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St Helens Acupuncture: A Biomedical Treatment

Energy (Qi) certainly exists in our bodies in many different forms, including biochemical, and electrical energy. The Traditional Chinese Meridian theory (described below), which was developed after the Maoist revolution, has a basis in fact, but may be inadequate to describe how acupuncture benefits the body in biomedical terms. The perspective that acupuncture simply stimulates energy or Qi within certain “invisible” energy channels in the body may be too simplistic in the context of biomedicine. (Historically, the concept of the flow of Qi in “invisible” meridian channels may have been a mistranslation by a European author who had very little anatomical or medical knowledge, Dao Of Medicine, D. Kendall).

The Classical Chinese medical text, the Nei Jing was written in a language that has been gone from China for 1000 yrs, and may have been mistranslated for that reason. The Chinese translation of “Mai” is vessel and “Qi” translates as air. The Nei Jing translates Qi as vital air or vital vapor that is in the air (Da Qi) where it is extracted from by the Lung. The true translation of “Qi” is Oxygen. Biomedically, we know Oxygen moves through the blood vessels to the organs and circulates throughout the entire body. In essence we are plumbers, dealing with blockages in the vessel system. The vascular system is the major drainage system and we help to eliminate blockages in this system with acupuncture. This is a simplistic but clinically effective model. If we oxygenate the blood and the rest of the body then we help the body restore homeostatic balance, health, and well-being.

Biomedically, the acupuncture points can be thought of as insertion or nodal sites that have effects on the vascular system (veins and arteries), lymphatic system, and neural networks (nervous system). Each year more discoveries are being made to describe the mechanics of acupuncture from a biomedical perspective. One explanation of how acupuncture works for pain is as follows. When you insert the needle in to the skin, it bumps against mast cells, and they burst and release leukotriine (much stronger that histamines) and prostaglandins that cause the sensory and proprioceptive nerves to fire. These chemicals send a strong signal up the proprioception pathway and midbrain releases pain-modulating substances (endorphins) to relieve the pain. This process should take 5 seconds maximum if you put the needles in the right area. The midbrain actually vasoconstricts all the muscles in the area when the pain receptors are not filled with endorphins.

To the human body, acupuncture needles are a physical stimulus. In Western science, a stimulus is defined as a detectable change in either the external environment or within the body itself. When the body detects change, it produces a response. Although acupuncture is not yet fully understood by Western science, with modern technology scientists can now actually begin to “see” the body’s response to acupuncture. For example, using an MRI (a very sophisticated x-ray), researchers have shown that when a needle is inserted at specific acupuncture points on the body, corresponding changes occur in the brain.

In the West, acupuncture is most well-known for its ability to relieve pain so the majority of research thus far has been done in this area. Acupuncture points are now believed to stimulate the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release pain-relieving chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord and brain. Acupuncture may also stimulate other chemicals to be released by the brain, including hormones that influence the self-regulating system of the body.