Most practitioners of natural medicine know what it feels like to be “the treatment of last resort.” As an acupuncturist on Cape Cod for the past seven years, I’ve heard many new clients say they chose acupuncture only after every other possibility had been exhausted.
Whether it’s due to fear of needles or a discomfort with a medicine that speaks its own cultural language, people wait until they’ve failed many other more invasive treatments before they call me. And for some, this still isn’t too late.
Even chronic, long-standing health problems do respond to acupuncture. But I can’t help but wonder how much greater our effectiveness would be, and how much more quickly we would see healing occur, if we instead were the first line of defense. It is here that I believe our greatest healing potential lies.
To understand why, it’s important to know a bit about acupuncture theory, and the Asian concept of Qi. Within Chinese medicine, Qi is the motivating force that animates and nourishes all of life. In its most material form, Qi creates our bodies and internal organs. In its most ethereal form, it explains the electro-chemical impulses that guide our breath, digest our food and move blood within our veins.
Acupuncturists say the strength and smooth flow of a person’s Qi is directly related to their ability to maintain health. Like the immune system, our Qi defends the body against outside invasion, but it also controls each organ’s ability to clear toxins and stagnation from the body, thus protecting against degenerative disease as well.
Although genetics decide much about a person’s Qi, the way we live, eat and breathe is equally important. Our organs create Qi from the food we eat and the air we breathe.
When we tax our bodies with the wrong foods, too much food or a stressful, rushed schedule, the body’s ability to transform food and breath into Qi begins to weaken.
Early signs of this might be bloating or gas, fatigue, weight gain or constipation. Left untreated, this Qi deficiency makes the body vulnerable to a host of more serious illnesses.
What can an acupuncturist do, at this early stage? First, by examining the person’s tongue and pulse, in addition to their symptoms, they can identify the particular imbalance before it becomes entrenched. They can educate the person about which lifestyle factors are likely to worsen the imbalance, and which ones not to worry about.
Most importantly, acupuncture is simply more effective at this early stage.
You could see a Qi imbalance as a leak in a lifeboat. If we repair the leak quickly, there is less opportunity for water to damage the boat’s interior, and the repair will be easier to complete. People who come for acupuncture after an imbalance has persisted for many years have, in some sense, been leaking Qi. Acupuncture treatment can help stop the leak, but rebuilding Qi takes far longer than preventing its loss in the first place.
Acupuncture has all the qualities of an ideal “first resort” for maintaining health. The treatments are safe, gentle and fairly low cost. Treatment of the main complaint and the underlying cause are addressed together.
Our entire society benefits when high-tech, high-priced interventions are reserved for cases where safer, less costly measures have failed to bring results. Here are two examples.
The treatment of infertility with high-tech, modern medicine has a reputation for being very costly, in both financial and emotional terms. Now, imagine acupuncture as the first line of defense for couples who have had trouble conceiving. If even half of these couples could be helped by a low-cost, natural method like acupuncture, the cash savings would be tremendous, and the human benefits even greater. Likewise, if half of all upper respiratory and sinus infections could be addressed with acupuncture and Chinese herbs, instead of the over-use of antibiotics, the societal benefits would be tremendous. Concern over drug-resistant bacteria would gradually decline, as the restrained use of these drugs made such drug resistance less and less common.
There are many types of natural medicine that, like acupuncture, are good first responders in the quest for health and well-being. It’s important to find a modality you’re comfortable with and a practitioner you trust. A licensed acupuncturist is the only health professional trained to look at the body through the lens of Chinese medicine in the comprehensive way outlined here. Licensed acupuncturists complete a three-year, 1,200-plus hour course of study in Chinese medicine. The growing popularity of natural medicine is leading many providers to add complementary treatments to their menu of offerings without adding the additional training necessary to master these alternatives.With any provider, ask about his or her training and credentials, and how they define a holistic or alternative approach.
By Diana Di Gioia, Summer 2003
Diana Di Gioia is a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist, in practice on Cape Cod since 1995. She is a graduate of the New England School of Acupuncture, where she trained in both Japanese and Chinese acupuncture styles. She currently practices in West Dennis.