Although Chinese Medicine has existed for thousands of years, the cultural revolution in Mao’s China saw profound changes in the way Chinese Medicine is practiced. This movement sought to remove the mystical and esoteric influences of Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) and created what is now known as TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine. TCM consists of acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, and manual therapies such as cupping, tui’na (Chinese medical massage), moxibustion and gua sha (skin scraping) and uses a more standardized diagnostic system than its ancient predecessor.
TCM has gained popularity in the Western world, especially in the United States, as improved quality of research studies results in better clinical outcomes. There are now thousands of private TCM clinics and it is common for physicians to recommend acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for fertility support, pain management, stress reduction, and a whole host of other complaints. But in the US and Europe, TCM has still often been considered, at best, “alternative” medicine, and at worst, quackery or unscientific.
However, new legislation in China seeks to put traditional medicine on the same level as modern medicine. China’s new laws, aimed to both promote and protect TCM, grant equal status to both TCM and Western medicine. This should help with public acceptance, funding and quality control. 95% of Chinese hospitals already have a TCM department on site, many of them large, well-developed and fully integrative with modern medicine.
The US has also seen a boom in the acceptance of acupuncture as more major hospitals such as MD Anderson Cancer Center, The Dana Farber Institute and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center now offer acupuncture on-site as an adjunct to conventional treatments. Acupuncture has been shown in numerous clinical trials to be an effective treatment for various conditions, and we hope the rest of the world will follow China’s lead in making this powerful medicine available, affordable and respected throughout the globe.
When I say “acupuncture,” many people think “needles” and I can see their eyes go a little unfocused as I am sure they recall their most horrible memory of a nurse sticking them multiple times searching for a vein, or that time they almost passed out after giving blood, or when they saw their baby or their brother get vaccinated and the screams of pain that still ring in their ears.
Don’t worry, acupuncture is nothing like any of that.
Many people think that acupuncture must stimulate nerves in order to work, and, following this line of thinking, therefore it must be quite uncomfortable! However, acupuncture needles don’t actually touch your nerves. It does stimulate skin and muscle, however, and your brain picks up on this. When your brain notices a needle at the point called Stomach 36, it makes some changes to your digestion, your metabolism, and your immune system. But when it notices a needle at the point called Liver 3, it relaxes the muscles, reduces inflammation in the body, and calms down the emotions. And so on with the hundreds of other acupuncture points spread across the entire body.
The body has a complex circuit of blood vessels, nerves, capillaries, and lymphatic vessels, all of which we can see, touch and feel. However, we all know about opposites: yin and yang, light and dark, matter and void. One theory of how acupuncture might work, even though it doesn’t stimulate these networks directly, is by using the space between the vessels, the space between the nerves, the fluids in and between cells, etc., to transmit electrical and chemical energy to the brain. This potential space, still largely ignored by modern medicine, forms part of the body, and electrical and chemical signals can travel along these pathways.
As these electrical and chemical signals reach the central nervous system, the brain makes adjustments in the body. Maybe it increases blood flow to the uterus with a thin endometrial lining. Maybe it cleans up inflammation in an area that’s been painful for years, or it finally gets the signal to ovulate at the right moment. Maybe it sends more pain-killing chemicals to achy joints, or it stabilizes the cortisol-melatonin rhythm of sleep and wake cycles. It depends on which points were stimulated, and that’s determined by an experienced practitioner who gives a customized diagnosis to fit the presentation of each patient.
So, the bottom line is that when someone says to me, “Acupuncture? But I hate needles!” I explain to them that in the tip of the big, scary hypodermic needle they are surely thinking about in that moment, you could fit at least 20-50 acupuncture needles. And when they ask me, “But does it work? How does it work if there’s no drug or anything on the needle? Does it stimulate the nerves or something?”, I tell them that well, yes, it does work, and it works by stimulating the nervous system, but not the nerves directly. And thank goodness, because that would be super painful!