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Acupuncture, or needle puncture, is actually a European term invented by Willem Ten Rhyne, a Dutch physician who visited Nagasaki in Japan in the early part of the seventeenth century. The Chinese describe acupuncture by the character 'Chen', which literally means 'to prick with a needle', a graphic description of this therapeutic technique.


Early History

Acupuncture has a clearly recorded history of about 2,000 years as mentioned above, but some authorities claim that it has been practiced in China for some 4,000 years. Some believe that the practice of acupuncture began during the Stone Age when stone knives or sharp edged tools, described by the character 'Bian', were used to puncture and drain abscesses. However, I personally think this explanation is way too simplistic to account for the sophisticated pathway of acupuncture meridians, all the detailed points and all the philosophy that backs it up. It is more a reflection of our ignorance than a statement of fact about how acupuncture developed as nothing confirms a progressive, point by point discovery of the meridian or point system.

The origins of acupuncture, indeed, like the origins of the pyramids, are shrouded in mystery and opinions and theories about them abound, still open to vigorous debate and interpretation. They are part of the ongoing fascinating mystery novel about the evolution of humanity, the origins of its knowledge and science with so many unsolved enigmas, acupuncture and the origins of Chinese medicine being one of them.

There is evidence that acupuncture has been practiced in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, many parts of Europe and South America, and even by the North American Indians. The Eskimos, for instance are still using sharpened stones for treating illness. In Brazil, for example, there is a tribe whose method of treating illness is to shoot tiny arrows from a blowpipe on to specific areas of the skin. The Ebers papyrus of 1550 B.C. (now in the British Museum) describes a system of channels and vessels in the body which approximates more closely to the Chinese system of channels than to any known system of blood vessels, lymph vessels or nerves.

In India, an ayurvedic form of early acupuncture also existed. Ayurvedic acupuncture was practiced by many in India and was taught as an Ayurvedic subject in the major ancient universities like Nalanda and Takshashila. Excavations have unearthed metal acupuncture needles in the sites of these ancient universities.

However, the Chinese system of acupuncture is the best documented, most complete and sophisticated system available to us today, thanks to the scholarly dedication of generation after generation of physicians and to the high wisdom of many Daoist practitioners who made sure that their teachings were available for future generations.

What is acupuncture and how does it work?

Acupuncture involves the use of very thin needles of varying length inserted in acupuncture points, according to a body map used for over 2000 years.

I think the best modern analogy to understand acupuncture is through our knowledge of electricity. We can say that acupuncture works on the “electrical wiring” or grid of the human body. While this electrical “meridian” or pathway map does include the Western concept of nervous system, it goes beyond that system.

Scientists and research have established that certain chemicals and neurotransmitters such as endorphins (a natural anti-pain and stress opioid) seem to released and stimulated by acupuncture needles. This is a very valuable piece of information but the “chemical” model so dear to modern medicine and nutrition, is, in my opinion, limited and will never account for all that acupuncture can do. The more subtle electrical, energetic and vibrational models that modern science has started exploring since the advent of quantum physics hold more promise. We do know now that all matter is simply energy at a lower rate of vibration.

The Chinese refer to the “Qi” flowing through the body, a term we often translate by “energy” or “life force.” It is that mysterious life coursing through the body. In a very concrete sense, Qi may mean “air” and oxygen as I found out in China through the little vendors along the streets who offered to put “Qi” back into my bicycle tires if I had a flat tire!. In a broad sense, QI applies to what makes our bodies and universe breathe in unison and in rhythm. Qi means constant movement, life and flow. When the Qi gets blocked, there is trouble and pain. According to that understanding, it is said in Chinese medicine that, in the body, any “pain is stagnation and any stagnation is pain.”

Acupuncture, seen from that angle, is a way to restore movement and smooth flow to stagnated areas by relieving excess pressure in certain areas or stimulating areas that are deficient in “Qi” or lifeforce. We often intuitively describe certain pains as a “pressure” while we might describe others as a “weakness” or “numbness.” There are many different acupuncture techniques to address different situations.

An important point to note is that, just like with the electrical system in our house, the button where we switch on the light or current is not necessarily located at the place where the light occurs. By the same token, the “Qi” follows certain pathways and acupuncturists will typically use distal points or “switches” that do not seem directly related to the problem area. A headache for example might be mostly treated through points on the hands and feet. Some treatments may use a combination of local and distal points while some will rely only on distal points. Overtime and over centuries, acupuncturists have compiled lists of particularly effective points for specific problems.

In the past few years, community acupuncture clinics have become quite popular in the US and rely mostly on the use of distal points. Acupuncture can be done more quickly without having to ask patients to undress. This type of acupuncture is very common in China.

I apprenticed for three months in a Chinese medicine hospital of Chengdu in the Sichuan province. There were literally hundreds of people coming for acupuncture. In the room where patients were treated, there were several armchairs, chairs and a couple of tables for those who needed to lie down such as those suffering from lower back pain. There were also several doctors and students who would take out the needles, perform moxibustion etc. Treatments went on all morning from 7:00 to 12:00 and hundreds of patients would come.

The benefits are obvious: more people seen at once, more affordable treatments and therefore the possibility for patients to come more often when the problem required a series of treatments (every day or every other day for 10 days as a course of treatment was a very common protocol). The disadvantages are also obvious: less personal care, a more noisy and less intimate setting. In the West, a good compromise might be to see a practitioner on an individual basis for an initial treatment and for whenever the diagnostic needs to be adjusted or when new elements have to be taken into account. Community acupuncture can be a useful resource for more numerous treatments and less financial strain, which often keeps people from receiving the care they need.

What does acupuncture do?

Although mostly known in the West for its effect on body pain -- arm, shoulder, lower back etc.-- acupuncture also relieves a wide variety of symptoms from headaches to digestive or emotional issues. Acupuncture and herbs work wonders for cough and colds for example.

Many problems, such as headaches or nausea, can be, most of the time, instantaneously relieved. Some chronic problems, such as cardiac problems or allergies for example, can take longer and require more sessions but respond very well to acupuncture treatments. Hormonal and menopausal imbalance, gynecological problems are other areas where acupuncture has proved very effective.

Acupuncture also offers a powerful tool for processes of detoxification, as is well known in detox programs that have long been using ear acupuncture protocols to alleviate common symptoms of substance withdrawal. Acupuncture is therefore a precious tool for those who want to quit smoking, stop any kind of addiction or substance abuse. It can also help therefore those who want to switch to a healthier lifestyle, give up specific foods -- i.e caffeine, junk food, sugar -- and are most likely to also suffer from detoxing reactions. The discomfort experienced accounts for some of the failure to stick to the good resolutions as cravings, headaches, fatigue and emotional upset are among the likely symptoms.

Acupuncture is therefore, by the same token, a precious ally during fasting as it can also alleviate the discomfort of most common symptoms. In cases of nausea or vomiting for example, acupuncture is a treatment of choice as it does not involve ingesting anything that the liver or stomach might not be able to process at that stage. Headaches, palpitations, dizziness, insomnia as well as the constipation, digestive upset or bloating that are often part of a fast are among the many symptoms for which acupuncture is ideal. This is the way acupuncture is used at the Tree of Life for example, where I was asked by Dr. Cousens to design a simple acupuncture protocol as an adjunct therapy to relieve most of the symptoms associated with detoxification.

Acupuncture has proved to be very effective for the relief of side effects associated with chemotherapy or radiation, therefore enhancing the chances of recovery. Many points are helpful to strengthen the immune system and support organs or systems weakened by conventional treatments and medications.

Through its restorative action on the deep electrical grid of the body, acupuncture exerts a profound effect on the nervous system and is therefore especially helpful for re-establishing emotional balance, anchor the “Shen” and clear any overheat that may cause chaotic emotional release.

Acupuncture is therefore a wonderful preventive form of treatment: relaxation and lowering of stress, balancing of our emotions, strengthening of our immune system and replenishing of our reserves of energy are some of the guaranteed benefits of acupuncture.

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