Acupuncture as a Drug-Free Intervention
The therapeutic use of pharmaceuticals is the primary method for delivering modern biomedicine: most people expect to walk out of a doctor's office with a prescription. In contrast, acupuncture is a drug-free intervention, which is one of its beauties. And in view of recent reports that some pharmaceuticals may have adverse effects, people living with pain or chronic disease would do well to consider acupuncture as a true alternative treatment, or as an adjunctive treatment supportive of biomedicine. Acupuncture is minimally invasive with few reported adverse effects. 
Acupuncture and Healing
The capacity to heal is strong in all of us. Acupuncture taps into the bodymind's capacity for self-regulation, which is the core of healing. Gaining the path toward health and well-being often involves changing the pattern we are stuck in. This "stuckness" applies on the behavioral level, for instance, when we need to change our diets or other lifestyle patterns, and on the level of the physical body in terms of the patterns which practitioners of Chinese medicine discern when they make a diagnosis.
Using Needles to Change the Pattern
Acupuncture changes the pattern of the bodymind through the insertion of fine needles into the body. Paradoxically, you can treat the right by treating the left (individuals with phantom limb pain have found relief through acupuncture on their remaining leg) or the top by treating the bottom (you can alleviate a headache by needling the feet). You can use the front to treat the back and the back to treat the front. Although you are needling the exterior of the body, it is usually the interior you are trying to influence. Distal points, found on meridians at a distance from the symptomatic area, can be more effective than points local to the problem. Thus, combining local and distal is an essential aspect of treatment. For someone at a desk cradling a phone between his chin and shoulder, one would treat the shoulder directly, but perhaps also the opposite hip. Try cradling a phone while you read this and see whether you tighten one hip or the other.
Making this possible, and connecting the body as a unity, is a complex network of internal and external meridians, hypothesized milennia ago in a China whose engineers created systems of canals for both armies and traders to reach distant places more quickly than had been possible on horseback . But what if yesterday's canals turn out to be today's online information communities, every part plugged into the next? They are only metaphors for the reality beneath.
It's a Matter of Circulation
How does "stuckness" (a suggestive term when writing about acupuncture!) apply here? Among many acupuncture diagnostics is to simply look for what is tight and tender in the body-areas of local stagnation-and to use local and distal strategies for relieving this stagnation.Think of a newborn baby. Although the meridians have been in the process of formation since the earliest moments of conception, it can be argued that there is nothing tight, tender or painful in this perfect body. In other words, the infant body is not reflecting any process that has gone awry, a state of affairs that overtakes most of us as we march through life. It can be argued that while newborns have meridians they have no acupuncture points. It is possible acupuncture points initially appear only when there is stagnation.
One adult patient described her condition as a "pathological sensitivity" to cold. Winter was bad but air-conditioned summer was worse. Her hand and feet were icy. Upon palpation, it was clear that there was unusual tightness and tenderness in her midsection. By releasing these areas of tightness, her energetic circulation normalized and even before she got off the table her hands and feet had grown comfortably warm.
Acupuncture and Self-Regulation
Acupuncture needles resonate the bodymind and subtly shape its enormous and ongoing project of self-regulation. When Andrew Weill writes about "spontaneous healing" he is describing the miracle that we do not die at every next moment. On the micro level, this is reflected in the firing of neurons, or the attenuation and regathering of cell membranes. On the macro level, it's our taking of water to slake our thirst, our ability to forget, or our bowing to the need to stay in bed when, finally, it registers on us that we might really be sick. The living moment is actually a welter of changing circumstances-chemical and physical, from within and from without-in the midst of which the bodymind rarely loses its balance. When the loss of balance occurs, the result is illness. But the body is capable of righting this balance, which the ancient Chinese defined in terms of yin and yang. This flux of yin and yang, like the flux of the membranes of cells, is the process of arriving at a balance point.
Acupuncture involves listening to the bodymind and helping it to create balance. In treating illness, no doubt there is a place for medications. But what a fascinating project it is, either in lieu of medication or in collaboration with it, to use this ancient lens on human functioning to restore harmony where, previously, harmony was not to be found.
1. "Is acupuncture safe? A systematic review of case reports." Lai, L., Hamilton, G.R., Fu, J., Berman, B.M. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2003, Jan-Feb; 9(1): 72-83.
Copyright 2008 Mid-Hudson Acupuncture