What is Acupuncture? An Overview of Chinese Medicine By Julie McCoy-Cox

 In Acupuncture


Acupuncture is one aspect of Chinese medicine. It is a tool used to help keep the body in balance, creating health and longevity. There are three fundamental concepts which form the foundation or pillars of this medicine. There is the Yin-Yang (5 phase theory), the Zang Fu Organ theory (internal organ theory) and the Channel theory.

The Yin Yang Theory creates the basic language for Chinese medicine. This theory helps us to categorize Qi. Qi can be defined as the small functional unit in any environment, living creature and in the organs. It is the primary mover or the spark that created the universe and all life. Qi can be considered the potential for change within a physical substance. This change can be seen as Yang in nature or yin in nature. Yang can be seen as expansion, opening, moving, growing and warming. Yin can be seen as contracting, closing, nourishing, shrinking and cooling. In all life there is a continual counterbalance and interdependence of yin and yang. All living things have both yin and yang within them. You could say the Sun is yang and the Moon is yin, and this would be true. You could also say that the Moon is yang and the ocean is yin, this would also be true. The moon is both yin and yang depending on what you compare it to. You could also say that the moon is continually shifting from yin to yang as it waxes and wanes.285994949

The five phases are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Like yin and yang, the five phases are seen in relationship to the other. Within the five phases we have two cycles, a generating cycle where the five phases or elements support the growth and expansion of one another and the controlling cycle where the five phases or elements control one another to prevent excess expansion in one element. This helps to maintain a dynamic state of balance and movement in the body. The five elements/phases, supports this dynamic balance of life.226248805

Yin and yang and the five phases create the language used in Chinese medicine to help understand the way the body functions and the channels and the way they flow. Chinese medicine is a dynamic medicine, seeing each individual as a unique ever-changing being. With acupuncture, the practitioner will use observation, palpation, pulse diagnosis and tongue diagnosis to help determine where the body is out of balance in-regards to yin and yang, the five phases, and the zang fu organs theories.

Now that we have a basic understanding of yin and yang and the five phases, we can look at the organ theory. There are yin and yang organs. The yin organs are the heart, kidney, spleen, liver and lung and the yang organs are small intestine, large intestine, stomach, gall bladder and bladder. In Chinese medicine the organs are seen by their physiological functions, but they are also related to their corresponding channel, element/phase and even their emotional aspects.

For instance, the emotion of the heart is joy, the emotion of the liver is anger, and the emotion of the lung is grief. Like the physiological function of the organ, the emotional function of the organ is also considered (see chart).five-element-chart


The third pillar of Chinese medicine is channel theory or meridian theory. The channels create a living web within the body. These webs/channels connect all aspects of the body, linking organs to organs, the body to Qi and the body to its environment. There are 12 primary channels and these channels are related to both of the organs, yin and yang and the five elements. Already we can see that Chinese medicine believes that all of life is interconnected, and there is no way we can separate it into parts and pieces. The channel network unifies all systems of the body including the digestive, lymphatic, nervous, reproductive, and connective tissue to create a cohesive and responsive system. The body is continually adapting to its environment internally and externally. When the channels are flowing freely, life is in balance. It is when one channel is in excess or one channel is deficient that we find dis-ease. The excessive channel is like a river that overflows its banks, flooding the land. While the deficient channel is like a damned up river, on the far side of the damn there is no water and the land dries up and nothing can grow or flourish. We might see the excess as swelling, cold in the belly creating pain or heat in the head causing headaches. We might see the deficiency as malnourished tendons creating tendonitis or muscle strain, or even as dry skin or hair loss.

Along these channels are acupuncture points, which are living points where Qi from the channel can be accessed (like dipping your bucket in a well to get the water). These points are used to help maintain balance and to rebalance the body. The acupuncture points have many categories or functions and one acupuncture point can have multiple uses. It can be used in terms of the channel it is associated with; points on the heart channel affect the heart. The points can be used in accordance to yin and yang; yin channel acupuncture points in the arm affect yin channels in the leg. Points can be used in relationship to the five phases. For instance, using the generating and the controlling cycle, points on the wood channel can help to generate the fire channel and help to control the earth channel.

There are many more ways that acupuncture points can be used, the list goes on and on. Using points associated with trigger points in the body, or with holographic imaging (For example, ankle points help to treat the wrist and knee points help to treat the elbow).130549658

This is a very small introduction to a vast medicine. Chinese medicine offers a very holistic view of the body and an individualized approach. Two people might come in with the same disease, but they might get two very different treatments.

When the body is in balance there is harmony and when the body gets out of balance there is dis-ease. We don’t have to wait until we are sick or in distress to find our local acupuncturist. Why not try acupuncture as a preventative medicine? Feeling run down or not quite yourself, maybe you need a little rebalancing. Like eating healthy, exercise, yoga and meditation, acupuncture offers a path to staying healthy.


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Ju-Yi, W., Robertson, J. (2008). Applied channel theory in chinese

medicine. (pp. 1-39). Seattle, WA: Eastland Press


Ni, M. (1995). The yellow emperor’s classic of medicine.. (pp. 13-16).

Boston, MA: Shambhala.

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