It is all about harmony and balance; of the yin and yang, the three treasures (blood and qi, mind, and essence) and the five phases (Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire). Whilst this might seem like a rather simplistic version of the human system, each of these categories breaks down in increasing depth and details. For instance, each phase represents an organ system and its paired organ (i.e. Spleen and Stomach, Liver, and Gallbladder), a tissue (muscles, tendons, etc.), a sensory organ, foods that will benefit and weaken it, colours, seasons, and times of day, which other phases it boosts and reduces, as well as all the functions and attributes of the organs.

As a result of this some of the terminology used in Chinese medicine becomes quite easy to grasp. For instance, when we refer to heat it is easy to imagine inflammation, warmth, reddening, dryness and pain. If we were to then further categorise a syndrome into heat in the intestines you could quite quickly make comparisons with IBS or other inflammatory gut issues.

Once the diagnosis is decided upon we look at the meridian system. This is a highly detailed and complex mapping of the body, based on the knowledge that the qi/energy is the animating factor that causes the functioning of the system. Therefore, if it is blocked, excessive or weakened in certain areas, correcting these imbalances will ultimately return the balance within the system and return the patient to optimal health and wellbeing.

This is done by inserting needles into the relevant acupoints on the meridians deemed to be out of balance. This would generally involve several needles placed locally (near the affected area) and some systemic points placed distally (elsewhere on the body). For instance, if we return to the IBS example, one would expect to see a cluster of needles on the abdomen to reduce inflammation and increase qi and blood flow in the area. I would also be inclined to insert a few needles in the arms and legs (it depends on exactly what the patient is presenting with as to which points are chosen as everyone is treated individually). The arms because this is where the large and small intestine meridians are and the legs because this is where the stomach and spleen meridians are. I would therefore do several distal points to calm the intestines and boost the digestive system (stomach and spleen) in order to reduce the inflammation, calm the gut and strengthen the digestive system and reduce the chance of further issues. In this sense, with Chinese medicine, you both focus on the symptoms and the root of the illness. I would also look at dietary and lifestyle issues that could be causing the issue(s) and change them for behaviours that would improve these.

Whilst it is nice to get an understanding of Chinese medicine from the perspective of a practitioner I accept that this language and way of looking at health and wellbeing is a bit unusual and potentially too loose for a western mindset. We are used to reductionist science with its specificity and minute detail. So, what does scientific research say about acupuncture and are there any theories as to why it works?

The NHS suggests its main actions are due to the release of endorphins (natural pain killers) associated with needle insertion. The British Acupuncture Council goes a bit further, stating, ‘the insertion of needles has an effect on nerves which can release muscles, over-ride brain signals, and so on. There are very often chemical changes in body fluids associated with treatment, and there is a great deal of experimentation on animals to see how various hormones and neurotransmitters are affected.’ In other words, inserting needles changes chemicals that are released in the majority, if not all, of the systems of the body, generally towards a harmonious balance. For instance, down-regulating overactive immune systems or up-regulating underactive ones.

One way to illustrate this is to imagine a trauma; a cut or bruise. When this occurs, the immune system floods the area to try and heal it, reduce pain, prevent infection etc. Acupuncture can be seen as a micro trauma, reminding the immune system that there is an issue in this area and stimulating a response to help it heal. However, that does not explain why a practitioner would put a point in the legs to affect the digestive system, for instance.

There have been some studies showing that radioactive isotopes injected into acupoints rapidly disperse along meridian lines, whereas those injected into random points just disperse locally. And an old piece of research showing that stimulation of a point on the lower leg associated with the eye stimulated the visual cortex of the brain. Thus, whilst we do not understand it fully, there does seem to be some observable changes that correlate to Chinese medical theory.

But, alas, we are still a long way from understanding how acupuncture works as well as reconciling such different approaches to medicine as we see with allopathic/western medicine and Chinese/eastern medicine. Suffice to say there are thousands of years of evidence showing that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are useful, effective, and safe for a wide variety of conditions. Indeed, the more research that goes into acupuncture and herbal medicine, the more it seems that Chinese medical theory is validated. Yet until we are able to study all areas deeply and understand the mechanisms it will be hard to say which treatment method is most effective as well as least damaging in the long term and for which conditions.

I hope you found that interesting. As always feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

Wishing you great health and wellbeing.


If you would like to book an appointment with Joe please call the clinic on 01865 751111.