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Let's be straight! Nobody, yet, has found out exactly what acupuncture meridians are. Less still has anyone been able to examine them by eye, like veins or muscles or nerves.
People have looked, of course: they'd love to prove they exist. It would justify 2500 years of receiving bullshit from sceptics.
Science certainly hasn't discovered them, although individual scientists have had some very interesting results.
(And by the way - by and large the word 'meridians' is not the best description. 'Channels' would be better, because a 'channel' conveys the idea of something travelling through it, whereas 'meridian' is just a hypothetical line.)
But although a case can be made for acupuncture points, which after all have an electrical skin resistance different to that of the surrounding skin, not so for acupuncture meridians.
Yet, speaking as an acupuncturist, could I do what I do without them?
Or perhaps I could do something but with nothing like the same understanding or results, because the theory of acupuncture meridians leads on to a set of other ideas which, hanging together, make up a whole very much greater than its parts.
I first really accepted the existence of meridians when watching a doctor in Nanjing, China - where I was studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine - treat someone with mumps using purely acupuncture: no herbs, nothing else but needles.
The patient was around 40, very tough, worked outside, mostly digging ditches for the electricity company there. He was about as wide as he was tall and all muscle.
According to the nurse, he had had a very limited education and had never needed, let alone received, acupuncture treatment. He didn't seem to know what it was.
By the way... You may find this surprising, but don't assume that everyone in China drinks green tea and lives by the rules of traditional Chinese medicine on keeping well.
The Chinese are no better at doing what they should, health-wise, than are we in the West. And many Chinese have never encountered Chinese medicine.
Apparently our patient had had mumps for three weeks, and the lump under his right jaw was huge, like a small football.
His head was forced back and towards the left.
He seemed to be in pain but didn't admit to it.
He'd been on antibiotics for all three weeks without effect.
We discovered later that they'd been increasing the dosage, with more and more antibiotics being added, and with doses equivalent to what horses receive - huge!
But his condition didn't improve. Eventually the medical department gave up and sent him up to the traditional Chinese medicine department: us.
The diagnosis was damp and heat in the Large Intestine acupuncture meridian.
'Damp' because of the nature of the disease, for example
'Heat' because of the
So, when we eventually treated him, he was not being treated for 'mumps'!
The Large Intestine acupuncture meridian runs from the forefinger up the arm across the shoulder and neck to the face beside the nose.
Even if he'd heard of acupuncture, which I doubt, the patient had certainly never heard of the Large Intestine acupuncture meridian, any more possibly than have you! - like most people in the West.
You might think that this meridian, this acupuncture channel to do with the bowels, was relatively unimportant. You'd be wrong!
The Large Intestine acupuncture meridian has a vital role in keeping our heads clear, our thinking unimpeded and our skin pure.
At least one point on the channel is among the most important in daily use and is almost irreplaceable, so much can it do.
As I said, he wasn't being treated for 'mumps', our Western name of the disease. He was being treated according to the diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine.
The same happens in the West if you see a well-trained acupuncturist. You may think you are taking your stomach ache, or back pain or headache or depression or skin problem or whatever for treatment by your acupuncturist.
Actually your acupuncturist, if he or she is any good, will be analyzing your condition (whatever you or your doctor may call it in terms of Western or orthodox medicine) in terms of Chinese medicine, and then treating you according to that diagnosis.
Treatment consisted of a needle near the right hand thumb-nail, to clear heat, and a needle in Hegu (right hand), an important point in the web between thumb and forefinger.
The aim of using Hegu was to get Qi moving in the acupuncture meridian and to send it to the area of the swelling to move the damp there. Almost as if you wake up that acupuncture channel's army and sending it marching up to where the pain or problem is.
Expected result of these two actions? That Qi would move freely along the acupuncture meridian, 'flushing out' the dammed up liquids as it were. Hence the swelling would decrease in size, the inflammation would disappear and the pain would go.
Clearly the Western medical department in the hospital thought he had an infection which their antibiotics had failed to treat.
However, the word 'infection' doesn't have much meaning in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is described more carefully and precisely as, for example, heat, or cold, damp, dryness or wind: these terms have very clear meanings in Chinese medicine.
Once you understand them - not difficult - you'll appreciate how much better they are at helping acupuncturists individualise treatment for their patients.
The doctor manipulated the needle at acupuncture point Hegu (on the patient's right hand) and asked the patient to put the forefinger of his left hand where he felt anything happening on his right arm.
Remember that the patient had never had acupuncture, nor I suspect ever even seen an acupuncture needle. I don't think he even knew that the treatment he would be receiving was markedly different to the antibiotic treatment he'd just had for three weeks.
He didn't know what was going to happen.
Because his head was forced back and to the left, he couldn't see where the needle at Hegu was unless he raised his hand, which he couldn't because the doctor was holding it.
When the needle at Hegu went in, he said he felt a pricking sensation in his hand.
Then, as the doctor manipulated the needle, the patient put his left forefinger on his right wrist to show where he was feeling something, and gradually moved it along his arm towards his elbow, then his shoulder.
This was precisely where the Large Intestine acupuncture meridian runs. The patient touched the acupuncture points along it as he felt the sensation moving along under the skin. Eventually he reached his shoulder and then went as if to touch his neck on the right.
Of course, his neck was still very swollen so he seemed surprised to touch it so soon. He said it felt as if a balloon had burst there. Immediately he looked more relaxed and stopped frowning.
This took, perhaps, 5 minutes.
That was the treatment. We asked him to return the next day.
... a few days later another equally sturdy patient arrived, sent by the first patient who had apparently got better over night.
Remember that the patient had never seen a needle, let alone a chart of acupuncture points.
How could he have known where the doctor was directing the qi?
Yet he traced out the precise line of the acupuncture meridian, along which the qi was being 'pushed'.
His friend said all signs of the swelling had disappeared by the next morning after the treatment.
Since then I've seen many other cases which make me accept the concept of acupuncture meridians.
Sometimes I've sent qi along an acupuncture meridian and it's moved exactly as the textbooks show it should. It's not always that easy to get the Qi to move, by the way. It takes some skill and there must also be sufficient Qi around: if the patient is very frail or old, it may not be possible to do it.
Sometimes patients say, before they have a treatment, that their pain goes along a particular pathway. When you examine it, it turns out to be along one of the meridians.
Sometimes you treat a point on a meridian very far away from where the pain is, and there clearly is some connection because the pain disappears.
Various neurological explanations exist, but they struggle a bit when the sensation of Qi movement passes from one nerve to another.
I confidently expect someone to come up with a satisfactory explanation one day, using Western scientific criteria. Meantime, the Chinese idea of acupuncture channels and points, with Qi maintaining their integrity, is a serviceable hypothesis. What is more, it works.
The most impressive demonstration I ever saw was at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Edinburgh's number 1 hospital.
A retired professor of medicine from China gave a lecture in the 1980s to a bunch of surgeons and senior nurses at the hospital.
He showed films of what he'd done with the bodies of people who'd recently died. In particular, he had taken the legs from their bodies. With an electric probe he'd then stimulated, electrically, the skin round the circumference of the thigh right at the top of the leg.
Meanwhile he'd attached another electrical device (a bell!) to the foot so that it detected signals reaching the ankle and identified the spot precisely where the signal was sensed.
There are six acupuncture meridians running down the leg, spread more or less evenly round the circumference of the limb.
What he showed was how when he stimulated the point on the acupuncture meridian called the 'Gallbladder' meridian at the top of the thigh or in the gluteals - the bum - as shown on the right, the bell rang to show a signal had reached where it flows over the ankle at the precise Gallbladder point there, and nowhere else.
The signal was even stronger if he stimulated acupuncture points on the thigh and put the sensor on the acupuncture points at the foot, but even if he just stimulated the line of the meridian, the line of the Gallbaldder meridian at the foot also picked up the signal.
The same occurred with the other meridians, such as along the Stomach meridian shown below.
(With only the Spleen and Liver meridians was it was harder to discern the difference because they run so close together at the ankle.)
The surgeons, nurses and other medics didn't know what to make of it. They'd heard of Chinese medicine - might even have attended one of my talks about it - but it really wasn't of much interest to them in their normal working lives.
Yet here was something that showed connections between parts of the limb that had nothing to do with nerves, muscles, veins, lymph or any other physical attributes they knew of.
What happened next?
Judging from the lack of any subsequent signs of interest from the medics, I would say they all put the demonstration into that part of their brains marked
"To be ignored because it doesn't make sense.
And to be forgotten as soon as possible UNLESS, after conducting double-blind randomised placebo-controlled tests on human cadavers, somebody writes a peer-reviewed paper in a respectable journal which I can quote."
Anyway, the professor returned to China and was never heard of again. What happened to his research I do not know.
Perhaps someone reading this will have news. But from my perspective, it demonstrated again that the ancient Chinese concept of acupuncture meridians had validity.
Obviously we cannot blame the highly skilled doctors who saw the demonstration.
They knew their own business and they were busy people with huge patient lists.
And anyway, it is very doubtful if, without considerable training, they would have been able to use, in any way, the information the professor produced.
Well, if you are a hard-nosed sceptic, you can't.
There's nothing there to see, not even under the microscope.
No Western text-book includes them. Gray's Anatomy (one of the most famous text-books on the subject, see right) makes no mention of them.
'Nobody's proved they exist so it's safe to say they don't.
No acupuncture meridians.
That's settled then.'
And yet ...
Everyone knows what a map is. It shows where places are in relation to other places and areas. It shows roads, towns, contours, hills, valleys and seas. Any of these you can go to and inspect.
Look up in the sky. You'll see stars and the moon. (Yes, I know, and planets and satellites and galaxies and ...)
But what you see from your perspective without a telescope is very different from what the Hubble telescope tells us.
That can see electromagnetic wavelengths across a huge spectrum, it can take pictures that show that what you see as two adjacent 'stars' are actually one star nearby and a galaxy billions of light-years further away beyond the star.
And the whole thing is held together by various forces which we don't understand and can't see, including gravity. They've been doing their job for billennia whether we knew about them or not.
Come closer. Do you see an aeroplane in the sky? Travelling along a path followed regularly by other planes in one direction and height, so as not to bump into other planes travelling in the opposite direction at another height or vicinity?
The pilots have maps of where to go or not, even if you can't see them.
If there are all these invisible connections and maps which we can imagine or use, why not acupuncture meridians? They show direction, height, interaction (if you understand how it works) and can be acted upon and assumed to exist by results, even if you can't yet prove they exist.
Furthermore, when someone is sick, the skin along the meridian can feel different, depending on what the matter is. And of course, they connect acupuncture points which can be electrically detected.
Anyhow, the Chinese experience (don't forget acupuncture meridian theory informs Shiatsu, Reiki, applied kinesiology and much else in many far Eastern and now Western countries) is to work on the assumption that they exist.
A new theory?
And perhaps, now, there is the making of a new theory about them.
Perhaps they lie along the boundaries of the fascia, the membranes, that line our body cavities, that wrap and protect the different parts of our bodies, allowing them to slide part each other without friction.
Suppose, this theory might go, that at particular points on the intersections, there are a series of interconnected points of potential.
You wouldn't see these if you dissected the body, because they don't connect up, but as 3D boundaries there is still inter-connectedness!
Even if they don't exist, we work as if they do. And the further assumption is that energy travels along them, maintaining life.
However ... the ancient Chinese got there first. If you read their ancient books, you find reference to membranes and fascia.
There's more about this on the page on Chong Mo, one of the 'extraordinary vessels'.
If you live in the Edinburgh area of Scotland, where the author of this site (and of the books described below) works, click on Edinburgh Acupuncturist.
If you live elsewhere, click on BAcC.
Please note! The Kindle editions are less easy to read! Although the paper editions cost more, they are much easier to read and to refer back and forth to the contents and index.
Here are some of the books Jonathan has written:
Still only one comment, though personally I think this is my best book so far.
Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine!
No comments yet: just published. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)
3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!
By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.
NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.
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