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Women and the LawThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

March 2008, vol. 13, no. 3

Acupuncture: What, When, Why and How?

For thousands of years, Eastern Medicine has used acupuncture to treat everything, including emotional disorders, pain, analgesia and wrinkle reduction. However, even though acupuncture has been gaining popularity throughout American culture, there are many who are unsure of its history and basic principles. The purpose of acupuncture, in its simplest form, is the restoration of balance. Health is balance. An imbalance in your body can create pain, disease, or any other symptom.

Origin: Acupuncture’s earliest record is found in the 4,700-year-old Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (compiled around 100 B.C.E.) This text is said to be the oldest medical textbook in the world. Shen Nung, known as the father of Chinese Medicine, has been credited with creating these theories and had documented theories on circulation, the heart, and the pulse over 4,000 years before European medicine had even conceptualized them.

Qi: At the very base of Chinese Medicine is Qi (pronounced roughly as chee, and sometimes written as chi). Qi is the basis of all living things, the building block for all matter of the universe—all that is spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental. The word Qi when used alone means air. If one says Qi Kong, then Qi means breathing. However, roughly translated, Qi means energy. Not like “wow that Mountain Dew gave me a ton of energy” but more like a person’s vital force, their spirit, their “life energy.” Qi flows vertically through the body via 14 meridian or channels. Twelve channels are paired with one running down each side of the body and 2 channels are unpaired and run through the midline of the body. Acupuncture points used for needling are found at specific locations throughout the body where the meridians are accessible at the surface of the skin. Restricted flow of Qi, otherwise known as “blocked Qi,” causes an imbalance of Yin and Yang which leads to pain or disease. Blocked Qi can be restored to balance by acupuncture treatments in which the needles ensure an even circulation of Qi through the meridians.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are two polar entities, like North and South. They may only be understood in relation to a whole. They can never be separated. Everything is divided into one of the two categories, Yin or Yang. To complicate things even more, all things have both a Yin aspect and a Yang aspect. Each aspect can be further divided into Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang mutually create each other, control each other, transform each other. One cannot exist without the other. The original meaning of Yin meant the shady side of the slope and Yang was the sunny side of the slope. This continues until everything is divided: day/night, male/female, seasons, times, parts of the body, colors, smells and feelings, etc. If Yin and Yang are out of balance, then everything is out of balance, because Yin and Yang is balance!


An acupuncturist can diagnose an imbalance, and can analyze the symptoms to determine which acupuncture points to use to reverse the imbalance. In most cases, a time-tested pattern (is over 4,000 years long enough?) of points is used for each ailment. During the treatment, the doctor places very small needles in the skin at these predetermined foci or acupuncture points. The needles are inserted at angles varying from 35-90 degrees from the skin, with 1/8 to 1/2 of an inch of the needle typically entering the skin. Initially, these incredibly small needles may cause slight discomfort, but most people do not feel their insertion. The patient then lies calmly for 20 minutes before the needles are removed. Most patients report feeling calm and relaxed, yet aware, following their treatment. Most treatments will also include a short-term diet plan and short-term herbal supplementation to restore balance as soon as possible. This is important because a long-term imbalance can in itself create more imbalances. For example, eating a predominance of fatty foods and carbs (i.e., not a balanced diet) can lead to high cholesterol, high cholesterol can lead to heart disease, and heart disease can lead to heart attack or stroke which can lead to death. 

Western Theories

Research has proven that acupuncture is successful in treating many illnesses, but why does it work? There are a variety of theories, and here are a few:

(1) Gate Control Theory: Gate Control Theory is basically the idea that if you stub your toe and then pinch your arm, your toe won’t hurt so badly. In other words, your spinal cord is a highway that carries impulses, such as pain, to your brain. The highway is only one lane each way. There are various on-ramps from all areas of your body, but the more impulses that share the highway, the longer they will have to wait to get to the brain, and the less pain you will feel. So, where at first you were feeling toe pain after stubbing your toe, if you then pinched yourself you would feel toe pain, arm pain, toe pain, arm pain, etc. More traffic on the highway means longer travel times to the brain, which means less pain impulses per second.

(2) Endorphin Theory: Endorphin Theory claims that acupuncture stimulates the release of the feel good, opiate-like, pain killing endorphins in the brain.

(3) Augmentation of Immunity: Another theory is called the Augmentation of Immunity. This theory suggests that acupuncture raises white blood cell counts (which fight infections), anti-bodies (immune system pathogen identifiers), prostagladins (a hormone eventually creating the sensation of pain...this is what pain-killers prevent the synthesis of), specific hormones and general immune system function.

(4) Neurotransmitter Theory: The Neurotransmitter Theory states that acupuncture affects levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (which regulates anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, vomiting, sexuality and appetite) and noradrenaline (which works with epinephrine to increase heart rate, release of glucose stores and increasing readiness of skeletal muscle for “fight or flight” response).

(5) Circulatory Theory: And then there is the Circulatory Theory which suggests that acupuncture affects the constriction or dilating of blood vessels due to the possible release of histamine in response to acupuncture. 


There are many theories in Western medicine with regard to acupuncture’s effect on the body, but the direct, specific reason it is successful in treating most problems has not been found. Recent research has proven acupuncture just as successful as Western Medicine (and safer with less negative side effects) in treating a wide range of ailments and illnesses. The Chinese have known this for over 4,000 years. Acupuncture may not be the answer to every problem, but it has actually been tested more—about 4,670 years longer than most of our “safe” prescription drugs! The Food and Drug Administration, who once classified acupuncture needles as “investigational” devices ( in which clinical studies are required to establish the safety and effectiveness), has now reclassified acupuncture needles as medical devices for use by qualified practitioners. This means that we are seeing an increase in insurance coverage for acupuncture, and there are state bills currently being considered by the legislature that require insurance companies to cover acupuncture.

Maybe health is just as simple as balance. Maybe balance is dependent on Qi flow. Maybe acupuncture can restore balanced flow of Qi. If it works, it works. All theories aside, I have seen the success of acupuncture time and time again—easily, simply, quickly with little impact on the patient’s life except for a small number of 20 minute treatments dedicated to restoring their health. Isn’t it time to find your balance

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