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Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Basics: An Introduction

Uncategorized Jun 18, 2013

To many, Chinese medicine represents a strange practice involving needles and weird terms and identifications of patterns that talk about organs in non-medical ways all leading to some sort of treatment. It is confusing for anyone with no experience in this sort of medicine to understand why it helps. In the west, acupuncture has made its greatest inroads in the field of pain management, as it has tremendous benefit with both chronic and acute pain. However, acupuncture excels at treating conditions related to hormonal imbalance, stress, fatigue, and even digestive issues. It can do this because the mechanism of acupuncture is not only local but systemic as well, and when applied in a classical way, has the ability to identify why a person is sick and exactly how to help them heal.

     To understand, first imagine the body.  On our body there are over 365 regular acupuncture points, added to this are hundreds of other extra points. Within the 365, there are 12 primary meridians traversing the arms and legs, trunk and back. In addition, there are two meridians running through the front center and back center of the body. These meridians are like stream beds, with a specific route, and on these paths are points, with specific locations. Not only do the points each have a precise location identified using a measurement called a cun, but they also have precise functions. 

     Use of a point is determined through a proper assessment of each individual situation.  To do this, the practitioner asks questions and collects information from the patient, feels the pulses on both sides of the body and looks at the tongue. The pulses are felt on both sides because each side represents different organ systems, side to side, the character of the pulse can vary widely. This pulse character gives an immense amount of information about how the body, organs, and qi of a person is functioning. When deep and weak, the indication is also that the qi has become depleted, when floating or right at the surface, it is an indication that a person may be coming down with a cold or other acute illness, if intermittent, it relates to a stagnant or disrupted pattern. The tongue too tells a significant story of the body, and how it is functioning. In tongue diagnosis, a practitioner is looking at the tongue body, if it is thick or thin, the coating on the tongue, and its color, if the body of the tongue is red or has red dots on it, and even how the veins under the tongue appear. All of this information leads to the diagnosis of a Chinese medicine pattern that then can be used to pick proper acupuncture points or herbs best suited to treatment.

     The Chinese diagnosis may not sound like a diagnosis at all; it could be spleen qi deficiency, blood deficiency, or liver qi stagnation. Although these labels appear confusing, they are in fact very precise and by arriving at an identifiable pattern, the skilled practitioner can then choose appropriate treatment specific to what an individual is experiencing. Much like each point has a reason for use, the above mentioned patterns and others like them have very clear identifiable symptoms. I have always found that western medicine lacks the art of Chinese diagnosis because it focuses in too narrowly, missing how different symptoms connect back to one general issue. Whereas in Chinese medicine, seemingly separate issues can be easily linked through the patterns associated with each diagnosis. An example is a diagnosis of spleen qi deficiency. In the west, most people suffer to some degree from spleen qi deficiency. The spleen is regarded as an earth element, meaning it, like a good garden needs to be fertile, well-tended, moist but not wet, warmed by the sun and capable of turning simple things into nourishment. The organs included in the earth element are the stomach, spleen and pancreas. The symptoms associated with a weak spleen are bloating, gassiness, fatigue, difficulty thinking, weight gain, loose or irregular bowel movements, bleeding disorders, and muscle fatigue. The spleen is nourished by slow and gentle movement like walking, tai chi or qi gong, cooked foods, aromatic spices like cardamom and ginger, tea, and meditation. Activities in our modern world which injure the spleen are worrying, excessive sitting and thinking, constant deliberation, ice-cold drinks, ice-cold foods and too much raw and uncooked food.

     Unfortunately many in the west practice Chinese medicine without ever learning to differentiate these patterns, which can dramatically alter how a condition gets treated. One example of this is anxiety. Someone unskilled with pattern diagnosis may treat anxiety as a disorder of a stagnant liver causing heart fire. However, more and more patients presenting with anxiety have no signs and symptoms of excess, but rather extreme deficiency, where the liver has long stopped responding and the earth or spleen has become too weak to nourish the heart thus causing the symptoms. There can also be patterns of dampness and phlegm. If the pattern is treated by way of reducing the liver using points known to have this function, the patient may, in fact, develop weakness and further anxiety or depression, but by nourishing the weak spleen using points specific for the spleen and clearing any potential dampness, the patient will get better.

     Conditions like anxiety can be successfully treated with acupuncture precisely because the acupuncture points affect structures deep in the body. When points are paired correctly and stimulated effectively they prompt immediate changes in hormonal signaling, lymphatic flow, muscle contraction or relaxation and digestive function. Modern science has shown that the acupuncture points correspond with structures that penetrate through the connective tissue, forming networks of communication, that are then able to relay and convey information through the body. The insertion of a needle into the point is the beginning of information exchange, which lasts in many cases up to 7 hours from when the needle is removed. Consequently, an acupuncture treatment is not just an hour of treatment but 8 or more, and treatments build, each time providing greater strength and communication within the body, allowing for deeper and deeper change.

     With roots in the stone age, acupuncture applied using Classical Chinese medical differentiation stands as a consistently exemplary treatment for all health conditions because it works with the complexity of the body while effecting change locally and distant from the area of application.

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