What Does Acupuncture Treat?

Published in D&G Green handbook January 2012

When considering a therapy that is new to us, naturally enough we want to know whether it is effective for our particular condition. I find that most people have heard that acupuncture can treat things like back pain, but they are often unaware of its wider applications.

In fact, almost everyone could benefit from acupuncture in some way, and most practitioners of traditional acupuncture will deal with a huge range of health issues, from common colds to cancer, from infertility to menopausal problems, from childhood colic to IBS.   This makes our work very interesting but also enormously challenging.  

When I think about my days at the clinic I often marvel at the diversity of patients and conditions that I have been able to help, and feel immensely grateful to those acupuncture doctors who over many centuries have explored and refined this amazing therapy .

In March 2011 the Advertising Standards Agency made it illegal for acupuncturists to advertise any conditions that they treat, apart from dental pain, nausea and shoulder pain. This frustrating ruling was made because these are the only conditions that are considered to have been tested and shown scientifically to respond to acupuncture.

For various reasons acupuncture cannot be scientifically tested for efficacy in the same way as drugs, and very few research studies have been conducted in the western world. Of course, acupuncture had its origins in China thousands of years ago and has been a well established and accepted form of medicine in modern China and other eastern countries ever since. 

There is a great wealth of published research into its effects in China, Korea and Japan, but this evidence is either unrecognised or viewed with suspicion by western scientists.  It always seem curious to me that people can accept a drug from their doctor, which comes with a list of dangerous side effects and which has been on the market for only a few weeks, and yet they are reluctant to try a form of medicine that has been used successfully for thousands of years and has almost no known risks or side effects.  Do we really believe new things are always better?

One of the reasons why acupuncture can’t be tested like a drug is that it addresses each person as an individual. Six people with headaches might all have completely different treatments depending on the underlying reason for the headache.

Unlike drug-based medicine which uses a specific drug to target a particular symptom, acupuncture (like other holistic therapies) aims to balance the whole system by addressing the deeper cause of any symptom. Patients are often pleasantly surprised  that other symptoms, arising from the same root cause, are improved as well. 

How does this work in practice?

In order to understand acupuncture we need some imagination and an open mind! Rather than the normal western view of the body as a construction of bones, muscle, blood vessels, nerves etc, acupuncturists think in terms of subtle energy  or Qi, that flows throughout the body in invisible channels or meridians .

There is no English translation for the word Qi, but it is often called “life-force” energy because without it nothing could live or function.  I find it helpful to imagine the meridians as pathways of minute electric currents that enable every part of the body to function properly.  

We can’t see the Qi or measure it using scientific implements, but many people can feel it and sense the flow of Qi along their meridians.  There are 12 main channels that flow from our fingers and toes into our torso and head, but from these numerous others branch out, enabling Qi to reach every cell in the body. 

If the flow in any meridian is disrupted or deficient, signs of pain or illness will start to appear. Over thousands of years, specific locations (“points”) along the meridians have been identified as having particular effects on the Qi flow and on particular bodily and mental functions.  The points chosen for treatment need not necessarily be close to the symptomatic area; for example headaches are often treated using points on the feet; points on the lower arm may be used to treat coughing.

In Toyohari Acupuncture the emphasis is to establish the state of Qi flowing in the 12 meridians and to correct any imbalances. Diagnosis involves gentle palpation of the belly, feeling the wrist pulses, checking the meridian pathways for any signs of Qi disruption such as discomfort, swelling, heat, etc., observing the tongue, and of course asking about medical history and any current symptoms.  

All this provides a picture of the person’s overall health as well as specific information about which meridians may be suffering from deficiency or blockages of Qi. Using this diagnosis a treatment plan is drawn up, which includes the choice of appropriate points along the affected meridians where the flow of Qi will be stimulated using very fine metal needles. 

The type of needle and the techniques of needle manipulation are also decided according to the diagnosis.  Throughout the treatment session, each time a needle is used, the state of Qi is reassessed by feeling the pulse and the belly, giving constant feedback about how the treatment is working.  The aim is always that at the end of every treatment the Qi feels in a better state of balance than it was before.

When people phone to book a treatment, they often ask whereabouts on the body I will put needles, and how many needles will be used. This is impossible to predict, because every time I see a patient I will go through the diagnostic procedure, to establish the pattern of imbalance for that day.  Even during a treatment, the use of one needle may affect the Qi in a way that makes me alter my plan to make the necessary adjustments, making it a very dynamic process and each treatment a unique experience. 

Because Qi permeates the whole body, stimulating the meridians can affect all aspects of our well-being.  Regardless of which particular treatment pattern is diagnosed, correcting the flow of Qi will help every part of the body and will often bring clarity and calmness to the mind.  For example, treatment for shoulder pain may involve meridians along the arm that influence the nose, sinuses, lungs, skin, bowels and heart. 

Stimulation of just one point on the wrist can immediately cause comfortable rumblings of the stomach, indicating a relaxation of abdominal muscles, as well as deeper more relaxed breathing. In the longer term, any improvement in Qi flow can lead to a more balanced nervous system and reduced tension throughout the body, which in turn benefits hormonal function, the immune system, digestion  and sleep patterns and can lead to reduced pain.  

Disturbance in any one meridian can manifest in a number of ways which we may not normally think of as being related. For example, a problem with the Liver meridian (named because it runs from the big toe to the head, connecting with the liver on its way) might cause menstrual problems, migraines, eye problems, itchy skin, bloating,  anxiety and irritation, insomnia (especially waking at 2am and worrying), or any combination of these.  

Symptoms such as muzzy headaches, difficulty concentrating, blood sugar imbalance, tiredness and heavy legs all suggest an imbalance in the Spleen meridian.  In practice, since the 12 meridians work together to maintain harmony in the body, it is unlikely that only one meridian is affected.  However, by identifying and strengthening the weakest channel we can improve the balance of all the others.  

So what can acupuncture treat?

Well, it can treat YOU! It can help you to become more healthy in all sorts of ways, and is also a good form of preventative medicine.  Of course, I can’t claim that it can cure serious illnesses or mend broken bones (although it may help in the recovery) but by balancing your Qi flow, many problems are addressed at once.  

Sometimes it’s very easy and quick to alleviate a symptom even in one treatment session, whereas many deep-seated chronic conditions can be hard to shift.  Often however, in such cases, when a person feels stuck and hopeless, acupuncture can help by improving their  energy  or lifting the spirits, so that they are able to cope better and move on.  

Many people come for acupuncture because although they feel unwell, medical tests have not come up with a diagnosis and they are told there is nothing wrong, or that there is no treatment available. I am usually delighted to see such patients, because Oriental Medicine, with its completely different system of diagnosis, can very often identify an effective treatment pattern that works relatively fast to bring relief.

How often have I heard people say “If only I’d known, I’d have come for acupuncture years ago!”

Posted in Articles, D&G Green Handbook.