Recently I’ve been involved in creating and hosting a series of documentaries on integrative medicine. The three films are aimed at health care professionals. The first is about the science of tai chi, the second is about the science of meditation and the third is about the science of acupuncture. I’ve just wound up the last on-location filming (interviewing experts) for the acupuncture film, and am struck by how this ancient healing modality is blossoming in popularity across the country.
A healing tool of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture has been successfully administered for more than 2,500 years. According to the TCM view, a vital energy called qi flows through the body along channels called meridians. I like to think of these channels as a sprinkling system for the body, bringing qi to vital organs and extremities in much the way hoses bring water to your garden. In the TCM model of health and disease, when qi flow is blocked it stagnates. Stagnating qi causes illness. Acupuncture therapy unblocks the qi flow, strengthens or weakens the qi (think opening and closing the garden spigot) and directs it to areas of need.
A holistic practice, acupuncture seeks to re-establish the body’s healthy equilibrium and function, as opposed to forcing healing using surgery or pharmaceuticals. Interestingly, Chinese practitioners were not the only (and may not have been the first) to identify these energy pathways in the body. The frozen body of a man recovered well-preserved from the Alps features tattoos that correspond to Chinese acupuncture’s qi meridians.
Much research is afoot to attempt to define qi in Western terms. This is a challenge, as the word runs deeply through not only Chinese medicine, but through Chinese art, literature, philosophy, pugilism and daily life. From the standpoint of Western medical science, qi is likely to be revealed as some amalgam of endorphins, the bioelectric potential of cell membranes, nervous conduction, circulating hormones and perhaps even photons (light) and infrared radiation (heat). In attempting to define and quantify qi, acupuncture research may end up identifying a whole new system of biological information, such as the conduction of impulses through the body’s connective tissue.
A typical acupuncture treatment involves penetrating the skin with tiny needles, but some styles of acupuncture (Japanese toyohari, for instance) don’t require such penetration. Some researchers link such distant healing to the so-called “non-local” effects of quantum physics. Cutting edge stuff! Still, studying the effects of acupuncture with the traditional, Western, double-blind placebo controlled model presents certain difficulties. These center on the fact that since we don’t fully understand how acupuncture works, we don’t know what the variables are; not understanding those elements, we can’t adequately control for them. More, the term “placebo effect” (as in this treatment or that pill is no more effective than a placebo) is an inaccurate and pejorative term that is rapidly losing relevance as we learn more about the body’s ability to heal itself. It turns out that the effect is powerful, and desirable, perhaps the new “gold standard” for the way the body should heal.
Despite the challenges of study design and the mind-bending possibilities for a new understanding of how the body works, acupuncture has been extensively studied and verified both by international studies and by our own National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). Part of the National Institutes of Health, NCCAM alone sponsors more studies than I can list here, and their website (merely one, orthodox outlet for medical information from a Western point of view) addresses acupuncture for pain, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and more.