuncturist can choose points that stimulate the Qi to help your digestion just like you might move funds from a savings account into checking. Or your acupuncturist can choose acupoints that stimulate Qi to calm the spirit (shen) to help you relax and sleep better just like you might water the garden when it hasn’t rained for a while.
Different acupoints do different things, they impact the location they are part of but they also impact the functions they are involved with. Like you, they live in a certain town (acupoint Wei Zhong is behind the knee) on a certain street (on Urinary Bladder channel) but they work for a business (is the command point of the lumbar region) and volunteer (this point releases heat and relieves skin issues and works locally for knee pain too) and like to roller skate (improves bending and stretching) and have a family (is related to the element water) and are connected to other places by relatives, friends and associates (the channel goes from the eye through the brain, to your little toe and does a lot of different things along the way.)
Different channels do different things too. Channels or meridians are the paths the Qi takes as it moves through the body. As Italians are known for their cooking and art, the Liver channel is known for its influence on Blood and the nervous system as well as metabolism. As the French are known for their wines, the Lung channel is known for its influence on Qi and skin as well as respiration.
When acupuncturists use familiar terms like “Blood” or “Liver” or “Deficient” or “Phlegm”, they are not talking about quite the same thing that we are used to, those terms were just the closest translation early practitioners could use to communicate about the medicine with. In Traditional Oriental Medicine those terms refer to a broader or different scope of functions than they do in allopathic medicine.
There are different ways to approach the same problem that work just as well others. You can figure out that ten tens is one hundred by multiplying, by adding, by counting, by arranging the quantities in a pattern or by moving beads on an abacus. Acupuncturists have a variety of ways of solving problems as well.
Beside its relationship with blood and the nervous system, the Liver is associated with the element Wood, and the color Green, and the season Spring, and the taste Sour. All the points on the Liver channel have some relationship with different aspects of these associations. And each channel relates to the other channels in different ways. This acupuncture theory will help your practitioner decide what points or channels to work with for your unique system.
Your acupuncturist may use points that harmonize or awaken spiritual dimensions to aid in healing. Psycho-emotional aspects of the medicine work as well, for instance if your shoulder hurts you may be shouldering a burden that is hard to bear and emotional release may come from acupuncture. Through acupuncture practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine can access different levels of our being, the Qi, Shen and Jing that are roughly the musculo - skeletal, energetic and organ functions or the body as well as the psycho emotional, constitutional and even spiritual parts of us. This isn’t merely placebo effect or magic but it often seems magical.
The acupuncturist is not limited to stimulating acupoints with a metal filament either. Acupressure, massage, moxibustion, essential oils, medicinal herbs, herbal extracts, cupping, guasha, electrical stimulation, diet, exercise and meditation are other common tools of the trade. Some are really interested in teaching you about your health and how to improve or maintain it, others will treat your chief complaint, root and branch, and only talk to you about lifestyle if you ask them.
Acupuncture has been practiced for hundreds of years all over Asia, so different variations of acupuncture theory have developed and every practitioner brings their own personality and style to the practice. Ask your acupuncturist to describe what sets them apart from other practitioners and don’t be surprised if the answer is both poetic and scientific.
Licensed Acupuncturist, RN, Former Buddhist monk
"The pursuit of health is invariably a spiritual quest."