Category Archives: Acupuncture

Chinese Medicine is Physical Medicine (Not Energy Medicine)

I must admit, when I first learned about this magical, invisible “Qi” I was intrigued and excited. And then I was told that this Qi travels throughout the human body inside invisible energy meridians… I was hooked, how amazing! These concepts were so interesting to my Western mind.  It sounded like a fairy-dust magic exists and that there is a long history of medicine to back it up. Well, sorry to disappoint the Western masses, but it turns out the energy & fairy-dust ideas are based on mistranslations from a French diplomat in the early 1900’s.  In this article I will explain how Chinese Medicine is a purely physical medicine; A system based on blood flow, organ function and the health of the nervous system.  In this article I will also explain how this misunderstanding occurred and why it still persists today.

Most of this misunderstanding around Chinese Medicine being “energy medicine” started with a well-meaning French diplomat named George Soulié de Morant in the early 1900’s (his books on the topic were published in 1934 & 1939). George lived in China for many years and wrote a series of amazing books chronicling what he saw, including later works on Chinese Medicine. Unfortunately, George had no training in medicine and additionally he had no training in the ancient Chinese character system (called Seal Script) in which the classics were written.  Because of George’s lack of education related to Chinese Medicine, his writings on “Qi” and the “meridian” system were fundamentally inaccurate.  In addition, because there was not a great deal of interest in Chinese Medicine in Europe at the time (1940’s) there were no other experts around with opposing viewpoints.

Paul Unschuld is probably the best known and most educated translators of ancient Chinese medicine texts.  He famously wrote:

“…It should be noted that the interpretation of qi 氣 as “energy”, so widespread in TCM literature today, lacks any historical basis.”

In summary, Qi does not mean “energy” and is almost always incorrectly translated.  This mistranslation leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese Medicine and how it works.

So then, what is the meaning of Qi as used in Chinese Medicine?  While there are over 10 definitions of Qi in English-Chinese dictionaries, we mostly use 2 of the definitions in Chinese Medicine:

1.) Qi = “Vital Air”, meaning the vital part of the air we breathe.  What is the vital part of the air we breathe?  Well Oxygen, of course.  If we have reduced Qi (oxygen) then clearly physical health will suffer.

2.) Qi = “The Function” of something.  For example, the function of the Kidney organ is called “Kidney Qi” and the function of the Stomach organ is called “Stomach Qi”.  This meaning hints at perhaps the greatest gift of Chinese Medicine: a treatment method that can improve the function of the organ system.  This is a complete system designed to improve health and vitality, and is fundamentally not interested in suppressing symptoms.  The core treatment methods of Chinese Medicine are targeted at improving blood flow and thereby the function of the organ system (Heart, Stomach, Kidney, etc).

Qi is not the only concept that is often misunderstood in Western translations.  The term “Meridian” is also problematic.  In fact the most accurate term for the longitudinal pathways described in Chinese Medicine is “vessel”, not “meridian”. Meridian, as it is used in Chinese medicine, is a concept invented by inaccurate translations from the French in the 1940’s.  The vessel system described in classic TCM texts is a physical system that carries blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.  Sounds exactly like blood vessels, huh?  In modern anatomical terms, the vessel system of Chinese Medicine would simply be the vascular system.  The vessel system in TCM is a network arteries which branch down to capillaries and then return to the heart as veins.  Part of the confusion in understanding the “meridian” concept is that some aspects of the nervous system included in the descriptions of these vessels.  This is due to the fact that the ancient Chinese physicians didn’t quite understand the nervous system as a separate entity and therefore mixed the functions of the vascular system together with the nervous system.

It should be noted that this inaccuracy doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of Chinese Medicine, it simply makes it a bit more difficult to explain its effect in Western terminology.  For a physiological explanation of acupuncture, here is an article on how acupuncture works.  Chinese Herbal Medicine is more obviously a physical medicine system, meaning that drinking an extract of physical herbs will most likely produce a physical effect, not an energetic one.  Here is a more detailed explanation of how Chinese Herbal Medicine works.

After graduating from acupuncture school, I spent 4 months in China, mostly studying acupuncture and herbal medicine in TCM Hospitals.  There I saw first-hand that Chinese doctors don’t consider their medicine system an “energy medicine”.  At the time, I was fresh out of acupuncture school so I tried at-length to engage my Chinese teachers in a discussion in the finer points of energy.  However these Chinese doctors were oddly disinterested in the conversation…  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now realize that they were trying their best not to shatter the “energy model” I had just learned in 3 years for Chinese Medicine school.

This experience in China hints at the interesting part of the story… Why does this energy model persist, even though it is neither supported by the classic texts or by basic intellectual reasoning.  The answer here seems to be that the Chinese medical community are happy to play lip-service to the energy idea in exchange for control of the medicine itself.  As long as this energy model persists then they can continue to claim Chinese Medicine as their domain.  Once the Chinese doctors admit that they practice a highly effective therapy that works on the same principles as Western medicine then they risk losing control.

With all this being said, I am a supporter of Energy Medicine and I have personally seen benefits of energetic treatments in my past.  Energy Medicine, in all its forms, has helped so many people and can be powerful and transformitive.  Some examples of Energy Medicine practices include: Reiki, Healing Touch and Crystal Healing.  So I would like to be clear that I am not in any way opposed to energy medicine, instead I am writing this post to clarify the mechanism by which Chinese Medicine works.  The mechanisms of Chinese medicine are physical and include: increased blood flow, improved oxygen transport, better nutrient delivery and improved nervous system function.

Ear Acupuncture for Weight Loss, Insomnia & Addiction Recovery

Ear Acupuncture NADA protocolEar acupuncture has a large body of scientific evidence backing its effectiveness [1][2]. This clinically proven treatment approach is an efficient method for treating a wide number of conditions including weight loss, stress-related disorders, insomnia and addiction withdrawal. Auricular acupuncture can be very effective when stopping smoking and it can be used for withdrawal from any addiction.

Ear Acupuncture Santa Monica Los AngelesAuricular Acupuncture is the term for the specialized practice of acupuncture done on the ear. The ear has a complete map of the body from head to toe, and as such, the can be used to treat a variety of conditions. Some practitioners only use ear points for treatment while others use both body and ear points to get the best results possible. In either case, it should be noted that ear acupuncture is powerful enough to be applied as a stand-alone treatment and there is ample research to support this idea. [1]

Although needles are the primary treatment method in auricular acupuncture, “ear seeds” can also be used to stimulate reaction areas on the ear. Ear seeds are used to stimulate pressure points when they are attached (with tape) to the outer surface of the ears. The advantage of ear seeds is that they continue to produce an effect over the course of 2 or more days. These seeds are tiny pellets (vaccaria seeds) are applied on a small piece of tape to the ear. Using the ear map, seeds are placed in the area of the ear that best treats the patient’s condition.

One of the advantages of auricular acupuncture is how easily it integrates into a wide range of settings from hospitals to emergency clinics. Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) is an American group that uses ear acupuncture to provides support when traumatic events occur. AWB provided trauma care for both relief workers and victims after Hurricane Katrina and in St Vincents Hospital in Manhattan in 2001. Ear acupuncture treatments are easily given while people are seated and fully clothed, making it an ideal treatment method when resources are limited.

Patients receiving auricular treatment do not have to wait long to experience the benefits. A relaxation response generally occurs within minutes! Post-treatment surveys show increased mental clarity, reduced stress, improved sleep quality, reductions in pain, and lower anxiety.

Dry Needling in California

Trigger Point Referral Patterns

Various Trigger Point Referral Patterns

Dry Needling is an therapeutic technique that was developed by Dr Janet Travell and recently popularized by Acupuncturists and Physical Therapists in Australia, Canada and the US. In California, only Licensed Acupuncturists and MDs can legally perform this powerful technique so there are very few practitioners trained in this art of trigger point release.

While some states allow Physical Therapists to perform Dry Needling, the medical board in California concluded that Dry Needling is, in fact, acupuncture. Therefore, Dry Needling can only be performed by Licensed Acupuncturists and MDs in California. This legal decision serves to best protect public safety – as many states allow Physical Therapists to practice Dry Needling after attending as little as 16 hours of class (2 days)! In comparison, Licensed Acupuncturists take over 3,000 hours of coursework, and most of this study time is dedicated to mastering the use of the acupuncture needle.

Dry NeedlingIn Dry Needling practice, an acupuncture needle is inserted into a local area of muscle tension called a “Trigger Point”. Unlike traditional acupuncture, the treatment method in Dry Needling is strictly based on the anatomy of muscles and/or nerve pathways effected. As such, there is no discussion of “Qi”, “Meridians”, or other aspects of ancient Chinese philosophy. Because Dry Needling takes a pure Western approach most patients feel more comfortable with the treatment and better understand the reasoning behind this therapy.  Unlike traditional acupuncture, Western-minded patients generally feel like they have a better understanding of why the treatment is being performed and how it is expected to help resolve the problem.

When Dry Needling is performed, a hair-thin acupuncture needle used. Most patients will not feel the needle penetrate the skin, but there may be a feeling of pressure when the trigger point is activated. If the muscle is currently in spasm with an active trigger point, the patient may feel a sensation like a muscle cramp or twitch. If the muscle responds to treatment with a small twitch movement, called a “twitch response”, this is generally a good sign and very helpful in resolving trigger points.


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Trigger Point Dry-Needling for Body Pain

shoulder-pain-acupuncture-santa-monicaIn many cases, body pain is due to shortened muscles. When muscles are overused or overstressed they can develop areas of tension called trigger points. A trigger point may be experienced as a “muscle knot” or sometimes a radiating pain from a muscle into a joint area. These areas of muscular tension are the body’s way of trying protecting itself from further injury, however the end result can be a painful conditions that persists for years after the trigger point forms.

Traditional acupuncture can be very helpful in addressing muscular pain, however sometimes a more direct approach to muscular pain is more effective.  A style of treatment called Trigger Point Dry-Needling is a modern anatomical approach to muscular pain and inflammation.  Like acupuncture, dry needling is also performed using a solid filament needle. However, in the case of dry needling, a needle is inserted into muscle directly at a palpable myofascial trigger point. When a needle is inserted into a trigger point, sometimes the muscle will have a characteristic “twitch response” as the muscle relaxes and lengthens back to its healthy state. Generally the procedure involves repetitive manipulation of the needle in the myofascial trigger point in order to produce this local twitch response.

Why do Dry Needling?

First off, this method is generally more effective at relieving muscular pain than almost any other therapy.  The results of dry needling can be immediate as the muscle is stimulated to lengthen and a muscular knot releases. Deactivation of trigger points can provide immediate relief from pain symptoms.

Another reason dry needling is especially effective where other treatment methods fail, is that dry needling can target muscular pain in deeper muscles of the body.  Some deep muscle fibers are very difficult, if not impossible, to reach using massage and other manual therapies.  Some of the deep muscle groups that are well treated by dry needling include the low back, buttock and deep shoulder muscles.

When Should I Expect to See Results?

Sometimes this method can provide immediate relief from pain symptoms.  In other cases, the condition will take 1-2 days to respond to the treatment before there is a dramatic improvement.  The response time will depend on the body part and muscular structure involved.  After trigger points are relieved, the muscles can be trained to work with corrected range of motion.


How Acupuncture Works – The Science Explained

services-acupuncture-needlesThe scientific basis of Acupuncture is now well understood. Let’s move on from esoteric discussions of “qi” and “meridians” as they relates to acupuncture. A short summary of the science is given below, the full article goes into even deeper into the science.

Acupuncture has been shown to act on several mechanisms in the body. Explaining these physiological mechanisms can become complicated, however the basis of acupuncture is quite simple: Acupuncture’s effect is dependent on the stimulation of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). This is confirmed by the fact that when nerves innervating acupoints are blocked acupuncture has no effect.

Research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system to release natural chemicals that alter hormonal output, pain response, and other biological processes. In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted an extensive review and analysis of clinical trials involving acupuncture. According to this report acupuncture impacts the body on multiple levels, concluding it:

  • Stimulates conduction of electro-magnetic signals, which can promote immune system cells or pain-killing chemicals.
  • Activates the body’s endogenous opioid system, which may help reduce pain and induce better sleep quality.
  • Stimulates brain centers including the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which modulate numerous body systems.
  • Changes in the secretion of neurotransmitters and endocrine hormones, which may positively effect brain chemistry.

Read more on the full article.