What is Acupuncture?

3,000 years of documented clinical application and efficacy.

The mystery surrounding acupuncture isn’t because it is “quackery”, it is mysterious precisely because it works, has worked repeatedly over time, and yet it is not mechanistic and cannot be industrialized.  It’s not surprising that it has remained on the margins of our society for so long.  Acupuncture cannot be scaled easily and it does not create dependency (so there are strong barriers to industrial profiteering).   Thousands of research papers, studies, and analysis of acupuncture can be readily found in the National Institute of Health’s database Pubmed.  The overwhelming number of these call for further study, not because acupuncture is ineffective, but rather precisely because it is.

Acupuncture is a medical art from a different age.  Our ignorance of different ages and cultures and obsession with our modern technology is why it is often looked upon with curious suspicion.  As a physician tasked daily with solving problems and resolving patient pains, my principle concern is positive, non-invasive, outcomes.  How acupuncture works is less important to me than the fact that it works.  As I have told my students countless times, truth is in the outcome.  Generate a positive outcome and there must be truth in the process.  

There are countless studies on applying Acupuncture to support fertility, IVF, nausea and vomiting, chronic and acute orthopedic pain, inflammatory conditions, digestive issues, postoperative issues, anxiety, insomnia, and supporting chemo and radiation patients through the difficulties of those therapies.

Acupuncture is a medical art from a different age.

The following are examples from a simple Google Search result on acupuncture studies reported on in the New York Times:

May 11, 2020: “Feelings of bloating and fullness were relieved by use of acupuncture”.

April 1, 2020: “Acupuncture reduced the number of headache attacks in migraine sufferers.”

December 26, 2013: “acupuncture was effective in reducing menopausal symptoms in women being treated with aromatase inhibitors for breast cancer”.

March 11, 2013: “Studies suggest that acupuncture can help with symptoms of hay fever”.

September 11, 2012: “Acupuncture outperformed sham treatments and standard care when used by people suffering from osteoarthritis, migraines and chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain.”

November 22, 2011: “Acupuncture, one of the most common alternative remedies in the United States, is safe for children, according to a new study from the journal Pediatrics.”

Acupuncture is a time tested, elegant, deeply sophisticated therapy, with no side effects.  It is non-invasive, extraordinarily effective, and comparatively inexpensive to deliver.  This is recognized by the military (see the film Escape Fire), the VA, and reproductive endocrinologist who desire to improve their outcomes.  And with the progressive failure of health in our society, it is growing in acceptance as blind faith in the medical establishment wanes.      

But… How Does Acupuncture Work?

The 2200 year old source text on acupuncture is a dialogue between the Emperor of China and his personal physician.  Captured within this text and the vast body of literature and clinical documentation since, is the explanation for how acupuncture works and more importantly, how to restore and maintain health in general.  The explanation is dismissed by much of the industrial medical establishment because it contradicts the foundational premise that are the cornerstone of industrialized medicine.  The foundational premise of industrialized medicine is that a body that has lost health cannot regain it without some reliance on a forceable intervention (most commonly, surgery or pharmaceuticals) to re-establish function.  Whereas the foundational premise in natural medicine (I include acupuncture and functional medicine within the umbrella of natural) is that the body can and will restore health and function when provided with the supportive conditions to do so.

What’s confusing about the source texts is that they are in a different language, and presented in the context of a different time within the rubric of natural phenomena rather than mechanistic.  In this view human beings are an expression of nature not some complex machine.  Being an expression of nature, if one has a sophisticated understanding of how nature works, then by extension that understanding can be applied to the individual.  This is likened to viewing the individual as a garden rather than a robot.  Provide just the right amount of sunlight, fresh air, clean water, nutrients, etc, and you create the conditions for a plant to thrive.  It seems simple, but in reality (and as gardener knows by the wisdom gained with experience), the simplicity masks a deep complexity.    

In my years of practice, I’ve observed that we are exceedingly good at understanding things we have created (concepts, technology, techniques, and machines for instance) and terrible at understanding anything we did not create (ourselves).  Diagnosis after diagnosis have passed before me.  Patient’s seek to understand these diagnosis, but it’s rare that they seek to understand health.  A diagnosis is a created concept, it is a label, a way to code dysfunction and initiate an industrialized response.  Health is a reality.  Acupuncture is a method of bringing about that reality.    

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Treating symptoms is a vastly different approach then adjusting the cause.

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