Here is another in the series of key concepts in Chinese medicine – this time we focus on the acupuncture channels (or meridians as the French prefer to call them). What are they and what do they do?
The earliest documents which describe the channel system (albeit in prototype form) were discovered in the Ma-Wang-Dui tomb in China, which was sealed in 198 BCE. By around 100 BCE the Nei Jing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine) was describing a more organised system of channels much like we use today. Bronze statues from the fifteenth century were used as teaching aids and show most of the acupuncture points recognizable from contemporary practice, linked by a familiar network of channels. It seems that the descriptions of these channels pre-date modern science by a long way, but are they still relevant in the modern age or just a historical curiosity?
To try to answer this I thought I might take a look at two common occurences in modern clinical practice that tell us something about the role of the patients expectations.
Traditional theory emphasises channels as carriers of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) – the body’s vital energy or life-force. Each channel has a role, as suggested by names such as kidney or stomach. Together they form a web covering most of the body’s surface, and are known in Chinese as the Jing-Luo. If we think of this as a network of railway lines (with stations positioned at intervals representing the acupuncture points), we could conceive of congestion as representing ill-health or disharmony. Thus the job of the acupuncturist is to free the flow of Qi in the restricted channels.
Many modern researchers reject such notions as outdated because no tissue structures have been found that follow these pathways. It is my opinion that this way of thinking misses the point (sorry no pun intended) as I believe they were conceived as a way of explaining how stimulation paths in the body may be wired together. It would seem likely then that these are making use of already existing nervous system structures.
To examine this further I would like to share two interesting effects that an acupuncturist will be likely to encounter in everyday clinical practice.
The first example relates to the sensation which is felt by patients from the insertion of a needle – they will often describe a radiating sensation which follows the exact channel pathway. No one tells the patient which route the sensation ought to follow! To take this further, if the acupuncturist misses the point at the first insertion attempt (a common occurrence in even the most skilled practitioner due to the high accuracy of location required) no sensation will be felt by the patient and no change in outcomes is observed (ie the point has no effect on symptoms despite positive patient expectation).
The second example shows how the channels allows us to relate different parts of the body. We may insert a needle in the foot to benefit musculo-skeletal dysfunction of the hip. This doesn’t make any sense until we realise that both areas lie on the gall-bladder channel. We are clearing the channel of obstructions. Again the patient may not specifically connect the insertion of a needle in the foot with an improvement in their hip, and so may be surprised when this happens.
A similar example using the same (gall-bladder) channel would be in the treatment of one-sided migraine headaches which are alleviated by needling point GB41 on the foot.
Using examples from modern clinical practice, I hope I have shown how , in my experience, the network of channels described by the ancients are still relevant today, and provide a sound framework for modern practice.
Please feel free to leave a comment if you agree or disagree with this.