Is Acupuncture Chinese?, A Pseudoscience?, A Religion?

For many people when they begin to think about acupuncture it can all appear quite foreign. Outside of the problems people generally have considering needles placed into their body, concepts such as Yin and Yang, Qi, and the “meridians” often mislead people into thinking acupuncture is a sort of pseudoscience alternative medicine. And if you add in another common misunderstanding — that acupuncture is strongly tied to a particular religion like Taoism, you end with the impression that acupuncture is foreign to us in concepts, religious views, and philosophy. Consequently, many people may avoid treatment because the whole concept of what acupuncture is and what it offers us is lost.

I would like to start this article with some general statements regarding what acupuncture is:

1. Acupuncture is a medicine that is backed by a very long history of safe and effective use with its theories and techniques being continually verified and improved upon by practitioners from all over the world.

2. Acupuncture is an accepted form of medicine that is used worldwide for the successful and cost effective treatment of a very broad range of cases. See the world health organizations list of treatable conditions for an idea.

3. Acupuncture is a medicine that uses a unique set of theories which help categorize natural phenomena and help us understand the role of our environment, our emotions, and our lifestyles on our health.

By working with the natural processes of the body and our environment one can experience the elimination of disease not just the simple masking of problems.

Now I would like to discuss some misconceptions I hear and experience as a practitioner regarding what acupuncture is not:

1. A Religion, or Tied to a Particular Religion
 2. A Pseudoscience Alternative Form of Medicine
 3. A Medicine Not Supported by Research
 4. A Particularly Chinese Medicine

I’ll discuss each of these briefly below with the hopes that you will gain a better understanding of acupuncture and its place in our western medical systems.

1. Acupuncture Is Not: A Religion, or Tied to a Particular Religion

Chinese Medicine and the practice of Acupuncture is not a religion, requires no religious beliefs on behalf of the practitioner or the patient, and is not tied to a particular religion or belief system. As it comes from China, it does have a basis in Taoist and Buddhist philosophies. But there is nothing particularly Buddhist or Taoist about it — it’s just a reflection of the culture from which the medicine sprang. The concepts like Yin and Yang, and Qi, are just that — concepts. They are phrases used to explain phenomena that we as natural human beings experience, regardless of culture, race, or belief systems.

A recent patient of mine had mentioned to their doctor about coming in for acupuncture. Upon being asked what they thought of acupuncture, the doctor stated, “for a godless medicine, I guess it won’t hurt.” This is a good example of that sort of knee jerk reaction to something we may know little or nothing about. This type of reaction is more likely when we are considering things for which the concepts that describe it are foreign to us. Like when someone asks if you like sushi and you’ve never had it — upon describing raw fish to many westerners you may not always get the best response… To approach the “godless” part, we can use depression as an example, Do you feel God would recommend Prozac? A Profit Oriented Pharmaceutical System? or did God provide us with herbs like St. John’s Wort, for example, and techniques like Prayer and Meditation that are shown to balance our frontal lobe and help with Depression? These are good questions to think about…

Upon close inspection, acupuncture is really just a large set of theories based in common sense. Aspects of it are similar in many ways to simple folk remedies that have pervaded western culture, many of which have roots all the way back to biblical times and beyond. The concept of Yin and Yang is a simple example of this common sense. Yin, for example, is just a framework to help us categorize and understand the cooling principles of the body and our environment (fluids, rest, shade, etc.), whereas Yang is the warming principles (energy, sunshine, movement, etc.). From a medical perspective, when you are hot (excessive yang) you need to increase or take in more Yin — a piece of watermelon on a sunny day.

So watermelon is a yin tonic, that is just common sense, not a philosophical view or a religion. These concepts in Chinese Medicine, are really just helpful ways of categorizing natural phenomena. And these categorizations have an important role in the application of a natural medicine like Acupuncture.

2. Acupuncture Is Not: A Pseudoscience Alternative Form of Medicine
 3. A Medicine Not Supported By Research

Since stories about acupuncture have begun surfacing in mainstream media, the reports about its efficacy are a good mix of positive and negative. Does this mean it doesn’t work or that it is a pseudoscience? What we know is that acupuncture is a medicine that is well over 1000 years old with a very active and relatively intact history of development, with billions of successfully treated cases worldwide. Do we understand exactly how it works, no not exactly, but as we have found that doesn’t appear to stop it from working…

Part of the pseudoscience label comes from simple misunderstandings about some general concepts in the medicine. I’ve had discussions about Chinese Medicine with people that say — well yin and yang “do not exist”, so how can it work? Hot and Cold doesn’t exist, awake and resting doesn’t exist? Well of course they do. What happens here is people may get tied up by the concept and miss the point.

Another troublesome concept is that of Qi. The problem that we don’t know what it is, exactly, has little significance. Qi is simply a concept of natural phenomena. We know things grow, we know they move, this is explained by the concept of “Qi” — a principle of activity. When we needle we influence this level of activity which stimulates the body to perform an untold number of functions. These may be increasing the activity of the immune system, regulating the circulation of blood, regulating brain chemistry, and more. How this works, exactly, we don’t know — but we use the principles to heal disease, and very often do it quite successfully. This alone is verification of the principles.

Research-wise there are thousands upon thousands of citations regarding acupuncture in historical texts and in medical journals worldwide, and only a fraction of these get discussed by the western media. The mixed results often reported with acupuncture studies are easy to contend with from an acupuncturists perspective. The number one reason the studies may show mixed results is that acupuncture is not a condition based medicine like modern western medicine. This means that the efficacy of acupuncture will increase by tailoring each treatment to an individual and their -full- range of signs and symptoms — not just their condition. So it would actually be expected, when using a fixed set of acupuncture points, that a certain number of people would not respond well. The second reason is that many of the studies in the west are performed by MD’s, often with limited training in Chinese Medicine theories and techniques. As with anyone with poor training, you would expect limited results. All that aside, there is certainly a strong body of evidence from researchers worldwide to support the use of acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.

4. Acupuncture is Not: A Particularly Chinese Medicine

China is undoubtedly an extremely important place for the development of this medicine and we owe a debt of gratitude to the people that have preserved and developed the medicine over its very long and ongoing history. It is, however, used all over the world by practitioners of all races, nationalities, and genders. And in each of these places acupuncture develops a distinctive “style” as it blends with their cultural and medical understandings. Japanese acupuncture, for example, is a very distinctive style of acupuncture that reflects their culture. Other systems include Korean acupuncture, French acupuncture, Worsley Acupuncture (from the UK), and more. In the US we have medical acupuncture, the Tam Healing System (what we use), and other systems that reflect our own modern understandings of medicine, our culture and the conditions that are common to us.

While it is still rooted in Chinese history, acupuncture is a living form of medicine that is used, adapted, and further developed by people all over the world. I hope that this article helps to clarify some issues people may have with acupuncture and helps those who need treatment to understand better what acupuncture is and is not.

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