The Science of Acupuncture

I get asked all the time… “How does acupuncture work?” Modern science is catching up with 10,000 year old acupuncture. I’ve said for years that we just don’t have the method for seeing the structures yet – just as we didn’t understand the minute complexities of the human body – or imagine MRIs! – 200 years ago. It looks like we are slowly figuring it out! Here are a handful of recent articles exploring the science of acupuncture. These are just the ones that I stumbled across. If I had to time to do an exhaustive search this would be a much longer blog post. :)

From the first article below: Oxygen pressure is higher at acupuncture points!

p6oxygen

 Acupuncture Biochemically Reduces Pain and Inflammation

Acupuncture remaps the primary somatosensory cortex of the brain

MRI Reveals Acupuncture Modulates Brain Activity

CT Scans Reveal Acupuncture Points

New Brain Study – Acupuncture Fights Depression

Acupuncture Holds Promise for Treating Inflammatory Disease

Acupuncture Beats Gabapentin for Hot Flashes in RCT

Acupuncture as effective as drugs in treating pain, trial shows

Biological Evidence for the Existence of Acupuncture Meridians inside lymphatic vessels

Curtin researchers unlock the scientific reasons why acupuncture works – C fibers (nerve branches)

But what about “all those studies” that show it’s not effective?

First of all, there are plenty of studies that prove it works. Insurance companies (even the conservative ones) now cover needles for neck and back pain, because studies have specifically proved it, although some deny claims for, say, shoulder pain, because it hasn’t specifically been studied. Makes me want to roll my eyes. Ug.

Secondly, many of the studies that “prove” it doesn’t work are deeply flawed. They have doctors doing a few recipe points they learned in a 20 – 300hr class, rather than an actual acupuncturist. Sometimes the points they choose are completely mystifying to me – not only do they leave out important ones, but there are always one or two just make no sense at all.

Thirdly, TCM differentiates the cause of disease, but lots of studies don’t. You can have a headache due to Yang rising, or Heart xu (deficiency). When a study gives the same treatment to everyone with a headache, of course it’s not effective! The western medical equivalent is putting people with viruses, bacterial infections, and allergies in one group, giving them all an antibiotic, then declaring that drugs don’t work for runny noses.

There are other problems too, like “sham” acupuncture doing “too well” so there isn’t a statistically significant difference. In one study I read back in school, they basically compared acupressure to acupuncture… then declared nothing worked since they both did. That’s just bad study design. There should have been a third control group with no treatment.
equine acupuncture

Equine acupuncture points from the Bagyuiho (Chinese horse and cow acupuncture text), 1399

And that whole placebo thing? It may play a part, as it does with every medical procedure, but it’s not the whole story. In other states (where it was legal without a vet supervising) I have successfully treated animals – there’s no placebo effect there! When a dog, lying limply on the floor and moaning, after 15 min of needles is bouncing up and down, jumping to kiss her owner’s face… that’s not a placebo. Neither is a rabbit regaining bladder and bowel control after a spinal injury. Of course those are anecdotal evidence, but they’re pretty compelling when they repeatedly happen in front of you. Googling for animal studies quickly gave me a whole new batch of data: Horses are studied most often because they have money-making “careers.”

I’ll be perfectly honest – I’m not sold on some of the more esoteric aspects of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). I don’t twirl my needles in a specific direction, for example. Thousands of years ago, when it was developed, there was philosophy as well as medicine involved, and like all ancient sciences, it could use a little update. But acupuncture itself is amazing. It stimulates neuromuscular junctions, which resets neurons (nerves control muscles, which in turn pull on bones). This helps break the cycle of spasms, or activate a non-firing muscle bundle. It reduces inflammation. It distracts nerve receptors and blocks transmission of pain signals. It helps break up fascial adhesions. With older, chronic problems it creates a microtrauma and alerts the body to a “cold case,” which restarts healing. It’s tremendous for nerve repair – check out my paper on stroke recovery. I’ve seen some truly stunning results from people who were locked inside their bodies, long after Western medical science said there would be no more improvement.

“Yang rising headaches,” is just a term for a diagnosis. It’s no more mysterious than “orthostatic hypotension’” for example, if you understand the language of TCM. The articles above show that we are just starting to understand how points work anatomically. I am confident that science will catch up and we’ll have a clear understanding of this system within my lifetime.

The good news is that it doesn’t really matter whether you believe acupuncture works… because it’s medicine, not voodoo, and it will anyway. :) The science of acupuncture is still evolving, but its effectiveness is clear.

Damp (a Chinese medicine concept)

I’ve talked briefly before about Fall in the Pacific Northwest, but let’s get into some more details about how the weather here literally leads to Damp in our bodies. I was out playing in our great outdoors, and on the way back, a fellow adventurer asked me if the soggy Portland climate affected how I practiced. It was an interesting question, so I figured I’d share my response.

In Chinese medicine, you can be “invaded” by EPIs – External Pernicious Influences:  Heat, Cold, Damp, Dryness, and Wind (There are actually two types of Heat, but I’m simplifying here). Damp Heat infection examples include yeast and urinary tract infections. Damp Heat in the Gall Bladder* can cause jaundice.

Damp can also start internally. Remember that in this system we have energetic organs* with special duties. The Spleen transforms food into energy (I think they actually meant the pancreas!), and is important in fluid management. If the Spleen fails, or if there is an invasion, fluids accumulate into Damp. A classically Damp body is overweight. Other symptoms include heavy limbs, stiffness, and edema (fluid retention). Damp left unchecked can further consolidate into Phlegm. This may be literal mucus or lipomas (fatty tumors), or “invisible Phlegm” like brain fog or even depression.

Oregon is, of course, a very wet place! Whether the rain itself penetrates us, or the fact that hiking isn’t as much fun when you have to slosh through the mud… either way, living here can definitely contribute to obesity. Alcohol and dairy are the two biggest Damp culprits in our diet. Microbrew and local cheese, anyone?

Be sure to get off the couch and enjoy the sun when you can. Try not to get soaked – a light rain jacket and hat can really make a difference. Nourish your Spleen with hearty cooked vegetables. This is especially important going into Fall and Winter, but don’t neglect them in favor of a completely raw diet even in the Summer.

Acupuncture is a great way to drain Damp, clear Heat, and restore balance to your system. Please ask if you have any questions!

* Energetic organs are typically capitalized to emphasize their distinct nature from our literal, anatomical organs.

 

 

“Dry Needling” vs. Acupuncture

I had a gentleman ask me last week if I had heard of “dry needling” and if I ever did it. I was flabbergasted… Dry needling is what acupuncture is called when non-acupuncturists do it. Wait – that’s not quite right. It’s what using acupuncture needles is called when someone else does it… but that doesn’t make it acupuncture. True acupuncture requires an understanding of a complex system, while most “dry needling” courses are surprisingly brief.

When comparing acupuncturists vs other practitioners as providers of therapeutic needling, some interesting things come to light. I feel very strongly that the various types of medical providers each have their areas of expertise. A bad injury, a serious infection, and organ failure are just a few of the problems that would send me running to “Western” modern medicine. But in some cases – chronic pain, healing after an injury, neurological repair, anxiety, etc. – acupuncture is highly effective. So….Why not just have your doctor do it?

There are some advantages to doctors doing acupuncture. First, they have a more extensive knowledge of anatomy than the average acupuncturist. I was very lucky to get to work with cadavers when I was at chiropractic school – most don’t. Secondly, the procedure is more likely to be covered by health insurance.

Unfortunately, there are also some disadvantages. Doctors are usually MDs first, and have taken a seminar on acupuncture. This course is a few weekends of instruction. They learn a handful of “recipe” points that are based on symptoms. Some people doing “dry needling” are physical therapists or chiropractors. As a comparison, I have a Master’s degree from OCOM, which consisted of 3,344.5 total hours, including 996 clinical hours. I learned about the Zang Fu organs, the channels, and the 1000 points and how they interact.

Doctors usually don’t spend much time getting to know every detail of your medical history. They tend to have 10 minutes for the whole appointment, and focus purely on your “chief complaint” as we call it in medicine: the main reason you came in. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is holistic. I prefer to take an hour with my patients. We examine the entire body, not just an isolated part, and our diagnosis is dependent upon that global perspective. For example, you may have a headache due to Liver* Yang Rising, or Qi deficiency, or a Wind Invasion. Or look at it from the other direction: A single diagnosis, such as Kidney Yin Deficiency, can cause varied symptoms like menstrual irregularity, anxiety, vertigo, night sweats… you see the problem. This is why I ask all those rude questions (sorry) in a 10 page form when you come in. What your menstrual cycle is like can actually help me determine how to treat your digestive disorder.

When doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists use dry needling, especially for internal medicine, their results are not as strong as when a TCM trained practitioner wields the needles. I see this in a lot of research studies that “prove” acupuncture “doesn’t work.” It’s roughly equivalent to testing antibiotics for a runny nose, without separating out bacterial infections from viruses and allergies, then claiming that pharmaceutical drugs aren’t effective.

In this article, a doctor writes about needling. The myofascial part is spot on, but he’s missing the energetic component. Some of the points work on areas far away from where the needle goes! LI-4 and LV-3 are beautiful examples of powerful points that don’t really make sense with the Western understanding of anatomy. If distal points like the hands, feet, scalp and ears are neglected, the treatment may be weaker than ideal. It’s something to think about when comparing someone offering dry needling vs a true acupuncturist.

People with only basic anatomy training like massage therapists, and physical therapists doing dry needling? Super bad idea – and the reason there are so many news stories about dry needling pneumothorax (collapsed lung) problems created by physical therapists. Acupuncture needles are controlled as a medical device, because they really shouldn’t be used by amateurs.

Dry needling is a bad idea, m'kay?

Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., agrees that TCM training should be comprehensive.

*Remember that in Chinese medicine, capitalized organs are energetic concepts and should not be confused with your anatomical organs.

Before and After #2

I usually forget to take Before and After shots but will try to make more of an effort in the future. They are so much fun! Here, we are looking along the patient’s back, from the head towards the feet. She came in with upper and mid-back tension. I found a series of 4 ribs out of place on the right side. After some gentle acupuncture and medical massage, everything was back where it should be and she was thrilled to find that she could take a deeper breath than before.

Before Acupuncture - note the slope of her asymmetrical posterior ribcage.

BEFORE – note the slope of her asymmetrical posterior ribcage.

After Acupuncture - now her ribs are properly positioned, her back is even, and she can breathe more deeply!

AFTER – now her ribs are properly positioned, her back is even, and she can breathe more deeply!

GB-21 (neck / shoulder tension, rebellious Qi)

Jian Jing (Shoulder Well) is a place many people tend to store their stress. Every day, people come into my office and complain about neck and “shoulder tension.” They really mean the trapezius and levator scapula muscles, not the shoulder joint. I’ve been saying for years that we need a better name for this part of the body, but “noulder” isn’t catching on (for obvious reasons!).

Referred pain and trigger points for the trapezius.

Referred pain and trigger points for the trapezius.

The trapezius is a big muscle, and it does a lot. Carrying heavy loads (especially unbalanced ones – so carry a small purse and use both straps of your backback!), working with your arms up (I’m talking to you, hair stylists!), or just general hunchiness over a computer… all are common causes of tension. The traps refer pain over the head to the eyebrow area, so shoulder tension can give you a severe frontal headache.

GB-21 also descends energy, so it’s good for rebellious rising Qi causing headaches, dizziness, heartburn, or vomiting.

GB-21 for relieving neck and shoulder tension.

 

Find GB-21 at the top of the upper thoracic area (aka “noulder”), halfway between the shoulder joint and the spine. Press firmly for 10-15 seconds with a healing intention. NOTE: Do not use GB-21 on pregnant women.

Also – look into some better ways to release your stress!

Yin Tang (emotional balancing, anxiety, sinus issues)

Yin Tang (pronounced “Yin Tong”) is located directly between the inner borders of your eyebrows. It’s useful for treating sinus problems and frontal headaches, but it’s most often called upon to calm the Shen (spirit). If you are anxious or dealing with stress, you’ll know why it’s also referred to as “The Valium Point.”

Yin TangOther cultures have recognized the importance of this point. It’s close to (below) the “Third Eye” and the 6th Chakra of Indian traditions. In the short-lived TV show Eli Stone, the title character experienced visions when his acupuncturist needled him on the forehead … a little too high, unfortunately (I’m sure I’m not the only acupuncturist who wrote to them – after a while they obscured the actual insertion location with the actor’s hands). Anyway, I wouldn’t expect to start seeing visions, but it will definitely help you find some inner peace.

To use Yin Tang, simply press with a fingertip for about 10 seconds. Take a deep breath, be grateful you’ve backed up your computer, and smile. Don’t you feel better already?

 

BL-40 (back pain, knee pain, hot flashes)

BL-40, Wei Zhong (Middle of the Crook), is located in the center of the back of the knee. It’s the Ruler of the Lower Back, so I often use it to treat lumbar problems. It’s also great for deep knee pain and to cool the Blood* – try it if you’re overheated next summer, or if you’re suffering from hot flashes. Other good points for lower back pain: LV-3, GB-34, Du-4.

BL-40, the Ruler of the Back.

*Remember: The Chinese concept of “Blood” is different from your physical blood. I am not talking about your literal circulatory system. :)

GB-34 (any muscle / tendon issue, knee pain, Damp Heat)

GB-34 is Yang Ling Quan (Yang Mound Spring). The name refers to its location on the Yang aspect of the leg. GB-34 is the Ruler of the Sinews (musculoskeletal system), so it will treat muscles, ligaments, and tendons anywhere in the body. It’s particularly effective for knee problems, due to its location. GB-34 can also be used to treat issues like jaundice, nausea, and vomiting. It’s also good for treating Damp Heat, but that’s a fairly complicated Chinese medicine concept related to infection. Ask me if you’re curious.

GB-34 is about an inch anterior and inferior to the head of the fibula. First, find the head of the fibula. This is a knob of bone on the side of your leg,  just below the knee, towards the back. Now slide your finger forward and down into a small dip. It will be tight or tender if treatment is appropriate: Press firmly for 20-30 seconds, with healing intention.

ST-40 (phlegm, wet cough, foggy head)

ST-40

Feng Long is a great point for draining phlegm. Use it when you have a head cold, wet cough, or allergies . Find ST-40 halfway between the knee and the ankle, on the outside of the lower leg. Feel around for a sore spot: You’ll know when you hit it. Press firmly for 10-15 seconds. It’s great for “visible” phlegm, the obvious mucus stopping up your nose and lungs. It’s also useful for “invisible” phlegm, the kind that clogs up your brain and leads to dizziness, vertigo, “foggy headedness” (fuzzy thinking), or mental illness.

ST40

Yin & Yang

*Note – some parts of this discussion were previously published in the Stroke article.

Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) goes back to 2000 BC in its current form, and in its antiquity goes back at least 5,300 years! It’s based on energy movement throughout the body along specific paths or “channels.” Acupuncture works by manipulating energy at points where that energy flows near the surface. There are about 1000 distinct points all over the body, each with their own unique qualities. I came to acupuncture as a profession when it was the only thing that could stop my back pain after a severe car accident (I’m now completely recovered). When I first started studying I was a little skeptical – I was a hard-core scientist and figured the map of channels was an elaborate way to memorize nerves and other anatomical landmarks. The more I studied, though, the more I came to see that this is a completely different system of physiology.

After years of seeing the power of this odd system at work – on skeptical humans, on animals, on “impossible cases” – my current belief is that this is a form of energy we just can’t explain yet. If you told a 16th century doctor that you could see inside the human body without cutting it, you would be declared a witch. Now, any x-ray or ultrasound technician has that ability. NIH has been funding research into measuring energy flow along the channels. It’s only a matter of time before TCM becomes part of our accepted science of medicine.

We’ve all heard of Yin and Yang (pronounced to rhyme with Pin and Pong, by the way). They are tossed around in popular culture a lot, generally with a superficial understanding of them as two sides of a whole. I’ve even seen them likened to Superman and Clark Kent! In Chinese medicine, however, they have a very specific meaning.

Think of Yin as being the moist, nourishing, quiet, still, internal, “feminine” aspect of your being. Yang is the other side of the coin: It’s the loud, bright, moving, motivating,expanding, “masculine” side of you. See how the white Yang is rising, while the black Yin is descending? Note also that each contains a bit of the other: They are incomplete without the other half of the pair. There is a delicate balancing act between the two types of energies, and they influence each other. When Yin and Yang separate (in a raging fever, for example) the patient will die.

Yin/Yang: Each contains and is dependent on the other to create a whole.

Think of an animal, or a baby crawling on all fours. As applied to anatomy, the front and lower parts of the body are Yin. The back and upper body are considered more Yang.  On the limbs, inside surfaces are Yin and the outside aspects are Yang. Acupuncture treatments must be planned out so they contribute to balance. For example, if someone has a headache, we don’t just use local needles on the scalp. We use points on the hands and feet to distribute the input to the body. There’s a great point on the sole of the foot that will draw excess energy down, which helps a lot with Yang-rising types of headache.

 

Yin and Yang energies must work together, and should give and take throughout the day. Yin predominates at night, while Yang rules the day. Some hormonally based examples may be helpful: A woman going through menopause is Yin deficient. Her Yang, no longer held in check by her Yin, causes hot flashes, night sweats, and dryness of the skin and other bodily fluids. To ease this “change of life,” we start by using acupuncture points to clear excess heat (the symptoms). Other points act to nourish the Yin (the cause). These treatments are surprisingly powerful for stopping hot flashes.

Likewise, a man as he ages will suffer from Yang deficiency. This is readily identified in the case of erectile dysfunction and decreased libido. Other symptoms can include lower back pain and a general loss of vigor.  In this case, we use acupuncture points that activate the Yang. Some acupuncturists use moxabustion (burning mugwort, an herb in the sage family) to warm and stimulate the Yang, although most modern clinics (mine included) are now using infrared heatlamps. Using modern technology eliminates the chance of burns and makes for a wonderfully relaxing session.

Most patients feel some immediate relief when acupuncture is used to balance Yin and Yang, but longer term hormonal changes will require multiple treatments.

This is a simplified explanation, of course. Masters of Chinese medicine study for years to understand the subtle interplay of Yin, Yang, and the channels. It’s a fascinating tradition with a lot to teach us about the human body.