The Chinese, the good, old wise folk from the Orient, have always believed that life energy flows in particular channels, or meridians, which govern the human body. This energy is a balance of opposite characteristics: yin and yang. Illness is understood to be an expression of an inequality between yin and yang. One way of re-establishing proper balance is insertion of needles in certain acupuncture points located along the meridians. Apart from needles the therapist can also use pressure [acupressure], laser light [laser acupuncture], electrical currents [electroacupuncture], or heat [moxibustion]. Whatever the practice, the best part is — neither the meridians nor acupuncture points have a morphological basis. What’s more, the philosophy of yin and yang is regarded as ‘intuitive,’ not scientific by critics, notwithstanding the fact that acupuncture is rapidly growing in its popularity and expanding worldwide.
Picture this — Chinese physicians created a perestroika of sorts, not long ago, using acupuncture to cure stroke victims. Hence, the big question. What makes needle therapy so unique, effective and, sometimes, a wonder to modern scientific thought?
Acupuncture is a go-between conventional and alternative medicine — a system which, till recently, had developed in isolation from Western ideas. Not anymore. Besides, the system is much more than just needles — a complicated blend of diets and other measures of which the customary definition of acupuncture forms but only a part.
Acupuncture is a European term coined by Willem Ten Rhyne, a Dutch physician, for the practice he observed during his visit to Japan in the 17th century. It literally means ‘to puncture with a needle,’ from the Latin acus [needle] and punctura [puncture]. Most practitioners think of the therapy as a method of stimulating certain points on the body by inserting special needles, or pressure, in order to modify the perception of pain, normalise physiological function and treat or prevent illness or disease. Its aim, like the other practices in Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM], is to restore yin and yang equilibrium, or symmetry, in the body and to harmonise the flow of energy known as ch’i, or prana in Indian philosophy, which is disrupted in illness, or disease. In the recent past, neurophysiological research has created a theoretical foundation for acupuncture. It corresponds to the activation of brainstem nuclei and the release of neural transmitters — endorphins, or the feel-good chemical — in the brain and downward inhibitory control systems.
There are considerable differences between traditional Chinese and Western acupuncture. In the Chinese method, no conventional diagnosis is done, or sought. The treatment is highly individualised, as the case is in homeopathy, according to each patient's particular yin and yang imbalance. This is considered as the roadmap to 'cure all.' Western acupuncturists, on the other hand, mould, or customise, the treatment by way of conventional diagnosis, while deciphering the cause of illnesses for which acupuncture is useful, or effective.
Put simply, ch’i is the indispensable element of acupuncture practice. Acupuncturists evidence that ch’i flows through the human body, along a series of a dozen channels [meridians] — alongside such meridians reside over 700 points, at which the flow of the life force can be influenced by the therapist’s needles. Theorists also say that the cause of illness is due to some discrepancy in the flow of the life force along the channels. The most amazing, or incredible, part is that the needles, for therapy, are inserted in the underlying tissues and/or skin of the patient, having no relationship whatsoever to the area in which the illness, or pain, is located or felt.
For example, needles may be inserted in the lobe of the ear, during an operative procedure in the abdomen; or, they may be placed in the forearm, when the neck is the site for surgery. Anaesthesia is also induced in much the same way. Once in place, the needles are twirled. In modern acupuncture practice, manual twirling has been replaced by electric current from wires joined to a circuit or battery. While critics say there is no basis for justifying such theories, because the channels do not appear to exist, acupuncture practitioners are not amused. They argue that the existence of certain outcomes, at the acupuncture points, that give rise to changes in the body when stimulated by needles, cannot be demonstrated — but, can only be felt.
The fact remains that acupuncture has been found to produce interesting changes in the body at both the physical and physiological levels, because some of the focal points correspond to areas representing a positive response — or, what is known as Kirlian photography, a form of photogram made with high voltage, which now finds favour in detecting illnesses like cancer. The idea is said to aid psychiatrists, no less, when the object to be photographed is kept sandwiched between two metal plates, lodged against a sheet of colour film. When the film is developed, an image of the object appears, bordered by dazzling plumes of coloured lights and small twinkling patterns like stars — a fascinating exposition of electrical fields around the living body. Specialists aver that Kirlian photography depicts the body's ‘aura,’ or the so-called ‘human energy field,’ which is not ordinarily perceptible.
Notwithstanding all the excitement, acupuncture is not a standalone treatment for all illnesses, even in China. However, its use in the treatment of pain caused by illnesses like arthritis, or after surgery, has been valued and appreciated worldwide. Western researchers and surgeons have also seen surgical procedures carried out under acupuncture-induced anaesthesia, where patients were able to converse, eat and drink, during surgery — this included some of the most complicated brain procedures. It is also reported that some patients feel energised by treatment, while others feel relaxed. The treatment is, likewise, evidenced to improve related pain in cancer patients, ease pain for women during labour, correct temporomandibular [TMJ] disorders, treat anxiety, infertility, improve menopausal symptoms and sleeplessness, including chances of successful in vitro fertilisation.
How does acupuncture work? No one knows for sure, although it is thought that the twirling of the needle or current passed through or along the channels produces a certain interference with the normal passage of nerve impulses. This could, in turn, convey a message to the brain, or the central nervous system [CNS] — so that pain is no longer felt.
To go back to stroke [paralysis] treatment, at the beginning of the article, most patients, according to evaluated reports from China, were able to stand up and walk more than 20 steps, after undergoing acupuncture therapy. The effectiveness of the therapy was almost 95 per cent. From clinical observation, people who had been debilitated by strokes for up to six months, and especially those who only had the problem for three months, made excellent progress. People who suffered longer than six months, however, gained little benefit from the treatment. They were asked to walk with sticks for support.
During the course of treatment for stroke, two needles, most commonly a needle that has a length of 5.5 cm, are used. It takes 15-30 minutes for the therapist to complete one session of treatment, in the course of which patients are also given other instructions — to breathe-in deeply and stretch their paralysed limbs. The extent of the problem decides the number of sessions. The needles may remain in the patient’s head for two hours, or two days, without affecting their normal life. Patients, bogged down by acute stroke, may need the treatment on a daily basis for over a week or two. Acupuncture’s success with needles for stroke has aroused great interest. Besides, its cumulative benefits are being intensely studied worldwide — to help patients manage their health problems with better effect. This also explains why acupuncture is gaining wider acceptance today as an auxiliary form of treatment, especially in the West, most notably in modern [allopathic] and also complementary and alternative medicine [CAM].
What about safety? Serious side-effects from acupuncture therapy are uncommon. Mild infection is a possibility. This may include local infection and tissue damage, such as bruising. Serious damage to superficial nerves or internal organs, in untrained hands, may also be a possibility. This could cause events such as a punctured lung or kidney. The chances of a needle breaking, however, are extremely minuscule. When it happens, there may be problems because of migration of broken or embedded needle fragments.
As a matter of fact, two major surveys of acupuncture safety involving over 60,000 clinic consultations, documented a low incidence of minor side-effects — such as transmission of hepatitis B and C by acupuncture needles. Unsterilised needles, the report also said, could, in certain instances, cause liver disease. Is there a solution? Yes, there is — the use of disposable needles. Besides, it is also essential to establish a clear medical diagnosis before initiating acupuncture treatment, particularly for persistent pain, in professional trained hands. The reason being acupuncture may sometimes masquerade the given illness, primarily because it can alleviate pain, discomfort, breathlessness and other niggling symptoms.