By Dr. Mitchell Bebel Stargrove
an onslaught of headaches, Nancy decided to change things in her life so
she would never suffer through that experience again. She had tried
aspirin and innumerable home cures suggested by friends, but
nothing provided lasting relief. Then a relative mentioned hearing about
acupuncture. It sounded crazy: being poked by needles to reduce pain.
But why not? Nothing else had worked and a billion Chinese couldn't all
be wrong. So she took a chance and discovered the art of acupuncture for
In medicine, big news is usually about what's new; but with
acupuncture it's what's old that has become the major discovery.
During the last ten years, Americans have become familiar with images
of the seemingly miraculous, and paradoxical, use of acupuncture
needles for anesthesia during surgery. Use of acupuncture for an
increasing number of athletes reduces the pains of injury and promotes
rapid healing. Lately acupuncture has gained popularity due to lasting
successes for people seeking freedom from addictive drugs ranging from
nicotine to crack. We, as acupuncture practitioners, are proud to
share in this important work.
For the average acupuncturist these widely publicized uses of
acupuncture represent only a small part of day-to-day practice. In
fact, we devote most of our time to treating people for acute injuries
and illnesses or for chronic conditions like indigestion,
back pain and sciatica.
Classical Chinese medicine is perhaps the most ancient system of
medicine in wide practice today. When people speak of "traditional"
medicine, they often refer to conventional, modern medicine,
technically known as "allopathic" medicine. From a historical
perspective, standard medicine is a mere babe one or two hundred years
old, while Chinese medicine is truly traditional because it has been
practiced for 3000 years.
Like most schools of natural healing, Chinese medicine is rooted both
in the royal court and in the countryside. Medicine fostered by the
Chinese nobility comprises a system of diagnosis and treatment based
on extensive study of scholarly texts, rigorous examinations, and
formal practice. Chinese folk medicine abounds in lore and traditions
derived from immediate needs, local resources and continual
experimentation. Over time, the imperial medicine incorporated many
elements of folk healing.
Primary tools of the physician in traditional Chinese medicine a
thousand years ago included herbs, exercise, nutrition, massage,
divination, and acupuncture. Ultimately diagnostic analysis and
therapeutic responses developed for the whole range of human ailments.
Through thousands of years of practice and much fruitful debate among
various philosophical schools, Chinese medicine has evolved into a
comprehensive health care system. Current acupuncture practice follows
the path of our honorable predecessors, while pragmatically
integrating much of modern science and conventional medicine.
Lacking laboratory diagnosis, the physicians of ancient China
developed sensitivity and rapport with their patients by using
"low-tech" methods of ascertaining what was happening inside their
patients. Just as physicians did a thousand years ago, today's trained
acupuncturists ask their patients about their experience of illness.
We listen not just to the stories of their lives and ailments but also
to the tone of their voices and choice of words. We always feel our
patient's twelve pulses, abdomen and other areas of concern. We look
at each person's tongue and their way of carrying themselves. We even
explore the senses of smell and taste. In this way we use traditional
Chinese physiology to formulate a diagnosis in the metaphorical
language of "Dampness," "Heat," "Deficiency," "Constraint," etc. We
get to know the particular way each patient experiences his or her
"disease" as much as we try to put a conceptual label on their
Chinese philosophy sees natural processes as interactions within an
organic unity. Like water and fire, the polarities of "Yin" and "Yang"
represent complementary aspects of a greater whole rather than
separate and opposing entities. Similarly, in health care, we
integrate our whole beings to manifest a spectrum of densities from
the slow solidity of bone to the lightning flash of thought. Illness
is the natural outcome of imbalances in our lives and in our bodies.
Thus, when we work too hard, worry too much, don't exercise and play
enough, or eat too much sweet or spicy food, we fall out of harmony
with ourselves and our environment. These dysfunctional patterns are
the ground upon which disease grows. Current conventional medicine is
just beginning to reunite the "mind" and the "body". As in
Chiropractic and Naturopathic medicine, this predicament is not an
issue for the physician trained in traditional Chinese medicine.
Acupuncture has always been part of safe, effective, and holistic
The philosophy behind Chinese medicine becomes meaningful when we see
how it applies to real life situations such as Nancy's. Nancy's
headaches were part of a common syndrome in our society, "Liver
Constraint", or as we might say, "feeling stuck". The Liver or "Gan"
of Chinese physiology is far more than the organ familiar to the
western anatomist. Rather, "Liver" is a set of functions and
characteristics operating within the body-mind. The Liver functions
primarily to maintain the flow of life, particularly the movement of
blood, Qi (vital energy) and emotions. The Liver governs our ability
to respond flexibly to a changing environment.
While the Liver facilitates the smooth flowing expression of emotions,
it has greatest affinity for anger. Traditional Chinese medical texts
teach that anger expresses the righteousness of the soul and is a
healthy response when appropriate and immediate. A complex pattern of
physical and emotional problems result when emotions, particularly
anger, are held back from expression. When we tighten up and restrain
our anger, it starts to come out in inappropriate ways. We might soon
find bottled-up anger being misdirected in uncontrollable bursts
rather than in a spontaneous flow of direct response to wrongful acts.
We lose creativity and resilience whenever we tighten up with tension.
Psychic pressure builds up inside. We get increasingly impatient and
irritable. Soon we become tense and sore in our neck, shoulders and
back, stressed out in our relationships, and hypersensitive to foods
and all sorts of environmental stimuli. This pattern of self-constraint
impairs free circulation of energy and blood in the body and with time
can contribute to a variety of symptoms: cold hands and feet, menstrual
cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and muscle tension, high blood
pressure, feelings of frustration, apathy, and depression, or, in
Nancy's case, headaches.
An acupuncturist will treat Liver Constraint using both points that
invigorate the circulation of the body's blood and energy and herbs
that dredge the Liver to release old blockages. Especially when
combined with exercise, these therapeutic processes enable smooth and
easy flow on all levels. Renewed
Vitality, greater flexibility, and an
improved sense of well-being result. As she heals, a patient like
Nancy will be relieved not only of her headaches, but also old
emotions. She becomes less irritable, more self-expressive, and more
Although Nancy feels noticeably better very soon after, the
acupuncturist needs to remind her that the profound processes of
nature are not quick and easy. Her headaches and the lifestyle that
contributed to them were many years in the making. As her old patterns
unravel, she needs to pay attention to her attitude and behavior, and
remain focused on building a new, healthier way of life. A person like
Nancy will consider her work with acupuncture a turning point in her
life and thrive in the freedom and strength that the changes in her
life have brought. Acupuncture is a powerful tool for personal healing
and the treatment of disease.
(c) Health Resources Unlimited, Inc., 1993, 1996
Mitchell Bebel Stargrove, N.D., L.Ac., is a Naturopathic
Licensed Acupuncturist providing personalized health care and
facilitating transformational healing at A WellSpring of Health,
Beaverton, OR. Dr. Stargrove is the coordinator and editor of IBIS
(the Integrative BodyMind Information System), an encyclopedic
reference work of natural medicine published for health care
professionals; within IBIS, he also was contributing editor of the
acupuncture section. Dr. Stargrove also teaches History of Medicine at
The Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. He shares his life with his
wife, Dr. Lori Beth Stargrove, and their three children: Raphael, Tara
and Sage. On many evenings, Dr. Stargrove runs an Internet mailing
list for health care professionals around the world and the
"Integrative Medicine, Natural Health and Alternative Therapies" site
on the World Wide Web (URL: http//www.HealthWWWeb.com).