It is a fact that back pain can be relieved with medication. It is also a fact that inserting a tiny needle in certain points in the body can do the same thing. Which is best for a patient with this type of back pain? That's when the doctor has to be a medical detective.
Popular opinion usually equates acupuncture with the alleviation of back pain. But actually, acupuncture can help treat all kinds of conditions from PMS to anxiety. Let me explain.
Doctors are a lot like a detectives. We sift through a large volume of clues looking for the truth. We assemble different pieces of information, bit by bit. We gather all the clues and all the bits of information together to make a clear big picture, and we try our best to base our conclusions on scientific facts. As a doctor, I definitely think that way. However, I also know that it is not the only way. For example, in Western science, it is a fact that back pain can be relieved with medication. In Chinese medicine, it is a fact that inserting a needle in certain points in the body can do the same thing.
Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, a Chinese massage called tui-na, qi gong, and diet, is every bit as scientific as Western medicine. It is distinct in that it focuses on a different set of facts. If you have ever sat quietly in prayer, or gotten lost in the sound of the ocean or the wind in the trees, you have experienced something, that’s a fact. What was it? What did you sense or feel inside? Chinese medicine would call it qi (chi), or energy. Although we can’t always measure it, we certainly know that it’s real.
Within our body, electrical impulses flow through our nerves. This is one form of energy. Energy also flows through our body in other ways. At times, certain areas in our bodies don't have enough energy, while in other places it's stuck and not flowing well.
We know the difference, for example, between being full of pep and being tired. Both are forms of energy. One could be termed movement and the other rest. Energy flows through our body, and in Chinese medicine one form of energy is called qi (chi). Qi both inhabits and moves through every cell in our body, every muscle, bone, and organ. At times, certain areas in our bodies don’t have enough, while in other places it’s stuck and not flowing well.
A practitioner of Chinese medicine examines the condition of a person’s energy, determining where it is strong or weak, calm or jittery, fast or slow. Based on the condition of the qi, they will do a treatment to correct the areas that are out of balance. Different types of techniques help strengthen areas where the qi is weak or open the flow where it is stuck.
Many people have heard of the term yin and yang or seen the yin/yang symbol. Chinese medicine views the body and all its systems, including its qi, in terms of yin and yang, which represents the dynamic balance of all things. Sun and moon. Day and night. Heat and cold. Light and dark. Fast and slow. Yang symbolizes that which is hot, fast, bright, and active. Yin symbolizes forces that are cool, slow, muted, and calming. Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, is a system to correct imbalances between yin and yang and bring the body into balance.
Acupuncture can be used for a wide variety of conditions, from back pain to PMS, anxiety, even infertility.
When I said doctors are like detectives, I also meant that understanding what style of acupuncture, what thinness of needle, which points to treat, in what order, for how long -- all that requires putting together dozens of bits of information to form a clear picture. By feeling the wrist pulse, I can feel the quality of the qi in the different parts of the body and make a mental plan of how to approach the overall treatment. There are so many variations of acupuncture, and it is helpful for so many conditions and ailments, that it takes some reflection to determine the correct approach. It can be used for sciatica and back pain, and it also helps alleviate headaches, PMS, anxiety, colds, flu, even infertility. I find it to be a godsend to have a system of medicine with centuries of success in my toolbox.
It’s fascinating to realize that there is a Western medicine parallel for acupuncture’s effectiveness. Using it in particular areas can release certain neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). We know that those chemicals act on the brain to calm the nerves. That could be why, in Western terms, acupuncture can be effective for something like anxiety.
Another explanation of acupuncture from the Western perspective is that it affects the fascia, which is the layer of connective tissue between skin and muscle. It is one huge network or web throughout the entire body. Some studies have found that acupuncture points tend to fall in areas where there are intersecting planes of fascia – in other words, one point may affect fascia that connects to many different parts of the body. From the Chinese perspective of qi permeating the fascia, that’s why I can insert a needle in the foot to help treat the liver.
There is only one body. Western and Chinese medicine simply see and understand it based on different systems. I find being able to move between both worlds helps me be a better detective and a more understanding doctor for my patients.
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Dr. Kathryn Taketa-Wong, N.D., L.Ac. Century Square Building 1188 Bishop Street, Suite 1509 Honolulu, HI 96813