The intent of acupuncture therapy is to promote health and alleviate pain and suffering. The method by which this is accomplished, though it may seem strange and mysterious to many, has been time tested over thousands of years and continues to be validated today. The perspective from which an acupuncturist views health and sickness hinges on concepts of “vital energy,” “energetic balance” and “energetic imbalance.” Just as the Western medical doctor monitors the blood flowing through blood vessels and the messages traveling via the nervous system, the acupuncturist assesses the flow and distribution of this “vital energy” within its pathways, known as “meridians and channels”.
The acupuncturist is able to influence health and sickness by stimulating certain areas along these “meridians”. Traditionally these areas or “acupoints” were stimulated by fine, slender needles. Today, many additional forms of stimulation are incorporated, including herbs, electricity, magnets and lasers. Still, the aim remains the same – adjust the “vital energy” so the proper amount reaches the proper place at the proper time. This helps your body heal itself.
Acupuncture is just one form of therapy used within the coherent system of healing known as Oriental Medicine. Oriental Medicine includes herbology, physical therapy, dietetics and special exercises (such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong), and is a complete medical system unto itself and is not another branch of modern Western medicine. Acupuncture evolved from principles and philosophies unique to Oriental thinking and Oriental Medicine, and is most effectively applied when done in accordance with those principles.
Accupuncture Modern Views
When the human body was finally described in terms of cells, biochemicals, and specific structures (most of this accomplished less than 150 years ago), the Chinese method of acupuncture and its underlying concepts were evaluated in these new terms. As a first effort, researchers sought out physical pathways that might correspond to the meridians, and even a fluid substance that might correspond to qi. Neither of these were found. Nonetheless, the action of performing acupuncture was shown to have effects on the body that required some detailed explanation.
From the modern perspective, diseases and injuries are resolved by a complex set of responses; the responses are coordinated by several signaling systems. The signaling systems mainly involve peptides and other small biochemicals that are released at one site, travel to other sites, interact with cells, and stimulate various biologically programmed responses. Rather than blockages of circulation described in the old Chinese dogma, diseases are understood to be caused by microorganisms, metabolic failures, changes in DNA structure or signaling, or breakdown of the immune system. Some of these disorders are resolved by the cellular functions that are designed for healing, while others become chronic diseases because the pathological factors involved have either defeated the body’s normalizing mechanisms or because something else has weakened the body’s responses to the point that they are ineffective. For example, poor nutrition, unhealthy habits, and high stress can weaken the responses to disease.
Ancient Accupuncture Thories
The understanding of how acupuncture works has evolved with its practice, but the descriptions set down a thousand years ago have largely been retained. The dominant function of acupuncture is to regulate the circulation of qi (vital energy) and blood. Approximately 2,000 years ago, the pre-eminent acupuncture text, Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Internal Medicine), was written. In it, acupuncture was described as a means of letting out excess qi or blood by making holes in the body along certain pathways, called jingluo (meridians). For some of these meridians, it was advised to acupuncture in such a way as to let out the blood but not the qi; for others, to let out the qi, but not the blood. Many diseases were thought to enter the body through the skin, and then penetrate inward through muscle, internal organs, and, if not cured in timely fashion, to the marrow of the bone. By inserting a needle to the appropriate depth—to correspond with the degree of disease penetration—the disease could be let out.
Several processes have been proposed to explain acupuncture’s effects, primarily those on pain. Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain or release other chemicals, such as hormones, that influence the body’s self-regulating systems. The biochemical changes may stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional wellbeing.
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