Acupuncture is still a very novel form of medicine in the West, though archeological evidence suggests that it has been practiced in some form for close to 5,000 years. Of course, the medicine has undergone significant evolution in that time. Thank goodness! No one would want to be stabbed by the heavy stone needles that have been found dating to the Neolithic Era! Similarly, the theories on which acupuncture is based are very old but have also been modified, updated, and polished as time has gone on. In fact, the medicine continues to evolve and change to this very day.

Acupuncture is one component of traditional Chinese medicine, a group of practices that also includes herbal medicine, moxibustion, body work, energy-based forms of exercise, and dietary therapy. Moxibustion, the burning of the herb mugwort in direct or indirect contact with the skin, is such an important component that in China, the general practices are most often referred to as acupuncture and moxibustion, rather than as acupuncture alone.

The theories that form the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine are Yin-Yang Theory and Five-Element or Five-Phase Theory, both of which are foundational understandings of Daoism and may be used to describe any and all Earthly phenomena. Yin-Yang theory is the more basic, setting up a basic dualism similar to how we think in the West. Yang describes the aspects of anything that are characterized by movement, heat, dryness, power, uprising, spreading, male-ness. Yin describes the aspects of anything characterized by stasis, coolness, moisture, suppleness and nourishment, downward and inward movement, female-ness. Concerning bodily ailments, yin and yang make for easy descriptors. Heart burn is yang in nature due to the feeling of burning or heat. Chills or cold hands would be yin in nature. These are very basic examples.

What makes Yin-Yang theory different from Western dualism is the understanding that the two aspects are interdependent, unlike in the West where we tend to prefer thinking of things like life and death or sickness and health being independent, thus allowing for the possibility that sickness and death may not be necessary. With Yin-Yang, one cannot exist without the other. Furthermore, one is continually changing into the other. For example, eating a lot of cold, damp food like ice cream initially causes a yin, cold feeling in the stomach. However, because such food is difficult to process, it often leads to indigestion and heart-burn, a more yang sensation.

Five-element theory is a more nuanced outlook, dividing Earthly phenomena into five categories: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Wood corresponds to the season of spring, when plants grow. It is a warm season, but not as warm as summer, which corresponds to fire. Therefore, fire is more yang than wood in terms of temperature. The other elements follow in kind, earth is late summer, metal is fall, water is winter. Over centuries of observation, these elements were applied to the organs of the body for diagnostic purposes. Water corresponds to the kidneys and bladder, wood to the liver and gallbladder, fire to the heart and small intestine, earth to the stomach and spleen, and metal to the lungs and large intestine.

The five elements can be viewed as occurring in a cycle. Water gives rise to wood (which needs water to grow), fire burns wood, the ashes become earth, earth begets metal (as in the metal ore deposits within the earth), and metal gives rise to water. That last one takes a little more imagination to see, but one example occurs with the condensation that easily occurs on metal. This is called the generating cycle. There is also a controlling cycle, as in water controlling fire and metal controlling wood. When the organ correspondences are used, one can see how internal pathologies can travel in the body. For example, the liver (wood) is the organ most closely associated with stress. When stress causes wood to become overactive, the next element in the sequence can be affected, in this case earth. Earth corresponds to the digestive organs of stomach and spleen. This is why stress can lead to indigestion, diarrhea, and even such things as irritable bowel syndrome.

At the basic level, both yin-yang and five-element theories are analogies or symbolic representations to represent biological phenomena in terms that ancient people understood, namely as how earthly phenomena corresponded to biological phenomena. The methods of treatment, including acupuncture, herbs, and moxibustion, based on these symbolic understandings were developed and refined over hundreds and thousands of years without the benefit of modern scientific research.

Modern Western medicine operates under the understanding, from the Age of Enlightenment, that knowledge is advanced through the use of the scientific method. Ancient Eastern medicine was built through centuries and millenia of clinical observation. Modern Western medicine now considers valid only those treatments that can be "proven" with double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. Ancient medicine most often considered a treatment valid if the patient felt better and grew less sick. Modern research with greater controls is only fairly recently being performed on acupuncture. The results have been favorable enough that the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health consider acupuncture an effective treatment for a variety of conditions.

The lack of wide-ranging scientific "proof" about the efficacy of acupuncture and other complementary medical modalities has resulted in the idea that these treatments are nothing more than elaborate placebos that work merely through coincidence or belief. Indeed, many people think that such treatments will not work if the patient does not "believe" in them. Those who have received benefit from acupuncture, many of whom began without either belief or disbelief in its validity, see things differently. For many, acupuncture works. The proof is that they feel better, and they don't need a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to tell them it worked. Indeed, I've performed hundreds of treatments and can say without reservation that acupuncture treatment does not require belief. The precise placement of acupuncture needles into the body causes physiological changes that may not be understood yet, but occur nevertheless. Acupuncture does not work for every person, every time, for every condition. Nor does any Western medical treatment. The question is, will it work for you? The treatments are very safe and all but free of side-effects. There is very little risk to giving it a try, aside from challenging your beliefs that it should not work.

Call Lake Highlands Acupuncture today for a free 30-minute consultation to discuss your specific needs!