As an acupuncturist, I am always looking and finding uses for Chinese medicine in daily life. It would be very tempting and easy to live in a scholarly bubble and focus purely on Chinese medicine as it was practiced in the ancient times. I have to say that sometimes the nerdy side of me takes over and I do just that. But as a real world practicing acupuncturist, I am constantly translating Chinese medicine for my patients, sometimes westernizing its concepts to help my patients be more comfortable with acupuncture and herbs, as well as with home remedies they can do themselves.
One day I was in a yoga class, as it happens, laying in savasana and trying to unsuccessfully banish thoughts from my head, where I suddenly came to a realization that many of the modern health modalities and tools came from Chinese medicine. I even started to feel a little angry that Chinese medicine did not get a proper credit for that. So I decided to write this blog where I would summarize for lay people that Chinese medicine is at the root of these awesome techniques. Take a look at this list and see that clearly these methods take origin in Chinese medicine and how little credit it gets for it!
Emotional Freedom Technique
This is a highly effective technique that is used to release physical or emotional distress almost instantly. It first emerged in the late 1990s when Gary Craig published the book called “EFT Handbook.” There are several basic ways to perform Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) but it all boils down to this simple process – you have to focus on an issue (for example, headache or anxiety) and tap on specific acupressure points at the same time. Practitioners of this technique give a nod to Chinese medicine by acknowledging that a form of acupressure is used when tapping on specific acupuncture points. Yet they dismiss acupuncture at the same time mentioning that acupuncture only focuses on physical symptoms; while EFT is often used mostly to release all kinds of emotional issues such as anxiety, anger, fear and stress in general. As a practitioner of TCM, I know that this is completely false as I routinely address these issues with acupuncture. In fact, any kind of acupuncture is useful for emotions, even if the patient’s main concern is purely physical. Multiple studies demonstrated that the inserting of needles into the body stimulates the release of endorphins (endogenous morphine-like molecules) that release pain and induce relaxation. Acupuncture does not just relax the person temporarily; regular acupuncture sessions have shown that it protects people from the harmful effects of stress over time.
There are many types of acupuncture that focus on emotions that are correlated to meridians and organ systems in Chinese medicine. Five element or constitutional acupuncture in fact is centered around emotions as the basis for diagnosis and treatment. NADA, a form of auricular (ear) acupuncture, is geared toward treating addiction and extremely focused on addressing will power, anger, future goal setting and inspiration to follow through. It is quite ignorant for the practitioners of EFT to claim that acupressure points used in the technique are only responsible for the physical aspect of its success. Quoting a quite famous EFT website, “While acupuncture, acupressure and the like have been primarily focused on physical ailments, EFT stands back from this ancient process and points it also at emotional issues.” So I disagree with this statement. Whether you mentally focus on something or not, tapping on acupressure points will help. At the same time, adding more to the ritual (such as stating out loud the issue that is bothering you) may have a powerful placebo effect which should not be disregarded.
EFT bottom line: Overall, EFT is a highly effective technique, and I personally like to use it too. It just needs to give proper credit to TCM and specifically to acupressure for its effectiveness. I feel like there are some frills added to it that are not that necessary but may provide an additional placebo effect.
Derma rolling or micro needling of the skin
This technique is becoming more and more popular. Derma rolling is a highly effective way to rejuvenate the skin. Here is how it works. A derma roller device is used to prick the skin with many tiny needles. The idea behind it is creating micro-trauma to the skin, and depending on the needle length, its benefits range from increasing blood circulation and absorption of skincare products to stimulating collagen and elastin. I have been reading about derma rolling online and seeing derma rollers for sale, but have yet to see at least one mention of Chinese medicine or acupuncture when it comes to them. The only time acupuncture or Chinese medicine are mentioned is when this technique is described by an acupuncturist. I mean, come on, we puncture the skin with the needles here, can you get any closer to acupuncture than that? Of course, acupuncture is a much more complex procedure than just randomly puncturing the skin. Even facial rejuvenation acupuncture is a much more complex process that involves specific points for lifting the muscles of the face, improving complexion, draining lymph and detoxifying the skin and many more specific goals. However, a part of acupuncture for facial rejuvenation is the insertion of many tiny needles into fine lines and wrinkles, as well as around the dark spots and other problem areas. Sounds familiar? One of the simplest and highly effective ways to perform acupuncture is the local needling of the points. When a needle is inserted into the point, the body gets a signal that a micro trauma is happening there. So it triggers your body’s natural healing mechanism. In the case of derma rolling, just like very small needle acupuncture needles in the wrinkles, many tiny needle insertions cause the body to create more blood flow to the area where it starts to repair “the injury.” As a result of more robust circulation and the turned-on innate healing mechanisms, the skin remodeling process begins. It results in rebuilding collagen and elastin, smoothing out small lines and wrinkles and general filling of the sagging skin.
Derma rolling bottom line: It is a very effective technique for skin rejuvenation taking root in acupuncture directly but it gives zero credit to TCM.
Graston (Scraping) Technique performed by physical therapists
While some PT websites mention that Graston technique is based on Gua Sha, a Chinese medicine technique that involves scraping with jade or ox horn tools, the website for Graston training says “Graston Technique® is an innovative, evidence-based form of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization that enables clinicians to detect and effectively break down scar tissue and fascial restrictions, as well as maintain optimal range of motion.” And here is another quote from that same website, “Since 1994, Graston Technique® (GT) has been the leading modality in Instrument-Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization (IASTM). ” Hmmm, let’s see how innovative this is and if it is really around since 1994. The idea behind Graston technique is identical to Gua Sha. The only difference I can see is that physical therapists are 1) not trained in Chinese medicine and 2) they use expensive tools that look like dull knives rather than jade, ox horn or porcelain spoons that acupuncturists use. I am not a physical therapist but I do know this: gua sha has been around for at least 3,000 years and the practice of gua sha is an art that is been perfected and treasured in Chinese medicine. As acupuncturists, we value this technique because it is not just effective for releasing pain after injury but we also know that it has a warming effect and is an amazing treatment for the beginning stages of colds. In gua sha, we usually put medicated oil (such as Po Sum On) and scrape the body or face by gliding our tools over the surface with some pressure. We observe the appearance of Sha (or red or purplish dots) that signify the presence of stagnation, cold or heat in the channels. Graston technique focuses on breaking down adhesions in the muscles and brings inflammation to the surface, thus releasing pain.
Graston technique bottom line: The technique is based entirely on gua sha and works to release pain and soreness. Some PT websites mention that it came from Gua Sha but most likely physical therapists never mention this to their patients, and the main Graston website does not mention it in their description as well.
Cellulite vacuum cupping
Here is another technique that is becoming widely popular. I have even seen the “miracle” cellulite cupping ads on Facebook! Let’s be clear here, cupping is an awesome therapy, and we use it in TCM for many conditions. It has been around for millennia, and at first tools made from hollowed out animal horns and bamboo were used to created vacuum and suction. Overtime the tools evolved and now cupping tools are commonly made of glass and most recently of silicone. Cupping can be traced to ancient China and Egypt as far back as 1500 B.C. The first recorded mention of cupping is attributed to Ge Hong, a famous Chinese doctor (281-341 A.D.), who is known for the saying “Acupuncture and cupping, more than half of the ills cured.” Cupping spread out into the world later and even while growing up in the former Soviet Union, I was used to seeing cupping sets in every home. In Soviet Union cupping was popular for treating coughs, bronchitis and pneumonia, and this practice was even done at hospitals! At that time, I had no idea that cupping was a modality from Chinese medicine. Nowadays, vacuum cupping done with a silicone cup is promoted for cellulite. It is because it is extremely effective for lymph circulation and breaking down fat deposits under the skin. I saw this quote in the Glamour magazine website, “The cupping massage is a unique treatment in that it helps with releasing fascial restrictions,” says Four Seasons’ spa therapist Jeannette Von Johnsbach. “It detoxes the body and boosts the immune system by moving lymph fluid, and also increases circulation and helps with plumping the skin to provide a vital radiance.”
Cupping for cellulite bottom line: Yes, cupping is amazing and has many health benefits. It does work for cellulite but you have to give it time, at least 3 or 4 weeks before seeing results. Give credit to TCM for bringing it into the West!
OK, I almost don’t even want to write anything about this because this topic would trigger both acupuncturists and physical therapists. However, think about this. What do you call inserting acupuncture needles into trigger points? As acupuncturists, we call these points “ashi” points. The technique of inserting a needle into the point of tenderness or pain is very common in acupuncture. According to Wikipedia, “Dry needling, also known as myofascial trigger point dry needling, is the use of either solid filiform needles (also referred to as acupuncture needles) or hollow-core hypodermic needles for therapy of muscle pain, including pain related to myofascial pain syndrome. Dry needling is sometimes also known as intramuscular stimulation (IMS). Acupuncture is a broad category of needling practices with solid filiform needles. Modern acupuncture notably includes both traditional and Western medical acupuncture; dry needling is arguably one subcategory of western medical acupuncture.”
However, acupuncture treatments are always much more involved than this. To be able to treat someone effectively and safely, we are trained to take into account the whole body and mind of the patient. We would never approach a 300 lbs linebacker and a frail old lady in the same way. As acupuncturists, we are trained to take a patient’s pulse, look at their tongue, ask many clinical questions and observe a multitude of factors including facial color, demeanor, emotions, the sound of the patient’s voice, etc. When we determine a treatment, it is based on this overall presentation and differential diagnosis and many points are needled to support the person’s constitution and the pattern of disharmony to promote the delicate balance of their energy. In the case of pain, local points are often used but often points that are seemingly unrelated (to a layperson) are used instead. The body part in pain may not even be needled at all! As the famous Dr. Tan used to say it to his patients (explaining his balance method of acupuncture in which an opposite side or completely different part of the body is needled), “The light bulb is over here, but the switch is over there.” To be able to know how to do this, you need to be aware of the meridian system, of the way the pulses, tongue and patient presentation can be read and have the clinical experience. To be able to do it safely, and I don’t just mean to avoid puncturing a lung with a needle that is inserted mindlessly into the chest or upper back, but to be able to not disrupt the balance and cause worse symptoms, it is important to have proper training. I had a patient once who was “helped” by dry-needling, but ended with the pain on the opposite side of the body right after.
Dry Needling bottom line: Basically dry needling is acupuncture without proper training. Go to an acupuncturist to get acupuncture, go to a PT to learn exercises for strengthening your lower back (for example) or whatever else physical therapy excels at.
So as I sit and ponder these examples, I wonder if this list is incomplete. And even if it is pretty complete for now, I am sure that the methods from Chinese medicine will continue to spread in the West as the public and medical professionals will become more aware of how awesome Chinese medicine is. I certainly welcome this awareness and hope that Chinese medicine continues to be valued and help more and more people. The only way we can preserve it though is to give credit to TCM when it is due. Please share this article to help Chinese medicine be appreciated for the amazing gifts it continues to give to all of us.