Acupuncture has been used as a primary treatment approach in China for over 3000 years as a traditional healing practice. As one of the oldest and most commonly used medical treatments in the world, this ancient practice has been developed and refined over the centuries. It has helped us to understand the body’s energetic balance and how it affects health and well-being. 

Although acupuncture originated in China during the Shang Dynasty in 1600-1100 B.C in the last 50 years, it has become extremely popular in the West, including in the United States. Today, the practice is widely accepted by the Western medical community, and in 1996, the U.S Food and Drug Administration(FDA) classified acupuncture needles as medical devices. Every year, millions of Americans receive acupuncture to treat a variety of symptoms. 

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How Does Acupuncture Work?

In the past two decades, clinical research trials have studied acupuncture for a number of conditions, such as nausea from multiple causes, dental pain, headaches, and back pain. Researchers have found that acupuncture is effective in helping relieve these conditions. However, how exactly acupuncture works is still somewhat of a mystery. We have a detailed understanding of how acupuncture works with a Traditional Chinese Medicine explanation, however, we do not have a thorough explanation in western medical terms. 

A neurological model called many modern-day health practitioners have adopted the “pain-gate theory” to explain how acupuncture helps relieve pain. This model asserts that acupuncture needles can actually alter brain function, specifically the “intrinsic pain inhibitory mechanisms,” by stimulating nerve endings. In other words, acupuncture needles interact with our pain sensory nerves and block pain signals from reaching the brain.

Today, acupuncture is most commonly used by healthcare practitioners to treat pain. However, it is increasingly being used to treat a wide range of symptoms from digestive issues to depression

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Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine 

In Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture is used as a technique to help the body restore balanced energy flow, known as Qi (pronounced like chee). TCM observes how the free flow of Qi results in a balance of yin and yang in the body, which is vital to health. In the human body, a balanced yin-yang relationship is regarded as health, and a disturbance, or block in this harmonious relationship is seen as a disease.

 “Disease” then, is understood as a result of yin and yang imbalance in the body or a disturbance in Qi, and health is maintained through balance. 

Through inserting hair-thin needles into the skin at strategic points all over the body, known as meridians, acupuncturists are able to ‘unblock’ the energy flow (Qi), increase Qi, nourish yin, support yang and restore health, and the yin-yang balance. 

These states of yin and yang are constantly in flux; energy flows freely between meridians, ideally balanced overall by the total sum of yin and yang. Every organ in the body is either predominantly yin or predominantly yang in nature; however, each organ as both yin and yang within it.

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What are Yin and Yang ?

The concept of yin and yang is fundamental in TCM practice. In Chinese philosophy, yin-yang, which translates to “dark-bright,” represents the idea that everything in nature consists of two opposing phases or energies. 

Yin and yang are opposites yet depend on one another. If one changes, the other follows.

Yin and yang are inseparable – one cannot exist without the other, and they remain infinitely changing from one form into the other. Day into night, night into day. 

Yin is associated with darkness, stillness, and cold, while yang is associated with light, motion, and warmth. They could not exist without each other; they are two sides of the same coin. The forces of yin and yang are opposites, yet complementary. They have a little of each other in themselves at all times. Nothing is ever all yin or all yang. It is thought that everything that exists in the universe can be divided in this way. 

It is important to remember that the body can never be in a state of complete balance of yin and yang. Even in healthy bodies, there are constant subtle shifts between states. Only when there develops an excess or deficiency of yin or yang, would Qi become compromised and lead to disease. For example, in excess of yang, the yin Qi becomes damaged and can lead to a “heat” disease. Conversely, a yang deficiency can lead to the development of a “cold” disease. Acupuncturists will aim to determine the nature of a yin-yang imbalance and try to correct the energy flow to restore a healthy balance.

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Yin Deficiency

Characterized as female and associated with darkness, wetness, and cold, yin energy deficiency causes a general dryness. Organs that are yin in nature are referred to as Zang and include:

  • the pericardium
  • heart
  • liver
  • spleen
  • lung
  • kidneys 

While the symptoms of yin deficiency will vary depending on the organ affected, generally they involve heat and dryness and may include:

  • dry throat, mouth, lips, eyes
  • dry cough
  • thirstiness with an inclination to drink in small sips
  • a tongue without coating and possible cracks
  • low-grade fever
  • hot palms, soles, and chest
  • night sweats and hot flushes
  • reddened face and cheeks
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • infertility
  • menopause

Since yin is cooling in nature, with a yin deficiency, the body begins to overheat. This is not a true heat being generated in the body, but what TCM identifies as “empty heat.” In other words, since yin is deficient, yang is predominant, which results in heat or dry symptoms in the body.

Acupuncturists will treat a yin deficiency by assessing which organs may be yin deficient and selecting points that will help nourish yin. At the same time, they relieve the symptoms that may be causing a negative feedback loop. Some of the common meridians for yin deficiency are found on the lower abdomen, legs, and feet. The kidney meridian is especially important in creating and maintaining yin.

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Yang Deficiency

Yin’s male counterpart, yang, is associated with light, dryness, and heat. The yang organs, identified as Fuincluding 

  • the stomach
  • small intestine
  • large intestine
  • urinary bladder
  • gallbladder
  • triple burner

Fu organs’ main function is to transmit and digest substances in the body. A deficiency of yang typically leads to a body without enough warm energy, resulting in a sluggish metabolism and or mental awareness. 

Symptoms may include:

  • cold limbs
  • clamminess
  • lethargy & fatigue
  • loose stool
  • decreased motivation and assertiveness
  • sexual impotence  

Yang requires movement and stimulation to feed it; physical activity and exercise can help restore yang balance. Acupuncturists can supplement the yang rebalancing by choosing acupuncture points on the yang (back) side of the body.

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What to Expect from Acupuncture

Millions of Americans seek out an acupuncture practitioner to help with their symptoms. Typically, your acupuncture provider will conduct in-depth questioning about your symptoms, habits, and lifestyle. An examination of the tongue, pupils, skin, temperature among other “nonverbal elements” will also help to determine the blockages or imbalances in the body.

Once your acupuncturist determines the areas and causes of a yin-yang imbalance, acupuncture needles will be inserted at the appropriate meridian, which may be far from the area of the body experiencing symptoms or pain. For example, when treating low back pain, you may have needles on hands, legs, knees, and feet in addition to your low back. This is because, in TCM, we aim to treat the underlying imbalance. 

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In TCM, the focus is on the patient, not the disease.

This is why even when treating the same condition in two different people, the treatment protocol may be completely different. Treatments, as a result, are highly personalized and aim to target the cause of the imbalance, not simply to alleviate the pain and discomfort resulting from these imbalances without addressing the true cause. 

Your acupuncture practitioner may also suggest other methods of treatment that will supplement their treatment in improving the yin-yang balance. These may include herbal medicine, massage, cupping, meditation, diet, and exercise. 

TCM approaches disease holistically and understands that there is usually not just one quick fix to restoring health. There are many factors that contribute to health and disease inside and outside the body. It is vital to find harmony between all of these forces to lead happy and healthy lives.

If you would would like to schedule an acupuncture appointment or would like guidance on how to improve your health, schedule an appointment with our Naturopathic Doctors to get started on your health journey.