Whilst working at our acupuncture clinic in Leicester, I quite often get asked about the similarities and differences between Chinese medicine’s understanding of the body and that of modern Western medicine. This subject could be discussed and debated all day and I find it really interesting so I thought it deserved a blog post.
Some traditional principles, do not conform to Western Medicine’s view of the body when examined in isolation and outside of the overall context of Chinese Medicine. This can often lead to debate as to whether traditional theory is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when compared to modern science. I believe that this polarisation is unnecessary and unhelpful as in reality, both traditional and modern principals are models – tools that we can use to help us understand a problem.
This could almost be compared to using the metric system or the imperial system to take measurements. Both produce information that is useful and although the answers are different, they are both ‘right’ when viewed within their own context. They each have their own merits and limitations.
Take the concept of Qi (pronounced chi), which is an important component of Chinese Medicine. Qi can be loosely described as an ‘energy’ that flows around the body through pathways known as meridians or channels. In recent years, we have found that the traditional meridian pathways often follow structures such as nerves blood vessels, lymphatic vessels and chains of fascia. Qi, on the other hand, is yet to be measured or detected by modern science and I don’t think that it ever will be. For me, it is a concept and a model that can be used to help us understand the dynamics of a process rather than a substance or force that can be quantified.
For example, when we move, our muscles and associated structures are stimulated by our nervous system to contract, relax and articulate seamlessly in a coordinated manner. The concept of Qi can be used to simplify the way in which we describe this complex process and figure out what is happening when something goes wrong.
When we are healthy and moving efficiently with good posture and technique, it can be said we are demonstrating a smooth, balanced and unobstructed flow of Qi through our movement pattern. This balance means that individual structures such as muscles, joints and tendons are all working happily and within their limits. Performance is optimised and the chances of injury are low.
Let’s say someone were to have a problem with their running technique and this caused a repetitive overload of their muscles and tendons leading to an injury like a calf strain. In this case, the flow of Qi in their movement pattern has become imbalance and a blockage has arisen. Qi can no longer flow correctly at the site of the injury and through the relevant channel / meridian. Treatment with Acupuncture would be aimed at resuming this flow at the site of the injury and in adjacent areas on the channel to restore normal function. If we step away from this model for a second, we are using the needles to try to release tight muscle fibres, remove adhesions in fascia, stimulate the flow of fresh blood, release pain-killing endorphins and reduce inflammation.
When viewed in this way, concepts like Qi are metaphors that can be used to help us put together a picture of what is going on. They do not necessarily need to be considered in literal terms as substances or systems which are outside of or in conflict with modern medicines understanding of the body.
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