Jabbing Nerves with Needles

"I hope the points aren't just nerves being shocked by needles," I said to AOM classmate Irene. As one of the few AOM students who originally came into the program to focus on herbal preparations and dietetics, I felt particularly uninformed about this whole acupuncture thing. So, there in one of the first courses on the theory of point energetics -- what the acupoints do and how they do it -- I finally vocalized, albeit in a whisper-like fashion, my growing fear: Maybe there's no meridian or point energetics beyond just sticking a needle into a nerve and hoping it stimulates something productive in the patient's body. Sure, that might still help, but it certainly doesn't have the mystique that interested me in the first place.

2014-03-14_ancient"Moving blood and qi," "balancing energy," and "harmonizing yin and yang"...these concepts are intriguing, promising, and yes, darn near magical in my opinion. If we're just jabbing people with needles and shocking them wildly, then I'm not sure I have the buy-in that a 3-year master of science in oriental medicine degree requires. So there I sat, giving power to my secret fear by speaking it aloud, not knowing what Dr. Yihyun Kwon was going to say to pull me back over to his side of the fence, and hoping that there was something more -- more ancient, more Daoist, more qi-related in any way. (Spoiler Alert. Dr. Kwon wins!) 

Irene surprised me with her response, which I recall as being something along the lines of, "So what if acupuncture is just stimulating nerves with needles?" How could she be so callous to this deep fear that I'd been subconsciously fostering for the first three months of our program? Didn't she understand that I was sitting there, suffering in silence, desperate for some oriental medicine justification?

What Dr. Kwon went on to explain in that first Energetics class, and even more so the following year in Neurophysiology of Acupuncture class, was a concept that bridged the gap between the mysticism and the mundane. He simultaneously satisfied my cravings for evidence-based medicine as well as ancient tradition. Dr. Kwon = 2. Juli's irrational fears = 0.

Photo of Dr. Kwon with studentsYes, he explained, some points are located right beside or above a nerve -- grazing it ever so slightly and eliciting that loved or hated sensation we call "de qi," when energy arrives along that meridian. Further research and dissections have confirmed that many of those points not located at a nerve are actually located exceptionally close to an artery or vein. Here's where he blows my mind in 3...2...1....

Next, he tells us that these vessels and other structures harboring acupoints are essentially wrapped up in nerve fibers themselves. Yes, readers, we've come full circle in Juli's understanding of neurophysiology (which doesn't take long). Many acupoints are on a nerve; those that aren't, still kind of are.

And now to process this information.... Do I hate this answer? Does it ruin the grandeur of ancient energy meridian theory? Nah. I took the news fairly well, all ignorance and expectations considered. In today's health care climate, I like that modern science keeps proving acupuncture theory to be true. Time and time again, I see modern western research pointing to the validity of traditional medicine. At the end of the day, or the century, who doesn't like being told, "You're right"?