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Scientific Basis – The Scientific Basis for the Channels and Points of Acupuncture

By Shihan Mary Bolz
Licensed Acupuncturist
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Doctoral Fellow, FBU
Master Martial Arts Instructor

Traditional theory of the acupuncture channels and points is very extensive and complicated and involves an entirely new education in a way to think for the average American and most Western people. If one does take the time to read about the Eastern medicine theory, it will give them some idea of the traditional theories of acupuncture and Traditional Oriental Medicine as a whole and how it works. This time, let us look at it from the American/Western point of view.

Since the Chinese Revolution in 1949, a considerable amount of research has been done in the medical and scientific communities in China to determine the empirical basis of the phenomena of the channels and acupuncture points. There are also uncountable studies done in Japan since the introduction of allopathic (Western) medicine there. Significant results have been obtained and a few will be mentioned in this article. There are different scientific theories, as in all of areas of science, as to how acupuncture works on a physiological level.

One of these theories is viewing the acupuncture channels and points as pressure sensitive sites on the surface of the body. Since ancient times, a patient’s disease could be diagnosed by observing and probing with the fingers along the course of the (acupuncture) channels for areas of tenderness or pain. When disease is present in the body, certain sites along the channels become instantly tender and painful to the touch. By carefully examining these points of “pressure pain,” a diagnosis of the disease can be made. Acupuncture can then be performed often times at these same points to treat the illness. This phenomenon has provided an important basis for research. This type of palpation is particularly valuable in coetaneous acupuncture, and in the more recently developed ear acupuncture. These reactive points are also found over the trunk and limbs and are important in any acupuncture treatment protocol.

Since 1959, various medical units in Shanghai have studied the alterations in certain points on the ear and approximately a point on the lower leg in patients with acute appendicitis. These studies have shown that when this disease is present, certain specific points react with pain. In addition, as the inflammation subsides, the reaction diminishes with it. In a report describing the investigation of the one hundred cases of infectious hepatitis, a certain point on the liver channel, named Zhongdu, (all of the over one thousand points in the human body have names in Chinese and Japanese), consistently showed the highest rate of positive response (73%). Similarly, among fifty patients with infectious hepatitis whose ears were probed for points of reaction, 94% showed a positive response at the Liver point in the cymnba conchae (the name of the anatomical area) on the auricle (portion of the ear that is visible). These are just two examples among thousands that were performed on various points on the body and in the ear of thousands of patients.

According to traditional Oriental medical theory, the Qi and Blood circulate throughout the channels, communicating with acupuncture points in the skin. The channels and points thus serve a conducting function that has led modern researchers to investigate their electrical properties. Two methods of the electrical phenomena of the skin are used in the studies. One is, an electric current is applied externally, and the electro conductivity and resistance of the skin are measured. In another, an external source of current is used. The electric current of the skin itself is measured and fluctuations in current or electrical potential are recorded. The Japanese physician, Yoshio Nakatani developed in the 1950s what he calls Ryoudouraku points (point of high capacity), through experiments with the first method showing places on the skin with higher electro conductivity than surrounding areas. Some of these points coincided with traditional acupuncture points and a few did not.

Using the second method to measure the amount of electric current in the skin, it was found that there were points, similar to the so-called “coetaneous motor points,” which registered a particularly large amount of current. The distribution of these points is the same as those with heightened electro conductivity. Studies at the Hebei Medical School and elsewhere showed that fluctuations in coetaneous electric current over acupuncture points on certain channels coincided with variations in the functional activity of those internal organs associated with the channel. For example, the strength of the urinating function of the bladder was reflected in the coetaneous electric current at specific points on the Urinary Bladder Meridian; UB-60, Kunlun (external malleolus area of the ankle of the foot) and UB-29 Pangguangshu (located on the lower back). The same phenomena was found with certain acupuncture points located on the leg , along the stomach channel, for the strength of the digestive functions of the stomach, as well as defecating function with certain points along the large intestine channel. These points for the large intestine were on the back and on the leg. It has been found in controlled research studies that changes in the electric current of the skin over the acupuncture loci themselves are more distinct that those over neighboring non-acupuncture sites.

It has also been shown in studies in Japan, that when the acupuncture point, Zu San Li on the leg, on the stomach channel was needled, on thermo graphic studies with CAT scans, there was an influx of heat directly in the stomach itself as shown on the computer screen with red coloring for heat.

According to numerous reports, the closest relationship exists between the peripheral nerves in the tissues and the acupuncture points. In anatomical dissections performed at 309 traditional acupuncture points by the Anatomical Teaching and Research Group of the Shanghai College of Traditional Medicine in 1959, it was found that 152 points could be stimulated directly over nerves, while 73 additional points could be stimulated within 0.5 cm. of a nerve. In another study of 324 acupuncture points, it was found that 323 were supplied by nerves. Among these, 304 were associated with superficial coetaneous nerves, 155 with deep nerves and 137 points were found to have both superficial and deep neural involvement. Observation under the microscope showed that all layers of the skin and muscle tissues at acupuncture sites contained numerous and varied nerve branches, plexi and endings.

As for the distribution of the channels, there is a particularly close relationship between the paths of the channels on the extremities and the pathways of peripheral nerves. For instance, in anatomical investigations by the Shanghai College of Traditional Medicine, the course of the lung channel on the upper extremity was found to be similar to the path of the musculocutaneous nerve., another channel similar to the nedian nerve, and yet another channel similar to the paths of the ulnar and medial coetaneous nerves of the arm.

There is also a relationship between the acupuncture channels and points and the blood and lymph vessels. Anatomical investigation by the Shanghai College of Traditional Medicine of 309 acupuncture points after needling, showed that 24 points were directly over arterial branches and an additional 262 points were within 0.5 cm. of either arterial or venous branches. Investigation by the Harbin Medical Science University of points UB-60, Kunlun (located around the external malleolus of the ankle) and UB 40, Weizhong (in the back of the knee) and UB 57, Chengshan (on the calf muscle) on the bladder channel on the lower leg showed that in most cases the same lymph vessel crossed all three points mentioned.

Traditional (Oriental) medicine offers its own theories concerning the phenomenon of the channels, based on Qi (the universal life-force energy), but there is no definitive explanation of the material nature of the channels. There are several prominent opinions offered in a more modern approach to establish a material basis for them. One of these material bases is the peripheral nervous system that includes nerves that connect with the brain and spinal cord. Modern anatomical studies have shown that the distribution of nerve fibers around the blood vessels and other tissues is very dense. For this reason it has been suggested that the neural involvement in such tissues, and in particular the peripheral nerves, is the actual material basis for the channels. Research at the Fujian Medical School and elsewhere has demonstrated that the principle underlying the effect of acupuncture is nerve reflex action. During acupuncture, the nerve trunk beneath the point, or receptors in the skin, connective tissue or blood vessels are stimulated. A reflexive action is initiated through these receptors. Numerous studies have shown that the functional characteristics of the acupuncture points along the channels correspond with the neural segment within which each is located. This suggests a correspondence between the channels and neural segments.

There is also a relationship between the (acupuncture) channels and the function of the central nervous system. The appearance of intersegment reactions, when stimulating points at one spot on the body causes a response across entirely different neural segments, has been examined via modern anatomical analysis. This is believed to result from the excitation of specific areas in the central nervous system, perhaps the cerebral cortex, which is arranged by function. With this view, the channels are projections of this specific functional arrangement within the central nervous system distributed over the body.

When the United States took over the governance of Japan after having defeated and devastated the Japanese in WW II, known as the Mac Arthur era by many Japanese, there was an allopathic (Western) medical doctor, named Dr. Terada from Japan who was teaching at a university in Beijing, China, who used the scientific basis for acupuncture. Due to losing the war, he could not stay in China and had to return to Japan. General Mac Arthur wanted to ban acupuncture, traditional Oriental herbology and the martial arts making them against the law for Japan. (What a great tragedy almost occurred not only for Japan, but also for the world!) Dr. Terada intervened and asked Mac Arthur and the United States government to give Japan some time to scientifically prove the efficacy and value of acupuncture as a medical system. They negotiated and Mac Arthur agreed to allow ten years for the Japanese to prove the efficacy of acupuncture. The Japanese did it in four and a half years, instead of ten. Dr. Terada’s efforts have brought the world the neurotransmitter theory, showing that acupuncture given at certain points affects higher brain areas, stimulating the secretion of beta-endorphins and enkephalins in the brain and spinal cord. The releases of neurotransmitters influence the immune system and the anti-nociceptive system. (A nociceptor is a peripheral nerve organ or mechanism for the reception and transmission of painful or injurious stimuli.) Dr. Terada was also the instigator of the autonomic nervous system theory, which has shown that acupuncture stimulates the release of norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and several types of, uploads and amino acids affecting changes in their turnover rate, normalizing the autonomic nervous system and reducing pain. Another theory is that acupuncture affects the blood concentrations of triglycerides, cholesterol, and phospholipids, suggesting that acupuncture can both raise and diminish peripheral blood components, thereby regulating the body toward homeostasis.

This ancient health care system has proven itself empirically and is now proving itself scientifically as an effective modality for a wide variety of health problems. While years of numerous studies have taken place scientifically in China and Japan, there is little knowledge of these scientific studies in the United States. Where have we been? However, recently the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAAM) awarded eight grants that directly relate to acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medical research, totaling more than $9.5 million dollars. Finally! By the way, one of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other accepted medical procedures used for the same conditions. Take advantage of it!

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