TCM Series #1: A Question of Balance

Balance 1When all is said and done, health and illness are essentially a question of balance. There are numerous factors that affect our health…exercise, diet, stress, the amount of rest we get, lifestyle choices, environmental factors, relationships and interactions with others…but in every case, not only getting too little of what we need, but also having too much of it, can lead to problems with our health. An appropriate balance is healthy, and imbalance is unhealthy. This is where the ancient science and art that we call Chinese Medicine begins.

Chinese Medicine describes this approach to wellness through the concept of Yin and Yang. What do these terms mean?

I find a common misconception that many people have is that “some things are yin and other things are yang.” This is not the way it works. Everything in the Universe contains both Yin and Yang aspects. Within everything you can name can be found a part which is relatively more stable, more quiet, more solid/substantial, perhaps more cool, or fluid…more Yin. And other parts will be more active, more dynamic, more expansive, perhaps more hot, or dry…more Yang. These are some examples of characteristics that can be either properly or improperly imbalanced in our bodies’ internal environments, leading to either good or poor health.

unsplash balance lakeAnother way to simplify the differentiation between Yin and Yang that I find helpful is to think of Yin as corresponding to energy which is moving inward, and Yang to energy which is moving outward. Like our breath, or the movement of blood into and out of our hearts, or the intake of food and subsequent outflow of energy produced and excretion of waste, this constant interplay and endless dance of Yin and Yang is what defines us as alive from the time of birth to death.

Simply stated, a balance of Yin and Yang equals harmony and a state of good health; an imbalance of Yin and Yang equals disharmony and the potential for illness.

Yin/Yang imbalances can take many forms. Sometimes we can identify a systemic imbalance – a case where, for example, there is simply too much heat (i.e., a Yang excess) built up in one’s body from excessive consumption of spicy foods and alcohol, an accumulation of stress, spending too much time rushing around, etc., and not balanced by enough Yin influences like getting enough sleep and relaxation, drinking plenty of water, and eating nourishing food. Or, more commonly, imbalances of Yin and Yang can be identified that affect specific areas of the body, or within specific organs. For example, stress and poor dietary habits might lead to a depletion of the “Stomach Yin” specifically (which includes enzymes and fluids needed for digestion), causing various digestive disorders. If this depletion of Yin persists for long enough, the evidence of heat will become apparent in the form of burning-type stomach pain, “heartburn,” or even gastric ulcers. Any imbalance within an organ will compromise its ability to function optimally, and subsequently optimal health of the individual will be compromised in any number of ways.

So, where does acupuncture fit into all this? What does sticking needles into the body have to do with balancing Yin and Yang? I will address this question in detail in the weeks to come, but for now, know this: Acupuncture needles manipulate the flow of energy (primarily the energy we call “Qi”) in the body, and depending on which way they influence that energy to move, they will move more of it in to the organs or areas of the body where it’s needed, and drain it away (out) from places where there is too much. Again, a question of restoring balance.

 unsplash balance photo

How it works

Acupuncture works with the fundamental life force known as Qi (pronounced “Chee”), and a system of pathways through which this Qi flows. These pathways, usually called “meridians”, connect to the internal organs, and the Qi which flows through them nourishes and gives life to every cell in the body, just as irrigation systems bring water to all the places where it is needed.  When the natural flow of Qi becomes interrupted or disturbed, or when the supply of Qi from the organs is insufficient, illness results.  Acupuncture needles stimulate points along the meridians to restore the proper flow of Qi through them to and from the organs, and thereby return the organism to the healthy, balanced state that nature designed.

Traditional Chinese medical theory makes no significant distinction between physical and mental health. Consequently, acupuncture treatment will often improve both simultaneously, as the underlying causes of emotional discomfort may be rooted in the physical body, or vice versa.

You can read much more about how acupuncture works by clicking on the “blog” link at the top of the page.

Mission Statement & Philosophy of Treatment

Mission Statement:  My reason for doing this work is to contribute to the cause of reducing suffering in this world. Suffering comes in many forms: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual…temporary, chronic, recurrent…from known causes, from unknown causes….Almost every person has suffering of some kind that is doing them absolutely no good.

What I have learned is that the work that I do can relieve all these kinds of suffering to varying degrees, and that each time I help someone, I have made this world, at least a little bit, a happier and more peaceful place.

If there is suffering in your life that you would love to be without, whether great or small, I hope that I can help you, too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can acupuncture help with?

The goal of acupuncture and Chinese Medicine is to restore the body to a balanced state of health, in which it can self-regulate efficiently and effectively fight off disease or the effects of trauma. Therefore, to varying degrees, this medicine can help with virtually any health problem.

Of course, some health problems are easier to treat than others. Evidence suggests that acupuncture is particularly effective in the treatment of health disorders involving the respiratory, digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems, and of course, for musculo-skeletal problems (i.e. pains and strains, arthritis, fibromyalgia, etc.) In addition, a growing body of evidence supports the use of acupuncture for emotional issues, stress management, and various mental health problems.

 

Does it hurt?

Not really. It would be a lie to say that no one ever says “ouch,” or “Ooo, I felt that one,” when an acupuncture needle is inserted, but most of the time, if the needles produce any sensation at all, it barely qualifies as what most people would refer to as pain.

The notion that being stuck with a needle is painful is one that most of us have learned not to question, based on our experiences with injections (“shots”), IVs, blood draws (and maybe even sewing accidents!) But acupuncture has little in common with any of those experiences, other than the inclusion of the word “needle.” In fact, an acupuncture needle is roughly the thickness of a human hair, and because nothing is being injected through it, and because acupuncturists are very adept at NOT putting needles into blood vessels (or nerves), often you won’t even feel them go in. Sometimes various sensations may be felt near the needles, such as a subtle sensation of warmth or heaviness, but most people who have had acupuncture will tell you that it is not a “painful” experience.

 

What exactly do the needles do?

The answer to this question varies depending on what the condition is that’s being treated. But broadly speaking, the function of the needles is to regulate the circulation of energy (specifically, the energy we call “Qi”) throughout the body.

In some cases, the purpose of the needles is to unblock the flow of Qi through an area where it has become stuck or stagnant.  In other cases, their job is to encourage more Qi to flow to the area where they are inserted, in order to facilitate healing of damaged tissues.  And because most acupuncture points are found along energy channels (or “meridians”) that connect to the internal organs, points are often chosen according to the need to regulate the Qi flowing to and from the organs to which the meridians connect.

To fully understand the answer to this question, one must keep in mind that one of the most fundamental principles in Traditional Chinese Medicine is that the body always has the capability to heal itself. Acupuncture needles are inserted into the body only to help or encourage the body to do what it is supposed to be doing on its own. Qi is not injected into the body through the needles; they merely help to direct its movement.

 

What is Qi?

Qi is not easily defined. It cannot be seen under a microscope, and it cannot be easily measured. Sometimes Qi is translated as “life force,” because where there is no Qi, there is no life. Some interpret Qi to be synonymous with “energy,” and perhaps it is. But it is important to remember that, like energy, Qi can take many forms. There is a lot of Qi in a fierce thunderstorm, but there is also much Qi in a quiet breeze.

Qi is what empowers us, what moves us, what inspires us, what animates us. It exists in our heads and our hearts, and it flows all throughout our bodies. And just as oxygen is delivered to every cell in our bodies through large blood vessels that then branch into smaller and smaller blood vessels, Qi is delivered to every cell through the meridians, which then branch into smaller and smaller pathways throughout the body.

 

Will my insurance pay for acupuncture?

The vast majority of insurance plans now include acupuncture benefits. The most notable exceptions are Medicare and Medicaid, which currently will not cover acupuncture. In most cases, insurance will pay most or all of the cost for a number of sessions (which will vary from plan to plan), but will usually not cover the cost of herbs. However, the cost of herbs, if you need them, is generally low – typically about $15 for a 2-week supply.

Insurance plans, of course, vary tremendously. Call your insurance carrier or go online to their website to find out exactly what your acupuncture coverage will be.

 

How does a person become an acupuncturist?

In the United States, licensing regulations for acupuncturists are determined by individual states, so requirements vary somewhat. In the state of Washington, a Licensed Acupuncturist must first graduate from an accredited acupuncture college, and then pass a lengthy exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine(NCCAOM), which consists of both a written and a practical exam. Licenses must be renewed yearly through the Washington State Department of Health.

Generally, the road to graduation from an acupuncture college involves a minimum of six years of study. Acupuncture programs themselves are typically either three or four years, depending on the school. At least three years of study at an outside university is required to obtain all the necessary prerequisites for acceptance into an accredited acupuncture college.

In order to be eligible to accept health insurance, acupuncturists must also be certified by the NCCAOM. Certification must be renewed every four years, and requires demonstration of an ongoing commitment to responsible and ethical standards of practice, and a minimum of 60 credits every 4 years of continuing education.