Acupuncture is a technique most commonly associated with Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), though other types (such as Korean and Japanese) are taught and practiced the world over.
Acupuncture treatment involves the insertion and manipulation of fine needles into “acupuncture points” at specific places on the body. According to traditional teachings, the procedure will restore health and well-being and combat a wide array of disorders.
Acupuncture points, also known as “acupoints” or “tsubo”, are anatomical locations on the body that are the focus of the acupuncture treatment. There are several hundred points distributed along 12 main and 8 “extra” meridians. Ten of the main meridians are named after organs of the body (such as liver, heart, etc.), and the other two are named after so-called body functions, like “heart protector” or San Jiao.
The two main of the eight extra meridians sit on the midline of the trunk and head. The twelve main meridians run vertically, bilaterally, and symmetrically and every channel corresponds to and connects internally with one of the twelve organs (“Zang Fu”). Basically, this means there are six yin and six yangchannels; three on each arm and three on each leg.
The hand’s three yin channels begin on the chest and travel along the outer area of the arm to the hand. They are called Pericardium, Heart, and Lung.
The three yang channels of the hand, called Large intestine, Small intestine, and San Jiao, begin on the hand and move along the outer surface of the arm to the head.
The three yang channels of the foot begin on the face, near the eye, and travel down the body and along the leg’s outer surface to the foot. These channels are called Stomach, Bladder, and Gallbladder.
The foot’s three yin channels, called Liver, Kidney, and Spleen, begin on the foot and move along the leg’s inner surface to the chest or flank.
Acupuncture treatment recognizes qi (pronounced like ‘chee’), a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture, which is thought of as the “life force” or “spiritual energy” that is part of everything in existence. Qi’s movement through each of the twelve channels is comprised of an internal and external pathway. The external pathway is what you normally see on an acupuncture chart and is relatively superficial. All the acupuncture points of a channel lie on the external pathway. The internal pathways are the channel’s deep course where it enters the body cavities and related organs. The superficial pathways of the twelve channels represent three complete circuits of the body.
Normally, acupuncture points are located by palpation (feeling for the location) of the area, often by locating a depression on the body that one can feel with the finger. Points can also be found by feeling for small differences in temperature on the skin’s surface or over the skin, as well as changes in tension or “stickiness” of the skin and tissue. Some practitioners disagree with this method, but there is no disagreement over the location of acupoints on the body.
Many acupuncture points are also located by a measurement technique calibrated by their proportional distances from various spots on the body. “Trigger points” are acupoints normally located exclusively by tenderness, with a little pressure. It can be difficult to learn how to locate acupoints, but becomes easier with practice. There are almost 400 basic acupuncture points along the meridians, but many are rarely used. Some points are considered more therapeutically valuable than others, and are used frequently for a number of health conditions.
There are also microsystems of acupoints that are typically not found on the meridians. For example, “auriculotherapy” uses the microsystem of the external ear exclusively. The Korean system of hand acupuncture is a microsystem that focuses only on acupoints found on the hand.
Basic acupoints are referred to either by their traditional name, or by the meridian they’re located along, followed by a number to indicate at what point on the meridian they are found. For example, a common point on the hand is named Hegu, and referred to more often as “LI 4” – meaning it is found at the fourth point on the Large Intestine meridian. Extra points are usually referred to by name, but some of the more commonly known acupoints are referred to by the letter/number combination. One of the more popular “extra points” isYintang, at the midpoint between the eyebrows.
Traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture focuses on treating “patterns of disharmony” rather than addressing biomedical diagnoses – common with Western medicine – although some practitioners familiar with both systems have noted relationships between the two.
According to the World Health Organization, some common conditions that lend themselves to acupuncture treatment include respiratory system ailments such as bronchitis and asthma; upper respiratory tract conditions like sinusitis, tonsillitis and the common cold; eye disorders like cataract, retinitis, conjunctivitis and myopia (in children); toothache, gingivitis and other mouth disorders; hiccough, gastritis, ulcer, colitis, dysentery, constipation, diarrhea and a number of other gastro-intestinal conditions; neurological and musculo-skeletal ailments from headache and migraine to post-stroke pareses, facial palsy, nocturnal enuresis, “tennis elbow”, sciatica, lower back pain and osteoarthritis.
Thought to originate in China over 2,000 years ago, acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used procedures in the world. It began to come to prominence in the United States and the Western world in 1971 when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about how Chinese doctors used needles to ease his post-surgery pain.
In the past two decades, acupuncture treatment has experienced great gains in the United States. According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey – the largest and most comprehensive survey of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use by American adults to date – as many as 8.2 million American adults used acupuncture at some point, and an estimated 2.1 million had employed the ancient technique within the previous year.