How acupuncture works
Acupuncture works by regulating and strengthening the body’s Qi and because of this, treatment can potentially be of benefit no matter what health problem you suffer from. This means acupuncture is also terrific for ‘wellness care’ and prevention of illnesses. An acupuncturist can assess the patient and start to appreciate what might go wrong in future and work to prevent this happening by maintaining balance in a person’s system. We may have heard it said that in China people paid their physician when they were well and not when they became sick – perhaps there is some truth behind this myth?
Acupuncture is much more than symptomatic treatment. New research has revealed significant differences between the body’s response to placebo acupuncture and the ‘real’ thing, which is something that those who have practised and worked with it have known all along – seeing (and feeling), is believing, and acupuncturists are trained to notice changes in the body when they treat their patients, which tell them if a better balance has been achieved for their patient. It is encouraging that the placebo response is finally being investigated, instead of being used as a reason not to recommend, provide or fund acupuncture care, even when it is as effective than other treatments, and shown to be cost effective (see NICE guidance on osteoarthritis for just one example).
Qi is a difficult term to translate and there are some controversies about translating it as ‘energy’. It is perhaps, like Yin and Yang, best understood on its own terms. It is the stuff of life. Everything living has Qi. Everyone’s Qi has a certain quality – it makes them who they are. One’s potential and one’s weaknesses are all aspects of our Qi. The short film I made about the five elements, which can be seen on the side bar, will introduce you to potential and inherent qualities of each of the five elements of Chinese medicine.
Although, from a bio physiological perspective we do not understand precisely how acupuncture works, and perhaps we never will, there is no doubt that acupuncture impacts the body’s physiology in myriad ways. It certainly influences the HPA axix, nervous system, digestive system, endocrine system and circulation. it seems to promote healing responses. There is also clear unequivocal evidence, at a molecular level, that acupuncture can help with stress reduction and offer protective benefits against stress. Acupuncture is thus a positive influence on health and well being, which makes it fundamentally different from conventional medicine that is symptom focused or based on eradication of dis-ease. More ‘health’ in the body can achieve a positive outcome, in a totally different way, and the treatment can be individualised.
Different approaches and styles
There are many different approaches and methods of acupuncture. Whatever approach I am working with my aim is always to try to achieve the deepest level of healing in the body. I also like to use as few needles as I can. This is especially important in the early stages of treatment when a patient’s sensitivity is not yet known. It is also important to remember that each person responds in their own unique way to treatment.
I offer below a brief description of some of the styles and methods I draw on to work with. I see these different approaches as ‘tools in the toolkit’. There is no one right way to help someone and what works well one day may not be so effective on another – or on the same patient at a different time. It is not that one style is better than another – acupuncture is like music and the different styles are like different instruments to play the melodies – is the flute better than the harp? This is obviously a very subjective thing. Whatever the style or approach the diagnosis is individualised for each person, and treatment decisions will be guided by many factors.
The challenge for any practitioner is to do treatment that is optimally effective at each stage for a client, bearing in mind that the client is always changing. Treatment with acupuncture is thus an iterative process and one must constantly reassess to ensure the therapy is optimal. This is one of the reasons researching acupuncture is so hard. Studies need to reflect the individualised nature of the treatment process if they are to fairly evaluate this therapy.
TCM – this is the most widely used style of acupuncture and patterns of disharmony are identified and treated.. I learned TCM in the UK first and then visited Beijing for further training. It was a privilege to be able to visit China and see acupuncture practiced in hospitals their.
Five Element treatment. Five Element treatment strengthens the core of a person at a profound level through working on a person’s constitutional or guardian element. It is particularly good for supporting a person at an emotional level. I was so fortunate to have met JR Worsely, one of the pioneers of acupuncture in the West who founded this system, and have him diagnose patients in the early years of my practice before he passed away. His skills, especially his diagnostic skills, were amazing.
Meridian Therapy/Toyohari – These Japanese approaches involve diagnosing the root pattern or ‘sho’ and using a range of treatment approaches to work on supporting the root and targeting symptoms directly, if required. Needling is subtle and delicate. These are the most gentle of approaches. Shudo Denmai is a hero of mine. His highly regarded book on Meridian Therapy, translated by Stephen Brown, conveys his humility and humanity.
Shonishin – Japanese acupuncture for children. Simple techniques can also be taught to parents so that they can administer treatment to their children. Children usually love this treatment. Needles are not necessary. Children’s Qi is vibrant and they respond very quickly to what seems like minimal intervention.
Manaka – This style of acupuncture focuses mainly on the use of the Eight Extraordinary Vessels – these are powerful ‘seas of energy’ in the body and many symptoms can be related to a particular extraordinary vessel. Manaka was a Japanese acupuncturist who was a true innovator. He dealt with many patients after the nuclear explosions and treated burns victims routinely – learning how to balance the body and help them recover.
Wave Acupuncture – The treatment is based on clearing obstructions from the acupuncture channels and creating better flow through the meridians affected by a particular problem. I learned this style from a practitioner who has been pioneering this approach in Israeli hospitals and finding very positive results through clinical research.
Balance acupuncture – This method uses paired meridians to treat problems on a specific channel or meridian or health conditions associated with the symptoms. This is a very helpful approach for treating a wide range of musculoskeletal problems as well as supporting general health. learning this method is a gift to any acupuncturist.
Toyohari – a wonderful style of acupuncture that evolved from Meridian Therapy and the ‘Return to the Classic’s movement in Japan and developed in the latter half of the 20th Century. It was mainly practised by blind physicians until more recently when Stephen Birch and Junko Ida have worked tirelessly to bring the knowledge and skills of these extraordinary physicians to the West. The sense of touch becomes more highly developed with blindness and the teachers of Toyohari are so generous with sharing knowledge to help us help our patients.
Chinese herbal medicine – Kampo
Kampo means the ‘ the way of the Han’, or the Chinese way. This tradition originates in Japan, where the herbal formula are recognised by the ministry of health and they are well researched with an excellent safety record. I did my training in herbs through an apprenticeship course with Gretchen de Soriano, who trained at the Kitasato Instistute in Tokyo. This gave me the chance to see many different patients in clinic.
I use herbs for internal problems and find them to be very useful for treating skin conditions, helping improve immunity where there is recurrent viral infection, and for gynaecological disorders.