Shortly after acupuncture was imported into the United States about fifty years ago, it was widely rejected by the established medical community and cast off into the realm of fringe medicine. This occured in large part because our finest medical scientists failed to explain how or why it worked, especially when it was shown to work as good, or even better than, conventional interventions such as drugs or surgery.

Since then, despite decades of research into acupuncture and its effectiveness in the treatment of a wide variety of poor health conditions, medical science still cannot clearly explain the mechanism for exactly what happens in the body when an acupuncture needle is inserted into it, nor how therapeutic changes and benefits occur as a result.

While the jury is still out, acupuncture continues to gain popularity as a natural and safe treatment of pain and other symptoms associated with a wide variety of biomedically-defined diseases. And this is what continues to attract many people to acupuncture.

But more often than not, many newcomers to acupuncture therapy are surprised to learn that acupuncture involves more than just the insertion of needles into specific areas of the skin. Acupuncture is merely one branch of a complete natural medicine system often referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

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TCM is a modern term commonly used to describe the medical theory, techniques, and methods that originated in ancient China, and have subsequently been updated and used throughout history, mainly in the East Asian region of the world. For some time now TCM has also been incorporated into mainstream healthcare throughout Europe and North America, making up the core of a vast body of medical knowledge that has been called Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

On its own, TCM is a complete system of medicine that is rooted in the same holistic and functional principles and concepts of natural law that shaped the basis of ancient Daoist ideology.

On the one hand, “holistic” implies it is used in the treatment of someone’s total well being, inclusive of physical, mental, social, and spiritual conditions that may arise during the course of an illness, not just one aspect of it.

On the other hand, “functional” implies it is used to restore and preserve balance and health by identifying and resolving dysfunctional physiological processes that often precede full-blown states of chronic illness.

And it not only includes the use of acupuncture, but also heat therapy, nutrition, herbal medicine, meditation, massage, and exercise.

Embracing a Personalized Holistic & Functional Approach

The personalized holistic and functional approach to care provided by TCM and acupuncture is often very jarring for most Westerners. They are used to receiving treatment that is delivered in a much more impersonalized, disconnected fashion.

If a medical doctor (MD) believes your diet is implicated in the disease process (which by the way, rarely occurs), then a separate person who specializes in nutrition provides recommendations. If your muscles or joints are involved, then you are referred to another person who recommends and performs massage, stretches and exercises. If your mental-emotional health is implicated, then you are referred to another person who can recommend ways to alter your mood, and so on.

This disjointed approach to healthcare can be described as a symptom of the deductive thinking that pervades every aspect of Western culture. Fundamentally, it encourages a buy-in to a disease-model of healthcare where you are expected to take action or get help with your health and wellbeing only when a problem or disease arises. And when you finally do get help, you are generally expected to remove yourself from the whole process and rely on others to repair your physical health with drugs or surgery.

While aspects of this approach may in some cases be a necessary step towards recovering overall health, an overreliance on it is everything that's wrong with our current delivery of healthcare, one ill-equipped to face the greatest healthcare challenge of the 21st century— chronic debilitating diseases.

As a result, most newcomers to acupuncture become a bit confused when all their various symptoms are unified into one comprehensive assessment of overall health. They feel shocked and sometimes even doubtful that such an assessment can be made. And they often times even become a bit suspicious when in addition to recieving acupuncture treatment they are given a massage, nutritional advise, recommendations for herbal medicine, and instructions for exercise and meditation, all at the same visit.

But there is no need to have doubt. While in medical school, acupuncturists spend a good deal of time learning about the various branches of TCM and how to use them safely and effectively.

In fact, in an effort to establish a new delivery of care that addresses the growing problem of chronic diseases, some of the emerging models of medicine in the West, such as integrative medicine and functional medicine, have assimilated many of the core holistic and functional principles of TCM that are taught to acupuncturists while in school.

In particular, functional medicine (sometimes referred to as functional nutrition) strikes a sharp resemblance to TCM. Like TCM, functional medicine encourages a patient-centered approach where the patient is educated and encouraged to become responsible for their own health and wellbeing. Like TCM, functional medicine also emphasizes understanding and improving the functional core of the human being as the starting point for intervention. And like TCM, functional medicine focuses on restoring balance to body systems by strengthening the fundamental processes that underlie them.

So don't be surprised to receive sound nutritional guidance at your acupuncture visit. You should actually be expecting it.

You also shouldn't be alarmed to receive meditation  instruction, be provided with a massage, prescribed an herbal medicine prescription, or be given exercise guidelines, either. It's all part of the built-in benefits of receiving acupuncture and these actually serve to support the effects of treatment.

Take advantage of these built-in benefits, and welcome them with open arms instead. It could serve as the health-altering and life-changing experience you're seeking!


About the Author

authorRene M. Rodriguez is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and board licensed acupuncturist with 20 years experience in alternative natural medicine. He's in private practice in Los Angeles, CA, specializing in digestive disorders, skin conditions, infections, environmental illness, and mind-body health and wellness. For more information, please click here.

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