Acupuncture is the insertion of fine needles—frequently no thicker than a human hair—into specific points on the body. Chinese medicine theory holds that there are meridians or channels in the body through which energy flows. These channels connect the Zang Fu Organs with all the body's other structures and the free flow of energy through these channels helps maintain health.

There are specific acupuncture points in precise locations on each channel and they each have a function. In other words, Chinese medicine has identified specific points that treat Patterns of Disharmony.

All acupuncture points have local effects and are useful for treating pain or dysfunction in a specific area. Other acupuncture points have general effects on the body as a whole or treat specific Patterns. For example, one of the most famous points in acupuncture, ST 36 (Zu San Li), can be used to tonify (increase the amount of) Qi or, depending on how it is needled, to break up Blood Stasis in the chest.

The effects of acupuncture points depend not only on the function of the points, but also on how they are needled and the depth at which they are needled. There are many different needling techniques and variations within the recommended depth of needling.

Returning to ST 36, to tonify Qi, the point is needled at a moderate depth and the needling technique is one of gentle tonification. To break up Blood Stasis in the chest, the point is needled more deeply and usually requires a strong sedating or dispersing technique. It is important that a practitioner of acupuncture not only have mastered the location of the points, but also knowledge of appropriate needling techniques and depths of insertion.

Needles are not the only way to affect acupuncture points. The use of these following different techniques depends on the symptoms treated and the overall Pattern of Disharmony.

  • A special herb called moxa may be burned over the point to heat it up.
  • Electrical stimulation may be applied to the needle.
  • Massage techniques known as Tui Na may be used.
  • Suction cups may applied.
  • A few drops of blood may be taken from the points.

While each of these points has Chinese names, they have also been given numerical designations on each channel according to the direction in which the Qi in the meridian is said to flow. Hence, points on the Stomach channel are numbered 1 through 45, and points on the Large Intestine channel are numbered 1–20. All in all there are about 361 classical acupuncture points on the channels, and hundreds of points with empirical uses Parts of the body, in particular the hand, the foot, and the ear, have additional systems of points that can be utilized as well.

If acupuncture treatment is appropriate, acupuncture needles may be inserted with or without a tube in strategic acupuncture points. In most acupuncture traditions, the needles are manipulated to get "de qi," a dull, heavy, or electric sensation that patients feel at the site of the acupuncture needle and frequently running down the meridian.

Needles are sterile, and in most states, are single-use—meaning that they are disposed of after treatment. In states where needles may be reused, they are sterilized between uses. Acupuncturists are trained in Clean Needle Technique and observe proper safety cautions.

While accidents can occur, receiving acupuncture is generally a low risk procedure and is not painful. Most individuals for whom acupuncture is appropriate find it to be a very pleasant experience. In the United States, treatment generally takes place once a week, but certain conditions may require more frequent follow-up.

There has been much research to understand why and how acupuncture works. While there are many studies indicating the effectiveness of the technique, there is no consensus on the mechanism behind it. However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has reached a consensus that acupuncture is an effective treatment for several disorders and that more research is necessary. With the growing interest in Chinese medicine in the Western scientific community, perhaps future studies will provide even more insight.

In the Fall 2012 edition of our sister publication, Diabetes Focus, we reported on a McGill University review of 14 scientific studies that showed acupuncture and hypnosis appear to be promising alternatives to smoking-cessation drugs in people who are trying to quit smoking. Acupuncture triggers the release of feel-good hormones that may help alleviate withdrawal symptoms, while hypnosis can induce an altered mental state that may allow you to concentrate on breaking the addiction.

Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is the practice of combining individual herbs into formulas to promote health. Chinese medicine has thousands of herbs that may be used medicinally. Of these, about 400 are in common use.

Herbs are carefully selected, processed, and dried. They are given to a patient in a tea or pill, or in the form of pharmaceutical grade extracts—the growing choice for most patients and practitioners.

After a practitioner uncovers the Pattern of Disharmony underlying a complaint, an individualized herbal formula is constructed to correct this Pattern. While a single herb may sometimes be used, combinations of herbs into complex formulas are more common.

Individualized herbal formulas typically are based on a classical formula for the Pattern, but may also be based on modern clinical trials. Individual herbs are then added or subtracted to fit a patient's needs as precisely as possible and to treat all symptoms. This flexibility allows for a more targeted treatment approach.

Formulas typically contain between 5 and 15 herbs. Since it is not possible to modify ready-made pills, most practitioners prefer to use raw herbs or extracts.

The art of devising an herbal formula is complex and takes years to master. Herbs in Chinese medicine are not just used according to their function or to the knowledge gained about them through modern research. Centuries of tradition have categorized each herb in terms of its taste, temperature (whether it warms or cools the body), and the Meridians and Zang Fu organs it affects. Each herb also has contraindications and specific doses that must be taken into account.

Finally, herbs may interact with each other in a variety of ways, some helping each other, others antagonizing. Therefore, it is important that a practitioner prescribing herbs to patients have a comprehensive understanding about all of this information and how it affects a particular Pattern of Disharmony.

Likewise, there can be interactions between Chinese herbs and conventional medication, so it is important that patients be monitored for side effects and followed to see whether the formula is effective. Depending on the condition, herbal formulas may be changed every 3 days to once a month.

Besides being ingested in tablet or liquid form, specific herbal formulas may also be used as an external application, as an enema, or as a douche. Much like the choice of herbs and formula, the mode of application is dependent on the nature of the disorder and the most effective means of treatment.

Qi Gong

Qi gong is the art of moving Qi through the body using physical movements and mental concentration. It has been practiced in China for centuries. Based on principles of Chinese medicine, the practice seeks to regulate Yin and Yang in the body and to maintain balance in the Meridians and in the Zang-Fu Organs.

Qi gong may be used preventatively, to promote and preserve health, or it may be practiced in response to specific disorders. Like other aspects of Chinese medicine, its greatest function is in preventing illness by keeping the Qi strong.

There are many different types of Qi gong exercises and many new forms are being devised. The basic concept behind Qi gong is the mindful harmonization of body, mind, and spirit in a focused manner.

Hence, whether the Qi gong requires movement or stillness meditation, the body is relaxed and the mind is focused on specific ideas or parts of the body. One of the most common areas of focus is below the navel and is known as the Tan Tian, which is thought to be a major energy center. Chinese medicine holds that when the body and mind are harmonized through the practice of Qi gong, the Qi can be generated, blockages of Qi can be released, and health increases.

Some Qi gong styles involve movements that may be combined into graceful forms such as Tai Qi Quan or the Eight Pieces of Brocade, both which have become a popular exercise for promoting health and reducing stress. Other types of Qi gong involve meditation and visualization exercises on a specific Zang Fu Organ, Meridian, or even sounds and colors to achieve therapeutic effects in the body.

Another type of Qi gong involves massaging a specific part of the body while concentrating on balancing the Qi in that area. Qi gong exercises may be performed standing, sitting, or lying down. Most Qi gong traditions recommend that individuals practice once or twice a day for general health prevention. Patients with specific disorders who have been assigned Qi gong exercises to correct a Pattern of Disharmony may practice more frequently.

Much clinical research needs to be done to further evaluate the overall effectiveness of Qi gong. Preliminary data indicates that it may certainly have health benefits and may be an important part of a regular program of physical exercise and stress reduction.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2015