Acupuncture: A Powerful Form of Natural Healing
By Matthew Bauer, President of the Acupuncture Now Foundation
18th November, 2015
“Acupuncture helps the body heal itself.” Most acupuncturists would no doubt agree with that statement but many take it for granted. Not fully appreciating this simple fact and how it impacts practice, however, is a mistake I’ve seen acupuncturists in the West make ever since this system of natural healing burst on the scene some 40 years ago. Over the coming months, I’ll be posting a series of articles on this subject, focusing attention on how appreciating the ramifications of acupuncture’s ability to stimulate self-healing is the key to clinical and business success, not to mention the future of acupuncture itself. Let’s first look at what the concept of self-healing means in the clinic.
It’s a War in There
In order to get the most out of natural healing one first needs to appreciate that all living organisms are under constant threat. Humans are composed of trillions of cells that are organized into many clusters of interrelated systems. Those systems try to maintain homeostasis but they’re threatened by possible injury, external forces trying to invade, and internal factors. It’s a war in there and our bodies (and by that I mean the body/mind/spirit triad) have evolved highly sophisticated means to constantly monitor and respond to threats. I like to refer to this as a “signal and response” system: Our cells send regular status reports, immediately signaling any perceived threat, and based on those reports our homeostasis-maintenance systems respond, attempting to restore order. Acupuncture breaks into this system, sending signals with the intent of helping the body respond to threats in a more effective manner.
This concept is consistent and compatible with the two primary ways practitioners today tend to think about how acupuncture works: by balancing yin and yang qi via the acupoints/channels or by impacting neurochemical and similar pathways based on modern physiology. Regardless, by understanding acupuncture’s role in the signal and response system we can learn about its strengths and weaknesses and how to get the most out of this ingenious method of natural healing. We can start to understand why it works for some people with a certain health issue but not for others with the same problem, how many treatments it might take, and whether the improvement the treatment brings will be temporary or permanent.
Know Thy Limits
One of the most important lessons practitioners should learn is to appreciate acupuncture’s limits. There is, of course, a great deal that it can do. A well-trained acupuncturist has the potential to treat a wider variety of health issues than virtually any other type of healthcare provider because we take advantage of those self-healing/maintenance systems. But there are limits and the simplest way to put it is to say that the limit of acupuncture is the limit of what the body can do to heal itself. We can’t make the body heal something it was never designed to heal in the first place. Acupuncture is a system of natural healing, not supernatural healing. We shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about coming to grips with this simple fact.
I have been practicing for 30 years, treating a dozen to two dozen patients a day with a wide range of often stubborn conditions. Practicing in this manner you start to see how each treatment boosts our self-healing systems. You sense the body trying to gain the upper hand in a struggle against imbalance. One way this struggle manifests, for example, is in the length of time the benefits of a treatment last. In the early stages patients often feel improvement but this might only last for a day or two before fading. Those initial treatments are almost like giving some medicine that knocks the problem down but then fades if you don’t keep taking regular doses. After a while, you start to learn how to space treatments so you don’t allow too much backsliding between them. (This is why they treat daily or every other day in China.)
Sometimes that boost is through a delayed effect. Our bodies do most of their repair work when we sleep, which is why many patients feel the greatest improvement a day or two after a treatment (and also why many patients report sleeping soundly the night of a treatment).
One of my favorite acupuncture studies clearly showed this combination of a delayed and cumulative effect. It was done in California at Stanford Hospital’s neonatal care ward and involved 10 infants between 4-weeks and 15-months old. These were seriously ill infants who had undergone lifesaving surgery and needed to be on heavy doses of pain relievers and sedatives during their recovery. Even a few days on these drugs can cause addiction, followed by pain and withdrawal symptoms when doctors try to wean them off. They can also cause brain damage so finding the smallest effective dosage is very important.
In this study, the infants were given daily acupuncture (ear and body points) and left with ear seeds. Postsurgical neonates are carefully monitored and drug dosages are adjusted based on well-defined criteria measuring their degree of discomfort. Researchers found all 10 infants had a significantly reduced need for these medications and the first measurable drop in the amount needed happened the day after the first treatment. The next day an even bigger drop occurred. In other words, there was a delayed and cumulative impact. Each treatment sent signals initiating a domino-effect and the body responded to those signals especially over the sleep cycle.
I know what some of you may be thinking. Not all acupuncture has a delayed effect. There are instances when you can see a difference within seconds of stimulating some points. We will consider what that is telling us in my next post. The main point I wanted to stress here is that once you grasp that acupuncture facilitates the best use of the body’s natural healing resources by greasing the wheels of self-healing, all the dynamics of the treatment process begin to make sense. I’m not saying the treatment becomes easy. I would never say that! I still struggle to figure out what I can do for patients who are not responding as hoped. Natural healing is mysterious because nature is mysterious. Facilitating natural healing is like riding a wild horse; even the best rider can be thrown but it sure makes for an interesting ride!