Most people know that acupuncture comes from China and involves putting needles into people. What they often do not know is what an extraordinarily profound and effective system of medicine it is for a wide range of physical and psychological problems. Despite the fact that nobody relishes the idea of being needled, since I started practising acupuncture in 1978 (when it was almost completely unknown in the UK) its acceptance has been truly remarkable. That is partly because it is so effective and word of mouth has spread that fact and partly because there is an increasing amount of top quality research that proves its efficacy.
Acupuncture, learnt from short and simple courses, is now practised by many physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, doctors, etc., but this is a very narrow view of acupuncture. Fortunately, they are inclined to restrict themselves to using it for musculo-skeletal problems, such as sports injuries, tennis elbow, etc. This is relatively straightforward to do and hopefully helps some patients suffering from these kinds of problems. This kind of acupuncture is, however, a long way from how it can be used by those who have studied it in depth and are properly qualified.
Acupuncture is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, one of the only substantial systems of medicine that is still used by millions of people worldwide. Derived from the Classics of Chinese medicine, written approximately 2,000 years ago, it has been used by people throughout the Far East ever since. From the practitioner’s point of view, what is really interesting about acupuncture is its diagnostic methods. From the nature of the symptoms, along with pulse and tongue diagnosis, the practitioner can put together a comprehensive diagnosis of the patient that goes to the root of their health problems. The goal of treatment is not usually short-term symptomatic relief, but a fundamental change in the patient’s health and wellbeing.
Over the millennia, and in different areas of the Far East, many different styles have developed, but an understanding that all life is dependent on qi lies at the heart of all of them. Tai qi, qi gong and even yoga (although Indians call it prana) all depend on their effectiveness in the person’s ability to hone the condition of their qi. As we grow older, our qi becomes increasingly deficient and for many patients the crucial task of the acupuncturist is to stimulate the patient’s qi. It can become deficient in various ways, for example, it can become yin deficient or yang deficient.
Yin/yang, commonly expressed by the ubiquitous yin/yang symbol, is central to Chinese medicine, but also to Chinese philosophy, cuisine, gardening, etc. When a person becomes yang deficient, then the tendency is for the person to become sluggish, feel the cold and to generate physical and/or psychological symptoms. The nature of the symptoms depends on which organs or functions have become yang deficient. For example, if the heart has become yang deficient the person may experience palpitations on exertion or become rather melancholy and lacking in joy. If the kidneys have become yang deficient the person may be prone to lethargy, low back ache and frequent urination.
If the patient has become yin deficient they will tend to be somewhat agitated and inclined to feel hot, especially at night. This is particularly common in women who are post-menopausal. Again the symptoms will vary depending on which organs or functions are primarily affected. If the heart has become yin deficient the person may develop symptoms such as palpitations while resting, insomnia and anxiety. At worst they may experience panic attacks. If the stomach is yin deficient they may experience symptoms such as an inappropriate desire to eat and/or acid reflux or a wide range of upper digestive symptoms.
Traditional Chinese medicine has a very interesting view on the importance of a good diet. It is obvious that people should eat well, but there are particular syndromes that acupuncturists frequently encounter that are dependent on diet.
When acupuncturists talk about blood deficiency they don’t mean that the person doesn’t have enough blood (although occasionally that is the case). They mean that the qi of the blood is deficient. Whereas a Western doctor might diagnose anaemia based on bio-chemical analysis, acupuncturists diagnose blood deficiency by pulse and tongue diagnosis and by symptoms. Blood deficiency often causes low grade anxiety, insomnia, scanty periods and a host of other symptoms. A diet lacking in protein and/or B vitamins can easily lead to blood deficiency. Vegans and vegetarians should be careful that their diet is rich in these.
Blood loss can also lead to blood deficiency. Therefore, women are more prone to this syndrome than men as the blood loss from menstruation places a strain on their blood that men do not have. Pregnancy and breast feeding also deplete a woman’s blood so that when pregnant or breastfeeding women do not have sufficient blood to also menstruate. Pregnant women sometimes crave steak to nourish their blood in some cases even after they have been vegetarian for years!
‘Damp’ is also a common problem encountered by acupuncturists. Tiredness, catarrh, a muzzy heads, difficulty concentrating, bloating, putting on weight easily and many other problems can be caused by ‘damp’. Certain foods are regarded as damp forming and should be avoided by anybody prone to ‘dampness’. Dairy food is fine for some people, but easily causes ‘damp’ for people who do not tolerate it well. Our diets in Western countries have a much higher fat content that in China and Chinese practitioners are often shocked by how much ‘damp’ they see in Westerners due to their diet. Humid weather and living in a damp environment are also causes of ‘damp’. Some years ago I was unable to clear enough ‘damp’ from a patient suffering from psoriasis until she moved out her houseboat.
Excess heat (or fire as it is sometimes called) is also a problem that can be caused by diet as well as by agitated emotions. Alcohol, many prescribed medications, recreational drugs are the most heating substances of all, but coffee and spices are also very heating. Anybody who is inclined to feel too hot or tends towards being anxious or agitated should avoid these substances.
EMOTIONS, TRAUMA AND STRESS
Western medicine in many respects is a truly fantastic system of medicine. Its developments in surgery, the treatment of infections, public health and in many other areas are unmatched by any other system of medicine, but it has its limitations. One obvious limitation, which happens to be one of Chinese medicine’s great strengths, is its almost total lack of understanding of how stress, trauma and prolonged or intense emotions affect the person’s physical or psychological health. Yet these are the primary cause of the problems that afflict so many of the patients seen by complementary practitioners and general practitioners. The great classics of Chinese medicine, written over two thousand years ago, set out how different emotional states affect the person’s qi. For example, frustration and anger make the qi rise and particularly affect the liver and gall bladder and a range of other functions. However, sadness affects completely different functions and organs, especially the heart and lungs. Anxiety and worry affect other functions while trauma affects others. Of course, the patient may well feel a wide range of prolonged and intense emotions after a painful experience, such as divorce, bereavement or redundancy so the practitioner has to draw upon their intuition and sensitivity to decide which functions and organs have been primarily affected. Acupuncture is able to bring about change in a person’s emotional world in a way that that is extremely difficult with any other system of medicine.
As well as needing to study Chinese medicine theory, the acupuncturist also needs to hone various practical skills. Touch is so important. The acupuncturist needs to palpate the patient’s anatomy and musculature to find the seat of a person’s pain. She also needs to be able to locate the acupuncture points on the patient’s body, detect subtle ‘qualities’ in the person’s pulse and to be able to win the patient’s trust by the confidence that can be transmitted through one’s hands touching the patient.
WHO COMES TO SEE ACUPUNCTURISTS?
It would be safe to say that an enormous range of patients come to see us. Acupuncture has established a reputation in the West for being effective for a range of musculo-skeletal complaints. Back pain, frozen shoulders, osteo-arthritis and many other conditions are commonly treated. Many acupuncturists specialise in these kinds of complaints. Some acupuncturists specialise in helping with problems with fertility, as there has been a significant body of research in recent years proving its effectiveness in helping many women conceive. There is a very substantial demand from patients for help with fertility as more and more people delay starting their families.
Personally, my passion is for treating patients suffering from anxiety and depression or who are experiencing physical problems brought about by stress and emotional difficulties. One of the joys of practice is the huge variety of health problems that acupuncture can address. There is also a strong ethos of using acupuncture to prevent future health problems and to enhance general wellbeing.
Acupuncture has so much to offer patients in the West for whom Western medicine is not a particularly appropriate system of medicine. Demand for its treatments continues to rise and its acceptance into the healthcare of the nation will doubtlessly continue to grow.
Peter Mole is an acupuncture practitioner and Dean of the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine, Reading, UK.