Medicine on the needles?
I had a first time acupuncture patient once ask me if there was medicine on the needles. The question surprised me, but when I thought about it, the question makes sense. We are taught, in a round about way, that healing must come from an outside source. Have a headache? Take a pill. Does your body hurt? Take a pill. Are you depressed? Take a pill. When you go to the doctor they give you a few choices — take a pill, have surgery, or if they can’t see anything wrong in your blood work, there is nothing wrong with you, so take a pill.
So when my patient asked if there is medicine on the needles — even though I found it a little funny — it is a sensible question to ask, because we are taught that we can’t get better just on our own.
Yes, taking a pill IS a quick way to get rid of your symptoms — at least temporarily — and sometimes we need to do this to “get through the day” comfortably, or because the illness we have is much stronger than our body’s ability to fight it.
We all know that pills have other effects, though. Many effects of Western pharmaceuticals are merely undesirable in the short term (like nausea or diarrhea) but can be downright harmful in the long term. Long term pain medication is dangerous for the liver; chronic corticosteroid use has multiple systemic effects (“Cushing’s Syndrome”); anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications can lead to insomnia, weight gain, low libido, fatigue, constipation, blurry vision…yeesh! Antibiotics– often a very necessary drug– also kill off healthy gut flora and thereby significantly reduce your natural immune system response; long term use can cause very serious side effects like kidney failure, vision problems, etc (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/popular-antibiotics-may-carry-serious-side-effects/?_r=0).
A really good question to ask yourself if you are taking medications to alleviate a symptom, is why did the symptoms appear in the first place, and what are you doing to address it? Simply masking a symptom by taking a pill does not mean the problem is gone. You are just turning off your body’s signal that something is off balance, and letting that something spin out of control. Ever wonder why some older people are commonly taking ten or twelve medications at once? Often these other medications are prescribed to alleviate effects of the medications. Meanwhile, the original cause of disease goes completely untreated.
All of this “healing” is done to us, given to us by an outside source, without much mention of lifestyle and dietary changes that might help to promote the body’s ability to heal itself. In fact, if someone gets better without the use of drugs or surgery, doctor’s often chalk the healing up to “the placebo effect” and dismiss it.
Natural healing abilities
But what about our own natural healing abilities? For they certainly do exist. Just imagine what we would look like if we didn’t have the ability to heal from cuts, broken bones, and bruises. Kind of a horrifying idea. Or what would happen if we couldn’t bounce back from colds, flus, food poisoning, headaches, menstrual cramps, and the like. We’d be a mess. This self-healing, however, is dependent upon the strength and reserves of our minds and bodies. Children and younger people, with deeper reserves, often heal quickly, while older people and those chronically depleted by unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, may need some support.
Chinese medicine lends a healing hand in a very different way than Western biomedicine; where Western medicine masks the symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), works to strengthen the body’s natural abilities to bring itself back into balance. Ultimately, it is your body that heals itself. It knows how. Really!
When acupuncture and herbs are necessary
If there is not medicine “on the needles,” then what are those needles doing? And if our bodies can heal themselves, then why are we sick in the first place, and why bother with any kind of medicine? Because sometimes we swing so far out of balance that the body has trouble maintaining homeostasis. It needs a little help to get back enough strength to begin the healing process, or to take it to the next level.
To assist the body back into a state of self healing, acupuncture needles are placed strategically along the energy pathways of the body, targeting places where excess energy is stuck, and places where energy is lacking, in an attempt to balance the yin and the yang of the body. The process of a good acupuncture treatment works to rebalance de-regulated energy flow. The treatment will allow you access to additional energy in your body that has been trapped, or is not flowing smoothly, and to increase energy in places that have been blocked, or starved out, by the imbalance. Most of us have some imbalance or disharmony that if sorted out would free up some resources to aid in our greater well being.
An example of an angry liver
For example, a patient came to see me who had been struggling with fatigue, some depression, and irritable bowel syndrome for a few years. Otherwise, this person was a relatively healthy, well functioning woman in her early forties. Upon diagnosis (made via pulse taking, viewing the tongue, and scanning her energetically using medical qi gong techniques) I could see and feel that this person had, from a Chinese medicine perspective, a great deal of heat and trapped energy in her liver.
The liver is the organ responsible for the smooth flow of energy in the body. Stress, frustrations, unexpressed emotions, can get stuck in us, like an energy build up that becomes imprisoned and sets us off balance. We can feel this build up of pathological liver energy when we get angry and want to “blow our stacks” or scream or have the urge to punch something.
In our daily lives, we can address this stuck-ness in healthy or unhealthy ways to provide some relief, or we can do nothing and let the annoyances build, and end up being a snappy, irritable, exhausted human being living in misery and making ourselves sick.
For example, a healthy way to deal with an angry build up of energy is to exercise; an unhealthy way to deal with it is alcohol (alcohol is said to “scatter the qi”). Very spicy food is also another way to move stuck energy. However, too much of any of these things (including exercise) can lead to problems.
I mentioned to my patient that despite feeling exhausted, she actually had a great deal of energy available to her, it was just stuck. I asked if there was some unresolved problem in her life causing anger and frustration. Indeed, there had been a significant traumatic event that had occurred just before her symptoms appeared. This issue was unresolved, creating a good deal of emotional suffering. According to TCM theory, emotions are made to be felt, but not held on to. Holding an emotion can cause the body to go out of balance and the longer the emotion is held, the more significant the symptoms. Negative emotions held over a long period of time can lead to significant disease.
When anger is stored in the liver, a variety of dysfunction can happen, and the liver can “attack” other organs. One common organ for it to attack is the stomach and digestive system as a whole. This is why it is hard to eat when you are angry, and why you may actually can get an upset stomach when you are angry. In my patient’s case, the anger contributed to the development of irritable bowel syndrome. Because her digestion was weakened, the food she was eating was not being optimally absorbed by her body, consequently creating fatigue because she wasn’t being adequately nourished. Therefore, she had both digestive upset as well as exhaustion, all resulting from trapped energy / emotion.
The treatment for this patient offered several avenues to healing. First, the diagnostic process brought into her awareness the destructive nature of holding on to her anger. She had every right to be angry about what had happened, but she needed to take some steps toward resolving it, so she could move on. The awareness alone was huge. Sometimes that’s all it takes for someone to begin to heal. Sometimes the patient decides psychotherapy is an appropriate next step if they feel truly stuck and unable to move through emotional issues on their own.
Second, I addressed the energetic disharmony between her liver and digestive system using acupuncture. Each acupuncture treatment produced significant relief of symptoms, and helped with flare ups. The acupuncture channels or meridians run the length of our body, moving through the organs, so I selected points to smooth and soothe the liver, releasing that stuck energy and heat accumulated there, making the energy available to other parts of her body, and also giving her digestive system a break from the attack so it could heal. I also selected points to strengthen her digestion so she could begin to absorb more of the nutrients in her food, and subsequently have more energy.
Third, because this patient had suffered from the emotional impact of the past event for several years, her body needed additional help to get back into balance, and to have continued support as she dealt with her anger. This is where herbs come in handy. The effects of acupuncture alone can be miraculous and often resolve an acute problem in one to six treatments. Something that is chronic and long term may have depleted the body to such an extent that outside nourishment is needed in order to speed up the healing process.
Chinese herbal medicine does not work like a pill that masks symptoms; herbal medicine works to address both the root of the problem as well as the symptoms — in her case, rebuilding the strength of her weakened digestive system and soothing the liver so that things flowed smoothly, leading to her body’s ability to truly heal.
This whole process is chalked up by the western medical system very often as a “placebo” effect. By which they mean, the patient is imagining both the symptoms and the cure. Apparently the body’s ability to heal itself is disregarded and ideas of energy, emotions, balance, meridians, and herbs, are all thought to be a bunch of hocus pocus.
In actuality, our bodies are amazing! Like a starfish that can regrow its own legs (or are they arms?), we do have the ability to rejuvenate and regenerate ourselves. The medicine is not on the needles. The medicine is in you! But sometimes we just need a little help to call it forth.
I can help.