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FAQs about Chinese Medicine

Basics of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
What is Chinese herbal medicine?
What is Qi?
East Meets West
Modalities used in Chinese medicine

FAQs about Acupuncture

What happens during a treatment?
What does acupuncture feel like?
What can I expect?
How many treatments do I need?
What is acupuncture used for and how well does it work?
What can acupuncture treat?

Licensed vs Certified Acupuncturist

Basics of Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture, along with herbology, exercise, and nutrition, is one of the eight branches of Chinese Medicine. It is believed that this system of medicine is as old as 5000 years. It is an empirical medicine that is based on observed fact and clinical experience that has been continually refined over the years. Much like the Chinese language itself, Chinese medical theory uses metaphorical language to describe body function, processes, and the conditions of disease. The basis of acupuncture is the theory that Qi (pronounced "chee") runs throughout the body in channels or meridians. Qi is simply translated as "energy" but in fact is that which enables the body to function. [See below for a good quote explaining Qi] Twelve of the 14 channels are considered to be energetic extensions of the internal organs. Therefore there is a stomach channel, a liver channel, and so forth. When you hear an acupuncturist talk about an organ they are referring more to the energetics of the organ and not in terms of western medicine.

In order to be healthy the body must be in balance. Disease will arise when there is an imbalance of Qi, Blood, Yin or Yang in the organs and channels. Using this model of Yin and Yang we can describe the nature of any disease. Yin is cooling, grounding and nourishing while Yang is warming and activating. For example, menopausal women are considered to be Yin deficient. Without the cooling grounding nature of Yin, Yang will rise up - and this is what we consider a hot flash to be. Since the ancient Chinese likened the body to the outside environment, bodily disease can also be described in terms of environmental elements such as heat, cold, wind, dampness or dryness. For example, anything red or with a burning sensation is due to heat. Anything twitching, itching or moving around the body is due to wind, and anything heavy or with mucus or pus is due to damp. Therefore, an acupuncturist will make a Chinese diagnosis using this metaphorical terminology.

What is Chinese herbal medicine?

Chinese herbal medicine is an extensive body of knowledge of hundreds of medicinal substances found in nature. Often they come from the roots, stems, leaves, or flowers of plants. Others are mineral or animal in origin. Herbs are rarely used individually, but rather in formulas consisting of anywhere from 3 to 30 herbs. These formulas are very specific in their use and can me made unique for each individual's condition.

Herbs can be effective to treat or provide support for nearly any condition. They are an excellent addition to your health regimen. Often the herbs are administered in pill or powder form, and occasionally in raw form that needs to be decocted (cooked in water) at home. Herbs can also be used topically for injuries or pain management, as well as other internal conditions.

What is Qi?

"More than 5000 years ago, Chinese physicians came to understand that everything is composed of the same energetic substance called Qi (pronounced "chee"). These ancient masters concluded that there is a oneness and wholeness in all existence, and that energetically everything is interconnected as one body, although energy may appear to take on many different forms. All things in nature and, in fact, all things in the universe are woven together so that we are, quite literally, all symbiotically one with the universe through the system of Qi. Qi is always in motion within all things, and is the catalyst for everything to relate and interrelate within the universe.

In modern times, the laws of physics have demonstrated that matter and energy are interchangeable, and that matter is simply another form of energy. Matter is constantly vibrating in the form of tangible solids and intangible gasses, and is constantly altering, being affected by, or interacting with energy. Energy is inherent in the living human body, and the human body is sustained by energy."

Johnson, Dr Jerry Allan, PhD
Chinese Medical Qi Gong Therapy, 2000

East meets West

In the west, the metaphorical language of Chinese medicine combined with the use of needles to move an invisible substance called Qi makes it hard for Americans to understand. Even with the growing interest and willingness to try acupuncture, there are still many who think that it is a medicine in which you need to believe a certain spiritual belief in order for it to work. In reality it is a low risk and clinically effective alternative to allopathic medicine. Patients are turning to acupuncture because, for many illnesses there are no great western medical treatments. For example, the pharmaceuticals may have too many or too severe side effects, or the risk of drugs or surgery is too high, or they are only palliative (symptom relieving), or there are no known effective western treatments, as is the case with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

The difference is that Chinese Medicine treats the pattern of disease, not necessarily the disease itself. For example, a patient with Acid Reflux could be diagnosed with "heat in the stomach." Another condition, such as acne, could have the same diagnosis. In both conditions we address the underlying pattern that creates the disease. By correcting the pathological patterns in the body we can stimulate the body's internal healing ability. Chinese Medicine can therefore be used as preventative therapy since subtle imbalances can be detected in their early stages.

It is only relatively recently in Chinese medicine's long history that experiments have been conducted to try to help understand the biomechanism behind how acupuncture works. There is still no definitive answer, but many of these studies have produced fascinating results drawing connections to nervous and endocrine systems in the body.

How does acupuncture work? - an article by Bettina Schuler, M.S., L.Ac.

Modalities used in Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture is done by inserting sterile, disposable needles into points on the body where Qi accumulates along the meridian. Different points will have different effects on the body by moving Qi at that point and effecting the corresponding internal organ and pathway of the meridian. When treating painful conditions, needles are inserted into tender points of the muscles. Many of these points are considered to be muscular "Motor Points." These motor points are where nerves accumulate at the muscle and then branch out to muscle spindles, which take note of the position of the muscle and send messages back to the brain. By stimulating motor points we can help the muscle to rebalance itself by activating the nervous system and getting the brain to be aware of the muscle's condition, whether it is over or under stretched. The needles used are so thin that they are hardly felt when they are inserted through the skin. When the needle is manipulated, the acupuncturist tries to elicit a dull, achy sensation. This sensation is very tolerable and usually fades within one to two minutes.

Moxibustion, or moxa, is the warming of points by burning an herb called mugwort, and is commonly used together with acupuncture. It is held one inch from the skin to warm particular acupuncture points. It is used mainly for cold and deficient conditions.

Electrical stimulation, or E-stim, can also be used which sends a gentle current between two needles. The electrical impulses travel between the two needles and help to open the channels and relieve pain.

There are also pressure therapies such as Tui Na, which is Chinese massage, cupping, and gua sha. Cupping creates a suction on the skin which causes blood to rise to the surface and create bruises or hickies. This is used for getting old, stagnant blood to the surface to create room for fresh blood to take its place in the vessels. It actually feel very good despite the marks left on the skin! Gua sha, or scraping therapy, is the use of a jade or porcelain instrument to massage the skin and muscles.

Herbal preparations, taken internally or applied topically, are an important aspect of Chinese Medicine and become a part of one's take-home treatment.

What happens during a treatment?

Typically an acupuncture treatment starts with a discussion about the patient's condition in order for the practitioner to make a proper TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) diagnosis. Included in this process is the observation of the tongue and palpation of the pulse. These are very useful and important diagnostic tools that provide a window into the condition of the internal organs. Acupuncture needles are then inserted and the patient is left to relax for 20 to 30 minutes. Depending on the patient's condition, some of the previously mentioned techniques could also be employed. Generally the entire treatment will last about an hour.

What does Acupuncture feel like?

Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles through the skin and into the muscle layer. The purpose is to illicit what is called a "Qi sensation." This can feel different from needle to needle and person to person. Commonly it feels like a dull ache, a muscle twitch, or a radiating sensation. It can also feel itchy, tingling, cold or warm. These sensations commonly last less than a minute or two. When the needles are removed patients often report feeling very relaxed and calm. Sometimes patients experience physical sensations or mental visions while they are relaxing.

What can I expect?

Responses to treatment can vary from person to person. Since Chinese medicine enlists the body's own ability to heal, change can be gradual and only to the extent that the body's natural balance will allow. Often a person will feel improvements in his or her overall health together with gradual alleviation of the main complaint.

How many treatments do I need?

Each condition is different and therefore the number of treatments can vary. Initially it may be necessary to get treatments once or twice a week until significant change in the main problem is experienced. After that point it may be good to come every month or so for a "tune up." Generally less treatments are needed for more acute or short-term problems. Often conditions are partially resolved with the first treatment, but it is important to get acupuncture on a regular basis because the results are cumulative and one will see more results the more that they go. If no change is felt the acupuncturist can try a different approach and use a different combination of needles. Often this will increase the success rate. If after many treatments there are no results, it is possible that acupuncture is not for you, or you should consider seeing another acupuncturist.

What is acupuncture used for and how well does it work?

Most people think of pain management when they think of acupuncture. While is works very well for pain, it also works well for many other conditions, especially those that are not successfully treated by western medicine, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or chronic headaches. I have treated people with a wide array of complaints ranging from the common cold to anxiety and depression to menopausal symptoms or fertility issues. The success rate can vary from person to person depending on their condition. Chronic conditions often take longer to treat than acute ones. Also, everyone responds differently to acupuncture. It all depends on the patient, their underlying pattern, and their rapport with the acupuncturist.

What can Acupuncture treat?

The World Health Organization has compiled a list of conditions for which Acupuncture has shown to have a therapeutic effect. The following is a partial list. To see a full list, click here. Clinical trials continue to be conducted that illustrate TCM's effectiveness.


Pain Management

fibromyalgia, neuralgia, low back, knee and neck pain, sciatica, post operative pain, dental pain, temporomandibular joint syndrome, facial pain, frozen shoulder, tennis elbow, sprains

Gastrointestinal Disorders

acute and chronic gastritis, dysentery, peptic and duodenal ulcer, acute and chronic colitis, acute gastroenteritis pain, gastric hyperacidity, constipation, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting

Obstetrics and Gynecology

PMS, painful menstruation, infertility, urethral syndrome, recurrent UTI, PCOS, morning sickness, malposition of fetus, labor induction, labor pain, deficient lactation

Respiratory System

allergic rhinitis, acute sinusitis, common cold, tonsilitis, bronchitis, bronchial asthma

Disorders of the Eye

acute conjunctivitis, central retinitis, myopia (in children), cataract (without complication)

Other conditions

headaches and migraines, essential hypertension, primary hypotension, drug, alcohol and tobacco dependance, adverse reactions to chemotherapy and radiation, cancer pain, stroke recovery, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, acne vulgaris, bell's palsy, diabetes mellitus, cholecystitis, cholelithiasis, meniere's disease, hyperlipidemia, male sexual dysfunction, prostatitis, pruritus, hepatitis B carrier status, herpes zoster, raynaud's syndrome, earache, insomnia, depression

Licensed VS Certified Acupuncturist

It is important to be aware of the difference in training between a Licensed Acupuncturist and a Certified Acupuncturist. The practitioner who is Licensed, or an L.Ac., has obtained a 3 -4 year master's level degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Thousands of hours of training are required to complete this degree and they are awarded a Diplomat in Acupuncture or Oriental Medicine upon successful examination by the NCCAOM (National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). A Certified Acupuncturist is an MD with 200-300 hours of training in acupuncture. These practitioners perform "medical acupuncture", and while the term implies a high level of proficiency, in fact their training is only 1/10 that of an L.Ac. Some MDs have indeed completed the full training, so it is important to inquire about their credentials. Licensed vs Certified Acupuncturist Summary

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tui na cupping gua sha
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