Years ago, while working as an engineer in Boston, I received acupuncture treatments aimed at reducing the high level of stress in my life. I had been on a very taxing project at work and after hearing a co-worker rave about an acupuncturist, I became curious enough to begin weekly acupuncture treatments. I found the treatments to be incredibly relaxing. Though difficult to describe in words how I felt physically or emotionally after a treatment, I was certain that I wanted to experience that physical and emotional state at all times, one of extreme contentment, comfort, and awareness.
It was apparent to me that acupuncture treatments brought about a change, but as an engineer, I sought a logical explanation and became curious about how acupuncture could elicit such a response in a patient. It seemed implausible that inserting about ten extremely thin needles into a patient’s body for approximately twenty minutes could result in such a dramatic change, and yet that is precisely what was happening. The more I received treatments, the more I was able to feel the therapeutic effects, and the more fascinated I became with acupuncture.
During these treatments, I was frequently frustrated when I asked the acupuncturist to explain how acupuncture worked. The acupuncturist would state tersely that unbalanced energy was being balanced. Each subsequent question seemed to be met with a similarly brief, matter-of-fact response. I assumed that my acupuncturist was actually avoiding my questions. I got the impression that he couldn’t really explain how acupuncture worked, so instead he filled the air with incomprehensible, new-age jargon. I just wanted an answer to my question.
Several years later, while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met a student who was studying at a local acupuncture college. She had studied acupuncture for two years and would be graduating in another year. Now, I could surely get an answer to my question. I asked her very specifically, "How can a needle inserted here", pointing toward my wrist, "bring about change in a completely different part of my body? What is physiologically, or even chemically, happening to explain that phenomenon?" She didn’t hesitate at all before responding. "I don’t know. I have no idea." Again, I found this answer very unsatisfying. Wouldn’t her education, an accredited Master’s Degree program, focus on that very topic? How could she be incapable of answering these questions after two years of studying acupuncture?
After another year had passed, my continued interest in acupuncture led me to apply and enroll at Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe, NM. The 3,000 hour program, leading to a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine, helped me to see my questions and their answers in a new light. It was also while studying in this educational program that I met my wife, Jennifer, a Licensed Acupuncturist as well. Today, I can fully understand why the answers to my questions were so unsatisfying. I was unaware at the time that I had been seeking a Western explanation of an Eastern concept. In asking my questions, I was not only interested in learning about how acupuncture worked, but I was also implicitly expecting an answer in my language, in terms understandable by someone who grew up and lived in this part of the world.
In the academic programs teaching traditional Chinese medicine in the United States today, there is little emphasis placed upon the subject of how acupuncture works from a scientific point of view. Rather, the educational programs focus upon helping the student to understand the eastern explanation of acupuncture, the one that I originally found so evasive and confusing. This isn’t to say that research studies aren’t trying to figure out how acupuncture works from a scientific viewpoint. In many such studies, acupuncture has been shown to trigger the release of endorphins and enkephalins, chemicals with pain relieving properties. Other theories propose that acupuncture needles jam the neuronal pathways and thereby prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. But rather than demanding a scientific description of how acupuncture works, I began to see the benefit of understanding the Chinese explanation, since that was the paradigm within which instructors and practitioners had worked for thousands of years. If we try to talk about Chinese medicine strictly from a scientific viewpoint, then we are not really talking about Chinese medicine. We would be excluding a large quantity of important Chinese medical philosophy which is inextricably linked to what this medicine is and from where it has come. During the course of my studies, I began to see and embrace the fact that in order to learn how traditional Chinese medicine works, it is necessary to understand those who have a history of practicing it.
Thus, acupuncture works because with extremely thin, sterile, disposable acupuncture needles, an acupuncturist accesses a patient’s energy and restores balance. From a Chinese medical point of view, energy moves through the human body along fourteen main pathways and when the flow of this energy is obstructed or blocked, the result is disease or injury, such as pain, reproductive disorders, or gynecological problems (to name just a few). These blockages can be caused by emotional stress, poor eating habits , unhealthy lifestyle choices, or physical injury. The acupuncturist uses acupuncture needles (and other methods) to mildly stimulate certain specific points on the body and restore balance to the normal flow of that energy, relieving pain, and treating disease. Hopefully, you don’t find this explanation unsatisfying. If you do, you may not be alone.
Peter is a Licensed Acupuncturist in the State of Idaho and he is nationally board certified in acupuncture and Chinese Herbology. He practices with his wife, Jennifer, who is also a Licensed Acupuncturist. They specialize in the treatment of pain and infertility at Acupuncture West, in Boise, ID.