How does acupuncture work?

So, How Does Acupuncture Work From a Western Perspective?

acupunctureAcupuncture in today’s world is highly misunderstood and confused, and this confusion has led to all sorts of skepticism from the scientific and medical communities. But what if I were to tell you that acupuncture is not an energy medicine, and that it is actually a “flesh and bones” medicine which is consistent with our current understanding of science and physiology? What if I were to tell you that meridians and energy are not what the classic texts were talking about? What if I were to tell you the Chinese discovered so much about anatomy and physiology long before the west, through post mortem autopsies. I am going to endeavour to de-mystify much of what surrounds acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, and reveal what the source texts were really talking about in order to give clarity to a this beautiful and effective therapy. Let us start by looking into history to understand from where the energy model for acupuncture arose. If the ideas of energy and meridians are not correct, from where did these concepts originate? Who made these errors and mistranslations?

We need to rewind to the beginning of the 20th century to answer the above questions. A Frenchman named Georges Souliel de Morant was a banker who eventually travelled to China, where he even served as French Consul of Shanghai for a time. During his time in China he became interested in Chinese Medicine, which grew to be his life’s purpose. When Soulie de Morant returned to France he endeavoured to write papers on acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, as well as translate classic text material from Chinese to French.

Although Georges Souliel de Morant contributed greatly to the exposure of Chinese medicine to the west, he did make a couple of critical mistakes which have given rise to much of the debate and confusion surrounding acupuncture. Firstly, Souliel de Morant mistranslated “qi” (pronounced chee) to energy, as well as translating the word “mai” to meridians. These concepts form the energy model attached to acupuncture today, but wrongly so. This model implies that there is some mysterious energy flowing in non-physical vessels throughout the body called meridians. If this energy becomes blocked or deficient in any way, the result will be disease in one form or another. It is due to this line of thinking that acupuncture faces great difficulty in integrating into the west and taking its proper place as a primary treatment model for an entire host of ailments. Western minded individuals struggle to relate, while doctors and scientists end up viewing acupuncture as some form of voodoo or quackery.

So, if these translations are incorrect and the energy model associated with acupuncture is inaccurate, then what are the Chinese really talking about? What is qi? What are merdians?


Qi has many possible translations; but there are two main translations relevant to us in our understanding Chinese medicine. One meaning of the word qi is function. For instance, one may be diagnosed with lung qi deficiency. This simply means the individual’s lungs are functioning sub-optimally and they require treatment.

The other translation relevant to us is the one which needs the most clarification. Qi means vital air or oxygen not energy. The Chinese discovered very early on that some type of vital air was inhaled by the lungs and transported with the blood to every part of the body. They discovered this long before the west, but never received the credit they deserved with this one.

heartThe Chinese word “mai” is the word which has been mistranslated to meridians. The correct meaning of this word is vessel or channel. The Chinese discussed different types of vessels very early on, for instance the “jing-mai” are longitudinal vessels, the “luo-mai” are collateral vessels, and the term “jing-luo” is often used together and refers to the vascular system in general. So the correct understanding of a meridian is simply a blood vessel; which is designed to transport blood (xue), oxygen (qi), nutrients(ying), immune substances (wei), and pain killing substances such as endorphins, to various parts of the body.

So what are those points commonly seen on acupuncture charts? These points are called “jie” in Chinese, and the common term used in English is an acupuncture point. These points are critical nodes or junctures, which represent neurovascular concentrations of fine vascular structures and related nerves. An acupuncturist needles tissue associated with these nodal sites to produce various responses in the body aimed at achieving homeostasis, regulating organ function, healing tissue, killing pain, etc.

I know much of what I have said here goes against what you have heard or have been taught about acupuncture. I am not here to suggest there is no such thing as energy or spirit. I am simply stating what the Chinese were talking about when they developed these amazing theories and techniques millennia ago. If you are still asking yourself “how does acupuncture work“, I recommend a book called “The Dao of Chinese Medicine”, by Donald E. Kendall, but I am forewarning you it is not light reading. Otherwise, if you are still not convinced or if you still believe in the energy model it is ok, because acupuncture still works either way.

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