"You don't have to have a point, to have a point!" - Songwriter Harry Nilsson
by Michael Braunstein
Though Seventies songster Nilsson was making a broad philosophical statement, there may be a number of practitioners of the ancient Chinese healing art of acupuncture who feel a kinship with the sentiment expressed in his words. Think of acupuncture. What sticks in your mind? For many, the first image that comes is a point - the point of a needle. But that doesn't always have to be the case.
The needles are so fine that there is very little, if any, sensation of penetration. Stimulating the acupuncture point affects the flow of qi. Health is restored when the energy is balanced.
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RICHARD NIXON, FATHER OF AMERICAN ACUPUNCTURE.
Well, no he isn't - not really. But it was during President Nixon's historic trip to China in 1971 that journalist James Reston became ill with appendicitis. In a life-threatening situation, he was hospitalized and his appendix removed. He recovered splendidly. The point? Reston's appendix was removed and the Chinese doctors used acupuncture as anesthesia! Nixon was understandably impressed. This event is credited with initiating an exchange program between medical practitioners in the two countries. The door was open. As we have seen before, when something works, people want it. Once in America, acupuncture flourished.
Acupuncture is one of the most researched and respected of the healing arts. In its fullest sense, it is a complete medical system. It combines herbs, diet, massage and exercise with treatment procedures such as the familiar technique of inserting needles into the body to effect healing. It has been in use for at least 5000 years. Acupuncture is detailed in the world's oldest medical text, The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. Dating to several centuries before Christ, the text is still the definitive theoretical foundation for the practice of acupuncture. (Don't look for the latest edition at Border's, but it is used in most of the 30-plus acupuncture schools currently in the U.S.)
Acupuncture is used to address physical, emotional and psychological problems. The World Health Organization currently recognizes acupuncture as a viable therapy for over 100 diseases. The theory behind acupuncture is similar in nature to that of all holistic healing arts. Simply stated, a person has a natural, innate healing energy that, when balanced, can return the body to a state health.
In acupuncture and Chinese medicine, the "life force" is known as qi (pronounced as "chee.") Qi flows through the body along 12 specific channels, or meridians. Along these meridians are over 460 acupuncture points that interface with qi. In order to effect a balanced flow of energy through the body, the acupuncturist uses the insertion of thin needles to either build qi or drain qi. The needles are so fine that there is very little, if any, sensation of penetration. Stimulating the acupuncture point affects the flow of qi. Health is restored when the energy is balanced.
Traditional ways of stimulating acupuncture points include the gentle application of heat by way of applying smoldering herbs to the needles while inserted (moxabustion). It is now believed that the points can also be successfully stimulated by the application of low voltage electrical current attached to the needles.
Different combinations of points are related to various organs or parts of the body. In addition, the profound theories of energetic medicine that comprise the Chinese healing arts guide the trained acupuncturist in delivering the therapy.
NEEDLES, PINS AND SMOKY TOES. SEE WHICH WAY THE BABY GOES
Toward the end of the third trimester of pregnancy, it is important that the baby in the womb become positioned for easy exit. Any aspect other than headfirst can present potential danger for mom and child. Often, a delivering physician will opt for a caesarean section and surgically remove the baby rather than risk what is known as a "breech birth." Peril attendant to breech birth or caesarean is considered much higher than natural delivery.
Prior to Nixon's China visit and the introduction of acupuncture to America, if someone said sticking a needle in a pregnant mom's little toe and burning some rolled up herbs would save the mom and baby from having a dangerous breech birth, it would hardly be believed. Yet that is exactly what research published in a 1998 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found. Remember, this isn't news to an acupuncturist familiar with a therapy established and understood for over 5000 years.
Using the Western medicine "gold standard" of randomized controlled trial (RCT), researchers presented their evidence for peer review. What they found was that an ancient technique used by acupuncturists in China to make fetuses move in the womb so as to present the head first for birthing actually works. By inserting an acupuncture needle in a locus next to the small toe known as Zhiyin and subsequently activating the acupoint by the burning of the herb mugwort, known as moxa to acupuncturists, there was a 75 per cent success rate. The scientific conclusion: acupuncture in the mom's little toe makes the fetus turn and present its head for birthing, thus saving the mother and child from life-threatening breech birth.
Readers of the JAMA article may make two interesting notes. The researchers mention they had problems with the test groups. Since the study was conducted in China and the practice is acknowledged there, it was difficult to find mothers with ultrasounds showing breech position that would remain in the control group and not receive the acupuncture. In China it is a common home therapy and they all wanted it. In fact, it was suspected that they may have done the procedure themselves. The results of the test may have actually been even more dramatic had they not.
And from another point of view, it seems completely absurd to read research done about acupuncture and not once read about chi or life force or meridians, the very foundations of the healing art. Such ignorance of the workings of acupuncture itself demonstrates the tough job Western science has in trying to understand something that is almost beyond its ken.
"We have impoverished the entire patient/doctor relationship. The whole concept of traditional Chinese medicine is appropriate for the current Western paradigm," says physician Laeth Nasir. He was interviewed on the Heartland Healing public access television program. As a medical doctor, Nasir employs the traditional use of thin, sterile needles to perform acupuncture on the patients who see him at the University of Nebraska Medical Center Family Practice Clinic in Omaha. The marriage of an Eastern, holistic approach with conventional Western medical technology seems to be the goal of some of the forward thinking doctors at UNMC.
"We've found acupuncture very useful in the treatment of chronic pain especially," Dr. Nasir reports. He is quick to point out that at his office, a thorough investigation typical of Western medicine is performed in addition to using acupuncture. Pain is not the only complaint for which Nasir uses acupuncture.
"If there is a puzzling symptom that is not responding to conventional treatment, we often try acupuncture and find a satisfactory solution."
NILSSON WAS RIGHT
In the 1980's, Chinese physicians began using low-powered cold laser light to stimulate the acupuncture points. They believe this made the use of needles unnecessary. While there is still some difference of opinion between traditionalists and laser users, this method has caught on as a popular use of the theories behind acupuncture.
"We've been using 'no-needle' acupuncture for over ten years," comments Linda Klepinger of Candlewood Clinic in Omaha. "While needle acupuncture has certainly been found to be effective, the no-needle approach is a perfect alternative for people who don't want to use needles." In addition to using laser stimulation of the acupuncture points, "we use micro-current stimulators also," Linda adds. Dr. Ray Klepinger of the clinic also uses traditional needle acupuncture.
Another "no-needle" approach to the theory of acupuncture is known as acupressure. Acupressure uses only the pressure applied by the therapist's fingertip or knuckle to manipulate the pressure point. It is considered to be a form of bodywork or massage, though very specialized. The use of only pressure to affect the flow of qi must be considered to be an even older form than the use of needles. "We've been successful in helping people with any number of problems since 1979," Dorothy Zyla of American Acu-aid Clinic mentions. Some typical problems people turn to acupressure for include smoking cessation, weight control and chronic pain symptoms. Another valuable reality of acupressure is that many of the important pressure points are easily accessible to the client themselves. This means that acupressure can be effective when self-applied.
Chinese hospitals typically have Western medicine wings operating just a few feet from the wings that perform traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. Patients are wheeled between wings to receive whatever treatment is appropriate with no prejudice toward its culture of origin but based only its effectiveness. The only goal is the health of the patient. Today, three decades after James Reston's appendectomy, we may well be seeing the emergence of a relationship between traditional Healing Arts and Western medical technology that will further that goal of health for all without prejudice toward the technique.