I am often asked how acupuncture works, and what it is the needles are actually doing. When explaining this to my patients an analogy that seems to make sense to them is to compare our state of health and well-being to the flow of traffic around a city centre. When traffic is flowing smoothly and freely there is harmony. Each driver is, in general, happy.
If however a car breaks down and blocks the carriageway, or there are roadworks, traffic becomes congested and slows. Individual drivers may feel frustrated and unhappy and may be driven to reckless behaviour. Each city area has a sophisticated traffic control centre which allows monitoring of traffic flow at key points around the road network, and can intervene to change the sequence of traffic lights in order to keep drivers moving. Traffic police may also be despatched to the scene of an accident. It is worth commenting that maximum traffic disruption may be experienced at some distance away from the accident blackspot.
Drawing upon this parallel, the job of the professional acupuncturist is to promote movement, after all movement is synonymous with life itself. Each of us may experience sluggish ‘traffic flow’ as for example pain, stiffness, congestion or a feeling of ‘being out of sorts’. The acupuncturist sits in his ‘control room’ and monitors the flow of Qi (meaning vital energy, and pronounced ‘chee’) through the acupuncture channels (or meridians) by feeling the pulse points on the wrist. He may for example feel that the flow of Qi in the spleen channel is slowed, which can be confirmed if the patient has loose stools and abdominal distension after eating.
Fine needles are then placed in acupuncture points, which act like the traffic police to restore traffic flow. As in the traffic analogy, the needles may be placed in areas away from the discomfort site (eg in the feet or legs in this example).
The key skill demonstrated by a good acupuncturist is the ability to accurately assess which ‘roads’ are blocked and to produce effective remedial action. The ‘traffic cops’ are available in many different forms – needles, moxa cones, cups, fingers. ‘What do these do?’ do I hear you ask? Well that is a story for another day.