What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture can be spoken of narrowly to refer to the practice of needle insertion into the body at anatomically defined acupuncture points (or acupoints) in order to treat disease, or it can be defined broadly as encompassing the entirety of Chinese Medicine, as in the state law of Oregon and others, where the systems of diagnosis, evaluation and other treatment procedures are included. Not only can acupoints be stimulated by needles, but also by the burning of mugwort leaf wool cones (known as moxibustion) and other non-needle techniques.
Acupuncture does not have to include needle insertion. In fact, the acupoints, which are defined by their relationship to anatomical landmarks as well as their relationship to channels (sometimes called meridians) that transmit functional biological information (known as 氣 qì or ch’i) can be stimulated in many ways. Pressure, magnetism, electricity, vibration, topicals, and laser light, are among the non-invasive ways that acupoints can be stimulated to produce healing effects. There are multiple levels of channel systems in Chinese medical theory, and different techniques can be used to access pathogens and healing potential at each level.
The most superficial of the channel systems are the muscle-sinew channels and their linked cutaneous regions, where external pathogens often first arrive in the body. The defensive and nutritive capacities of the body are said to reside at this level of physiology. This channel system layer can be treated for pain associated with muscular tension, fascial restrictions, and autonomic dysregulation, as well as skin rashes, common colds, and acute infections among other health issues. Treatment can include massage and other manual therapies used to disperse the surface, as well as internal herbal formulas, topical ointments, and stimulation of local and/or distal points.
The primary channels and blood vessels occupy the next level deeper, and this level is responsible for much of normal healthy physiology. Each of the 12 primary channels corresponds to an organ system in the body, and each organ system exists in a phase/element pairing as well as a conformation pairing, among other relationships that address function and dysfunction from both the organ and channel perspectives. When pathogens reach this level, they can affect organ function, producing predictable patterns of symptoms. Pathogens at this level can sometimes become stored in what are known as network or collateral vessels (絡脈 luò mài ) in a process of latency. When network vessels become congested with latent pathogens, they often appear as superficial spider veins or cysts and can be treated through direct pricking and draining as well as more constitutional treatments through distal points, herbal medicine, dietary changes, manual therapy, exercises, and lifestyle modification.
The Eight Extraordinary Vessels are the deepest level of the channel system and are responsible for growth, development, and inherited constitutional traits. This level of human physiology is more fundamental and less prone to change, but it can be reached by pathogens when the body’s resources are low. The extraordinary vessels are responsible for maintaining the fundamental organization required for health, so they can be accessed as a resource for healing work in treatment, but they can also be reached by pathogens, often leading to chronic and degenerative disease states. Treating this level of physiology is more difficult because these vessels are mainly accessible only through the primary channels. Pathogens that become latent at this level can end up in divergent channels. It is not always considered wise to disperse latency from the divergent channels, as this can cause the resurfacing of previous disease symptoms, which should not be provoked when the patient may not have the resources to cope with them.
The foundational text of Chinese Medicine is the 黃帝內經 Huangdi Neijing The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic [of Medicine], which consists of 2 books, 素問 Sùwèn Plain Questions, and 靈樞 Língshū Sacred Pivot, the latter of which focuses on 針灸 zhēnjiǔ acupuncture & moxibustion. These books lay out the basic theoretical framework of Chinese Medicine in terms of the 五行 wǔxíng five phases (sometimes called 5 elements), cosmic correspondences, physiology, pathology, vital substances, channel systems, points, diagnostic evaluation, and treatment procedures including the basics of herbal medicine. Acupuncture was further explored in 難經 Nànjīng The Classic of Difficult Issues, while herbal medicine was further explored in the 傷寒雜病論 Shānghán Zábìng Lùn Discussion On Cold Damage and Miscellaneous Diseases, which now exists as two texts, 傷寒論 Shānghán Lùn Discussion On Cold Damage and 金匱要略 Jīnguì Yàolue Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Cabinet. Chinese Medicine has evolved substantially since the writing of these foundational texts 2 millennia ago, though these texts continue to be useful resources for modern practitioners.
The History of Chinese Medicine is very long and complicated, and much of it has been lost to the passage of time. There is even evidence that acupuncture could have been practiced in prehistoric Europe, as the discovery of a “5,000-year-old mummified man found in the mountains along the border between Austria and Italy” with “therapeutic tattoos” on acupuncture points demonstrated (source: Ice Age Acupuncture?). China and other East Asian nations seem to have retained and refined this medical system and its practices, which were lost to the West, through a linguistic tradition that focused on memorization and a cultural self-sufficiency with aversion to foreign influence.
There has been speculation that tea from China helped to spur and fuel the industrial revolution in Britain and then Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. While China exported much tea and porcelain, the Chinese did not allow much in the way of imports, and so the British ran a trade deficit that began to drain them of the precious metals that were foundational to their monetary system. In order to balance trade with China, the British began having opium farmed in India, which was their colony. The British then sold this opium in Chinese black markets. The Chinese authorities attempted to block imports of opium, leading to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century that ended with the British taking the Chinese emperor hostage, and forcing him to sign disadvantageous trade agreements with Britain, other European countries, and Japan. Due to these trade relationships, China went from being fairly wealthy to experiencing expanding and deepening poverty that culminated in Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) taking power and establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
The People’s Republic of China was closed to the West until President Richard Nixon visited China in 1971. A reporter from the New York Times, named James Reston, had joined the President on his visit and, while he was in China, received an emergency appendectomy. After the surgery, Reston was treated with acupuncture for his post-surgical pain. He then wrote the article that introduced acupuncture to the West, Now, About My Operation in Peking. Since that time, the project of translating modern and ancient Chinese medical texts into European languages, as well as establishing systems of practicing the medicine within the Western Biomedical context has been an arduous undertaking. This process is a journey that draws interest and enthusiasm from a growing number of people who have experienced the incredible healing power of acupuncture and Chinese Medical practice.
Below is the definition of Acupuncture according to Oregon State Law:
As used in the rules regulating the practice of acupuncture:
(1)(a) “Acupuncture” means an Oriental health care practice used to promote health and to treat neurological, organic or functional disorders by the stimulation of specific points on the surface of the body by the insertion of needles. “Acupuncture” includes the treatment method of moxibustion, as well as the use of electrical, thermal, mechanical or magnetic devices, with or without needles, to stimulate acupuncture points and acupuncture meridians and to induce acupuncture anesthesia or analgesia.
(b) The practice of acupuncture also includes the following modalities as authorized by the Oregon Medical Board:
(A) Traditional and modern Oriental Medical and acupuncture techniques of diagnosis and evaluation;
(B) Oriental massage, exercise and related therapeutic methods; and
(C) The use of Oriental pharmacopoeia, vitamins, minerals and dietary advice.
(2) “Board” means the Oregon Medical Board for the State of Oregon.
(3) “Clinical training” means supervised clinical training which consists of diagnosis and actual patient treatment which includes insertion of acupuncture needles.
(4) “Committee” means the Acupuncture Advisory Committee.
(5) “Licensed Acupuncturist” means an individual authorized by the Board to practice acupuncture pursuant to ORS Chapter 677.
(6)(a) “Oriental massage” means methods of manual therapy, including manual mobilization, manual traction, compression, rubbing, kneading and percussion, with or without manual implements, for indications including limited range of motion, muscle spasm, pain, scar tissue, contracted tissue and soft tissue swelling, edema and inflammation, as described in instructional programs and materials of Oriental or Asian health care.