My first exposure to acupuncture was when I was sixteen years old. As a youth I was a gung-ho martial artist, and my instructor’s father, the grandmaster, also happened to be an acupuncturist. We did a lot of demonstrations, and, as a senior student I usually got to be my instructor’s fall guy. At one particular demo, I took a rough fall and watched my right wrist swell up. When we got back to the training hall, the grandmaster stuck a few needles in my wrist and hand, and (more interestingly, I thought,) in my uninjured left ankle. The pain and swelling went away.
Most people, by personal experience or through success stories like mine, are familiar with acupuncture as a method of inserting needles into the body to control pain. As a licensed acupuncturist, I am happy that acupuncture has helped so many people with their pain. As a direct result of its obvious clinical efficacy, my profession has reached an unprecedented level of acceptance and popular appeal. However, because of the focus on the treatment of pain, acupuncture’s other benefits remain virtually unknown in the popular culture.
Most laypeople, for instance, don't know that acupuncture tends to induce a mildly altered state. Typically, patients receiving an acupuncture treatment will get very relaxed. Some experience a streaming of energy, felt as tingly or bubbly sensations in different parts of the body. Others fall into a deep sleep. I half-jokingly tell my patients that the reason acupuncture makes them feel better is that it pins them down for a half-hour rest which they otherwise would not take. I do believe that acupuncture is an excellent form of stress reduction, and that because so many modern diseases are directly or indirectly caused by stress, they are helped by regular treatment.
But acupuncture’s complex and subtle effects in treating a wide range of diseases cannot be explained away by stress reduction. So how does it work? The Chinese postulate a kind of vital energy, called qi, that drives all of our life processes. Qi is said to flow through the human body in distinct pathways called channels or meridians. The channels connect not only to each other, but to organs and tissues within the body as well. When the body is diseased, the flow of qi is disrupted. Acupuncture, quite simply, is the use of needles to un-block stagnant qi in the channels. With the qi flowing smoothly in the channels, the organs regain their optimal function, and health is restored.
As intuitively correct as the Chinese medical explanation may sound, it is somehow not satisfactory to the Western scientific mind. After all, what is this qi? And what are these channels that have been so neatly mapped out? They certainly don’t correspond to known anatomical structures*. It is not surprising that scientists have for many years pooh-poohed acupuncture, considering that it is based on a mysterious “energy” that does not correspond to blood, or electricity, or any equivalent concept in modern science.
My own suspicion is that qi is not a hitherto unmeasured energy, but a convenient cultural construct that explains observable reality and informs all traditional Asian arts. My experience of life acknowledges a vitality that flows through me, and I practice Chinese medicine as if qi exists, but at the same time I cannot help but wonder what is really happening when I stick a needle in someone’s flesh.
I speculate that acupuncture’s effects are best explained by the same mysterious process that guides the development of an embryo. Our bodies can be thought of as very large colonies of single cells, descendants of the fused sperm and egg that was the original Big Bang of our personal existence. Out of this singularity, our cells differentiated, unfurled to form distinct tissues, organs, limbs. How did they know where to go, what to become? What coordinates the whole thing? Who’s running the show? At this point the rational mind breaks down and we invoke God, or qi, and simply marvel at the mystery of it all. But my hunch is that the original connections are not lost, that in its streaming the embryonic protoplasm leaves very fine trails, that far flung cells continue to communicate, and that the acupuncture channels are the functioning remnants of these gossamer trails and communication lines. When communication breaks down, illness results. The application of needles at the right places somehow, perhaps by affecting subtle bioelectrical or biophotonic signals, restores communication and health.
While my intellect strives to understand acupuncture scientifically, as a practicing acupuncturist I find the old Chinese worldview the most satisfying. The ancient Chinese described the body as a microcosm of the world. Just like the terrestrial landscape, the human body consisted of mountains and rivers, marshes and plains. To this day we use acupuncture points with names like yongquan, “Bubbling Spring,” and zhongzhu, “Middle Island.” It was the job of the acupuncturist to maintain the ecology of the human landscape, by draining this ditch or setting fire to that hill. It’s a pity for this rich profession to be reduced to being medical technicians or pain therapists. My hope is that more and more people will use acupuncture not just to make pain go away, but to get (or stay) healthy and explore their human existence in a deep and immediate way.
*Post script, 2017: it appears more and more likely that the channels are functionally relevant groupings of fascia, which fits all the criteria necessary to fulfill the role of acupuncture channels. Fascia is electroconductive, and it is a connector in a number of important ways. It is reachable from the surface of the body at the acupuncture points, connects parts of the body that are far apart from each other, and it also connects down to the cellular level, where it is continuous with the cytoskeleton, through which it may affect cell signalling and the turning on and off of genes.