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What are acupuncture meridians?

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Acupuncture is a branch of traditional medicine that has been practised in China and the far east for thousands of years. It has been and is being developed, tested, researched and refined to give a detailed understanding of the body's 'energetic' balance.

More recently, research into the medical use of acupuncture has grown significantly. The treatment results of the effects of acupuncture on many areas of disease and dysfunction have been investigated across more than 60 different countries in over 13000 studies. Positive results have been documented in the areas of pain, stroke, pregnancy, sleep disorders, cancer, inflammation, menopausal symptoms, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and headaches, to name a few.

But how does it really work?

What the ancient classic texts described as Qi flow in the meridians may now be thought of as the communication that occurs within the fascial network of the body. Obstructions within this network may inevitably cause pain and dysfunction in the tissues and structures with which it is involved. This ties in with the ancient Chinese saying...

“Where there is free flow there is no pain,

where there is pain there is no free flow"

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture is believed to restore the balance between Yin and Yang and instead of us dismissing this as unscientific nonsense, maybe we should be looking at this from the perspective of the ancient Chinese medical practitioners, who at the time, weren’t blessed with the knowledge we have today. This doesn’t mean that their model of healing through acupuncture isn’t valid. It just means that we are yet to fully understand it in our own language. Perhaps the notion of yin and yang and creating balance in the body can be better understood in Western medicine terminology as a modulation of the equilibrium between parasympathetic and sympathetic activity. (What??) In simpler terms - a regulation of the nervous system.

However, in recent studies, non-neural information transfer has been attributed to the fascial network. Could this be the physiological answer to the ancient healing system that we know today as acupuncture? This possibly helps to explain the longevity of the medical application and subsequent therapeutic benefits of acupuncture over the past few thousand years. Or in simpler terms - maybe that’s why acupuncture has lasted as long as it has.

Studies have been carried out on the fascial system that show how it reaches throughout the entire body. It is now understood that it’s not just the neural pathways that are stimulated to produce communication but the communication happens within the fascia itself.

Musculo-skeletal drawing.
So what is this fascia? I hear you ask....

The best way to understand this is to see it for yourself - Lift the skin on a raw chicken breast and you will see that between the skin and the “meat” (which is the muscle), is a very thin layer of membranous tissue. This is the fascia that surrounds the muscle of the chicken 'breast’.

(It can also be seen if you peel the shell away on a hard boiled egg, leaving a thin layer between the egg white and the shell). The interesting thing is, that this fascia doesn’t just cover the outside of the meat, it also runs through it. In the human body, it covers the surface of bones, organs, tendons, ligaments and even individual cells themselves (hence the covering around the egg). It holds the organs in place and links muscle fibres together. In other words, it is everywhere.

The Chinese meridian system, said to link every part of the body via its channels, may be likened to this fascial network not only in its functional capacity to transfer information around the body, connecting one part to another (hence why a needle in your foot can affect the cold sore on your mouth) but also in its ability to reach every part of the body, making it the only single system that reaches or connects all other systems, organs and structures. A form of internal electricity is thought to run through this fascial network and its liquid crystalline structures carrying the impulses (of which we are yet to learn more) far and wide around the body.

So much more is yet to be discovered regarding this fascinating system which has largely been ignored by anatomists in the past but it is fairly safe to say that many modern day acupuncturists will be watching this field of the medical profession with eager eyes.

Further reading:

Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body; R.Schleip; C. Stecco; M. Driscoll; P. Huijing. Elsevier 2021

Read on if you’d like to know more about an acupuncture treatment...

So what happens in an acupuncture treatment?

Relaxing acupuncture treatment

After a full consultation to determine presenting symptoms and discuss medical history and any current treatments and medications, Chinese diagnostic methods are clearly explained and a specific treatment plan is mapped out for you. Once the treatment plan is discussed and agreed upon, very thin, hair-like needles are inserted into specific acupuncture points along the pathways known as ‘meridians’ or channels. Disruption of flow along these pathways (or fascial network lines) may be originally caused by poor diet, lack of exercise, emotional disturbances, overwork, injury or excessive types of lifestyle. We only tend notice these disturbances when we perceive pain or dysfunction in the physical body.

Acupuncture has been proven to stimulate the nervous system and cause the release of neurochemical messenger molecules. The resulting biochemical changes influence the body's homeostatic mechanisms, thus promoting not only physical but also emotional well-being.

In an acupuncture treatment, your practitioner aims to restore this natural flow of energy in a holistic and person specific approach. Every treatment will be specifically tailored to your individual set of symptoms and specific presentation of dysfunction.

Is it safe?

The answer is yes - very safe. Single use, sterile needles are used in each treatment. They are opened in front of you and are disposed of in line with medical standard sharps disposal methods.

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