What You Need to Know About Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
By Dr. Mary Riggin, LAc, DAc, AP, DOM
It is not hard to spot a trend when it is featured on the cover of Time Magazine, Newsweek, Business Week, The New England Journal of Medicine, dozens of TV talk shows and even achieving its validation and stamp of approval in a 1997 National Institutes of Health (NIH) conference in Bethesda, MD. Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has become very popular over the past few decades. And it is not just the progressive crowd that’s trying it – middle America is getting acupuncture in increasing numbers. While there are still some medical doctors who believe it is akin to voodoo, most of the modern research, literature and the vast majority of the medical profession world-wide accept acupuncture as a safe and helpful component in treating a patient. Its application for a wide variety of health conditions results in lowering the need for drugs and surgical procedures. Since it is safe, many people are trying it first before subjecting themselves to the possible negative side effects of modern medicine. For others, it is becoming the preferred way to maintain a strong immune system and optimal health throuh regular maintenance care.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a commonly used treatment modality utilized in the ancient medical art of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also commonly known as Oriental Medicine (OM). TCM is the fundamental cornerstone and basis for the practice of Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and Tui-Na (a specialized form of massage and bodywork.) This full system of medicine, along with its ancient diagnostic techniques, has an impressive history that dates back thousands of years. For our American culture, it is very new for us. It's important to remember that it is an independant system of medicine. We were exposed to this ancient system of healthcare in 1972 when President Richard Nixon opened China to the West, and we became exposed. It's growth in our country over the past 40 years is due to it's amazing grass roots efforts. What's important to understand is that it is not based on Western Medical Science. It is an independant system of medicine, based more on the science of electromagnetism than bio-chemisty.
How long do you have to go to school to be competent to practice?
In most states in the US, licensed practitioners complete a 4 year post graduate Master's Degree program and must also complete a certification process that includes an extensive examination before licensure can be issued. In Florida, a National Certification Test is required before a license is issued, along with completion of a 4 year, post graduate, accredited Oriental Medicine program. Florida considers the practice of Acupuncture a form of Primary Health Care.
What Is Oriental Medicine?
The term Oriental Medicine (OM) includes the various styles that developed as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) spread from China to many different countries such as Korea, Japan and then into Europe. Currently, American practitioners are continuing the tradition by developing an American style of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine that meets the needs of the American culture. What makes this medical art so different and unique is the use of TCM’s ancient diagnostic techniques that evaluate a patient’s individual condition. Each person is evaluated and diagnosed to determine his/her imbalance. This means that two patients with the same named Western disease can have a completely different diagnosis according to Oriental Medicine and therefore will be treated differently. Understanding the diagnostics is vital to achieve the best results.
Once the patient is properly diagnosed, a treatment protocol can then be outlined using acupuncture, tui na massage and Oriental bodywork, herbal prescriptions as well as other various modalities as indicated by that condition. This can include other forms of treatment including a food prescription, life-style coaching, excersizes, breathing, and meditation.
Oriental Medicine balances the body’s energy fields similar to the way Western medicine seeks to balance the chemistry of the body. Homeostasis is fundamental to both disciplines. The tiny needles (I like to call them pins) used in acupuncture act like little antennae to focus the body’s energy fields to restore balance to the body’s function. It’s kind of like “programming” the body to focus on healing and restoration. It also increases blood and oxygen flow to the cells and releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. There is a “feel good” sensation from the endorphins and a deep relaxation that’s a side benefit of treatment. Many patients get so relaxed that they actually fall asleep during treatment.
So, how Does It Work?
Tiny, sterile needles (about the size of a strand of hair) are inserted into the skin at very special points. The needles focus the body’s energy the same way an antenna can focus radio energy. It is important that the needles be placed in exactly the right place, since the location of the needles will determine how the energy field is changed. These special points occur where the energy fields of the body interact. Each system and organ manifests its own energy level and can be weakened or strengthened by the energy fields around it. Acupuncture focuses these fields to bring them and the underlying body systems into balance. In TCM, this energy is called qi (chee) and was discovered thousands of years ago.
Can the Qi (energy) Be Measured?
Not with today’s technology. There is no doubt that the body is surrounded with energy fields. It is a basic law of physics that when electricity flows along a conductor it creates an energy field. This is why electric generators work. We also know that a field will affect other fields – this is why electric motors work. We can measure the stronger fields created by the brain and large nerves with devices like the EEG, EMG and EKG, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The problem is that the fields manipulated by acupuncture are too small to measure with today’s technology.
Today’s environment also makes measuring these fields very difficult. We are subjected to millions of times more electromagnetic radiation than our parents and billions of times more than our grandparents. Even though we can’t measure them, we know they are there.
How Does Oriental Medicine Measure the Imbalances?
The foundational principle of OM is to get the organs in balance. Diagnostic techniques are used to evaluate "imbalances" in the body. This includes a subjective analysis of the patient, along with an objective evaluation - pulse diagnosis and tongue diagnosis - both of which are unique to Oriental Medicine.
Pulse diagnosis involves feeling the pulse on wrist in various places. There are up to 10 pulse positions on each wrist and the various locations indicate the function of a particular organ or area of the body. There are 28 different pulse types and identifying the type, gives your OM doctor the information needed for an accurate diagnosis.
The tongue also shows imbalances. The shape, size, color, coating, all give information about the condition of the internal organs. This information is then correlated to the pulses, as well as the results of palpation, range of motion, and symptoms, both major and subtle, to get an OM diagnosis. Once that is achieved, a care plan can be outlined. A common treatment plan can typically include a course of Acupuncture treatment. For more chronic health issues, ongoing treatment may be necessary.
When practiced with competance, acupuncture stimulates the body's various systems - including the circulation of blood, qi, neurological messaging, hormonal communication, lymphatic drainage, and on a very basic level - it will increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the cells. As a result, the body's ability to heal, mend and repair is enhanced.
What about Herbs?
There is a general public opinion that just because something is natural, it is safe. This is not true about Chinese herbal medicine. The practice of Chinese herbal medicine uses both single herbs as well as herbal formulas containing several herbs. Ancient texts document various herbal formulas that can be used to treat various conditions. When herbs are combined there is a synergistic effect and this results in precise safe and effective treatment. TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) developed the practice of herbal medicine to coincide with treating the energy (Qi) imbalance in the body. Ancient texts categorize the herbs, and disease can only be treated after the imbalance in the energy levels (Qi) of the body has been identified.
The oldest known significant Chinese medical text “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic” (Huang Di Nei Jing) was compiled between 200 B.C. and 100 B.C. This ancient text outlines the theoretical and philosophical foundation of TCM. With an understanding of this foundation, a practitioner can diagnose the imbalance and then incorporate herbs and acupuncture into a treatment protocol.
What’s Tui na massage?
Tui na is a specialized massage technique to address physical problems in the body. To clarify; our bones are held together by soft tissue: the muscles, tendons (attaches muscle to bone) and ligaments (attaches bone to bone.) If you didn’t have soft tissue, you’d be a bag of bones on the floor. The muscles interconnect in various layers to create a complex pulley system that allows us to move in all the various ways that we do. When there is a blockage in the tissue, communication does not flow properly and pain or malfunction can be the result. This blockage can be caused by trauma, stress, old injuries and scare tissue. Regular massage can help this, but many times, it just doesn’t get deep enough, or can even aggravate it. When acupuncture is combined with tui na massage the results can be remarkable. This is because the acupuncture relaxes the tissue by releasing endorphins thereby enabling the practitioner to get deep enough into the tissue to correct the problem. Many patients have commented that even though they’ve had many good deep tissue massages, no one has ever gotten to the “spot” that is creating the problems. There are many bodywork styles and techniques use by Oriental medicine that have developed over time. Some also include cupping, gua sha and traction.
What Conditions Does Acupuncture Treat?
Since acupuncture and Oriental Medicine work to restore the body’s natural balance, it can be effective, to some degree, on any non-optimum health condition with no side effects. For example, acute problems such as cold and flu symptoms, and injuries; chronic problems like pain and inflammation, hormonal imbalances, allergies and asthma, digestion problems, and circulation problems. These are just some of the problems that can be helped safely and naturally with Oriental Medicine. It is no wonder that millions of people worldwide have found their health solution in this ancient medical art. See the full list the World Health Organization listed on the next page, or click the link.
How has it integrated into Our Modern Western System?
Today in the US, we are only just beginning to understand that this medicine can do so much more than just pain relief, so integration has been a very slow process. Unfortunately, it is not part of “standard of care” the way it is in China. Even though the medicine is not completely integrated, it has gained popularity through “grass roots” and word of mouth, and most states do have some type of regulation and licensing. However, it is not typically recommended by medical professionals and is most times, only discussed if the patient brings it up.
Here’s what it could potentially do if fully integrated into our modern healthcare system the way it is in China and other countries.
By enhancing the body’s ability to heal, mend and repair on its own, it effectivley treats a variety of conditions.
For illness and disease, it can be integrated into a Western Medicine plan. It can also be used as a stand alone treatment option. This depends upon the individual, their condition, and their health history.
When used by someone with normal lab results, and who has not been diagnosed with a disease, it will enhance their body's ability to stay as healthy as possible, as long as possible.
Where do we go from here?
Today, at this point in time – over 40 years after our culture’s first exposure to the ancient healthcare system of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, American consumers, policy makers, lawmakers, and healthcare professionals are all being faced with a decision. The question is: How do we, as a culture, want to integrate this effective and safe style of medicine into our modern healthcare system?
Many believe, as we do, that it is vital to protect the integrity of the system as outlined in the ancient texts and taught in modern Acupuncture Colleges in the US and abroad. This requires years of post graduate education to qualify for national board testing and state licensure. These guidlines have already been outlined by state regulatory boards and by our own US based, national testing agency.
There are some in our country that would like to just “stick needles in” and call it something else, with very little training. It is argued that it is safe, so why not? These are licensed professionals who do not understand the full system of Oriental medicine and are using their Western medicine training as their foundation for borrowing the techniques and calling it something else, and taking credit for a new discovery. Some will also poke fun at it, saying it’s mystical – and that’s not what they are doing. These arguments are flawed.
The harm is this; untrained professionals experimenting with a technique when there are thousands of years of documented data available on the topic is irresponsible. Poking fun at the data, just because it is different, is immature. Remember that we are dealing with two completely different systems of medicine with different foundations. Western medical science’s foundation is in bio-chemistry. Oriental medicine’s foundation is based more on the science of physics and electro-magnetism.
There is so much more to achieving optimal health than just eating healthy and exercising, and having tests and your labs checked once a year for disease. This does not measure optimal health. The system of Oriental Medicine uses ancient diagnostic techniques to evaluate subtle imbalances, and uses a variety of treatment techniques to “fine tune” the body’s systems to achieve optimal health, which is significantly higher than just “disease free”.
Our hope is to preserve the integrity of this medicine in our culture. It is our belief that integrating this system of medicine into our modern western system could be the solution to our healthcare crisis in the United States.