January 2007

Acupuncture—A physiological medicine

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

Acupuncture is the ancient medicine that uses tiny needles to stimulate "Qi" (chee), the subtle energy that runs through the body, to reduce or eliminate pain and dramatically relieve suffering from many health problems.

The genius of the early acupuncturists was to understand the structure of the body, and to create a systematic medicine, with sophisticated and logically organized treatments that were powerful and flexible enough to address the whole range of human health issues.

Acupuncture is a major part of Chinese medicine — an ancient, highly developed, and rich medical tradition that includes other physical medicines such as cupping and massage and, in addition, herbal medicine and life-style therapies. These medicines are old, but the interest in them and the gradually developing scientific validation of their effectiveness are evidence that they are part of the future of medicine.

An outgrowth of this growing body of scientific validation is the understanding that the language the ancient sages used to describe the body — rich in natural imagery which referred to the topography of the body in terms of mountains and valleys, and the blood and energy flow in terms of water: streams, rivers, lakes, etc. — was a poetic way to describe what they had observed that has been shown to be remarkably accurate, anatomically and physiologically.

The Chinese understood the body because, rather than shy away from investigating the interior of the body as some ancient cultures did, they dissected hundreds of thousands of human cadavers. They saw what was inside, and they did a remarkable job of interpreting it. It is now understood, for example, that acupuncture "meridians" or "channels" describe the physiological phenomena of the circulation of blood and the distribution of oxygen. The ancients knew that the blood moved in a closed circulatory system more than 2,000 years before that fact was described by William Harvey in 1628, a discovery which is considered one of the great achievements in medicine.

Today we can treat patients as the ancients did, together with an understanding illumined by physiological medicine. We rely upon the structure of the body to guide our approach to treatments. We use the natural organization of the body, based on the two basic organizational principles of all animal bodies: the segmental and longitudinal.

Segmental Organization

Segmental organization describes principally, the distribution of the spinal nerves, which are outgrowths of the spinal cord between each vertebra. The spinal nerves, which are outgrowths of the spinal cord between each vertebra. The spinal nerves in the neck, known as cervical nerves, control sensory and motor input in the hands and arms, and information to and from glands and organs in the head and neck such as the thyroid, the sinuses, and vocal cords. The nerves which emerge at the same level as the ribs, known as the thoracic nerves, control the heart, lungs, liver, and the back and abdominal muscles. The lumbar and sacral spinal nerves in the low back control elimination, the reproductive system, the low back muscles, and the muscles of the legs and feet.

Longitudinal Organization

Imagine a standing human being. Notice that for the most part the major blood vessels, peripheral nerves, and muscles are distributed up and down the body, longitudinally. Discovering the treatment implications of this anatomical feature is evidence of the true genius of the early Chinese physicians. Acupuncture treatments incorporate this longitudinal organization with acupoints situated along the body's major nerves and vessels.

A treatment strategy that reflects this understanding is to locate the channel on which the injury is located (by palpation or orthopedic testing), then treat the body at acupoints in the area of pain (called local points), at acupoints near the pain (called adjacent points), at channel points close to the spine (called proximal points), and at related points on the extremeties (called distal points).

When both segmental and longitudinal distributions are included in a treatment plan, it results in a systematic approach to an acupuncture treatment of the superficial body, and brings about a highly directed and controlled restorative response.