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The general theory of acupuncture is based on the premise that bodily functions are regulated by an energy called qi, which flows through the body; disruptions of this flow are believed to be responsible for disease. Acupuncture describes a family of procedures aiming to correct imbalances in the flow of qi by stimulation of anatomical locations on or under the skin (usually called acupuncture points or acupoints), by a variety of techniques. The most common mechanism of stimulation of acupuncture points employs penetration of the skin by thin metal needles, which are manipulated manually or by electrical stimulation.

Traditional Chinese medicine distinguishes not only one but several different kinds of qi (氣). In a general sense, qi is something that is defined by five “cardinal functions”

1.Actuation (推動, tuīdòng) – of all physical processes in the body, especially the circulation of all body fluids such as blood in their vessels. This includes actuation of the functions of the zang-fu organs and meridians.

2.Warming (溫煦, pinyin: wēnxù) – the body, especially the limbs.

3.Defense (防御, pinyin: fángyù) – against Exogenous Pathogenic Factors

4.Containment (固攝, pinyin: gùshè) – of body fluids, i.e. keeping blood, sweat, urine, semen etc. from leakage or excessive emission.

5.Transformation (氣化, pinyin: qìhuà) – of food, drink, and breath into qi, xue (blood), and jinye (“fluids”), and/or transformation of all of the latter into each other.

To fulfill its functions, qi has to steadily flow from the inside of the body (where the zang-fu organs are located) to the “superficial” body tissues of the skin, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints. It is assisted in its flow by “channels” referred to as meridians (经络, pinyin: jīng-luò). TCM identifies 12 “regular” and 8 “extraordinary” meridians; the Chinese terms being 十二经脉 (pinyin: shí-èr jīngmài, lit. “the Twelve Vessels”) and 奇经八脉 (pinyin: qí jīng bā mài) respectively. There’s also a number of less customary channels branching off from the “regular” meridians. No contemporary research has supported the existence of qi or meridians. The meridians are believed to connect to the bodily organs, of which those considered hollow organs (such as the stomach and intestines) were also considered yang while those considered solid (such as the liver and lungs) were considered yin. They were also symbolically linked to the rivers found in ancient China, such as the Yangtze, Wei and Yellow Rivers.

Acupuncture points are mainly (but not always) found at specified locations along the meridians. There also are a number of acupuncture points with specified locations outside of the meridians; these are called “extraordinary” points and often credited with special therapeutic properties. A third category of acupuncture points called “A-shi” points have no fixed location but represent tender or reflexive points appearing in the course of pain syndromes. The actual number of points have varied considerably over time, initially they were considered to number 365, symbolically aligning with the number of days in the year (and in Han times, the number of bones thought to be in the body). The Huangdi Neijing mentioned only 160 and a further 135 could be deduced giving a total of 295. The modern total was once considered 670 but subsequently expanded due to more recent interest in auricular (ear) acupuncture and the treatment of further conditions. In addition, it is considered likely that some points used historically have since ceased being used.

TCM concept of disease

In TCM, disease is generally perceived as a disharmony (or imbalance) in the functions or interactions of yin, yang, qi, xuĕ, zàng-fǔ, meridians etc. and/or of the interaction between the human body and the environment. Therapy is based on which “pattern of disharmony” can be identified. In the case of the meridians, typical disease patterns are invasions with wind, cold and damp Excesses.

In order to determine which pattern is at hand, practitioners will examine things like the color and shape of the tongue, the relative strength of pulse-points, the smell of the breath, the quality of breathing or the sound of the voice.

TCM and its concept of disease do not strongly differentiate between cause and effect. In theory, however, endogenous, exogenous and miscellaneous causes of disease are recognized.