The Science of Acupuncture
R. Peter Goodfield, D.C., P.Ac.
Since acupuncture is new to Culpeper, there is much ignorance concerning this ancient healing art. A series of articles will appear in this publication in order to address some of the basic aspects of this very broad healing art. The first will touch on some of the recent scientific studies of the last 40 years.
1957 Researcher Niboyet discovers significantly lower electrical resistance over specific acupuncture points.
1962 Researcher Grall verifies Niboyet’s work and establishes a large number of points of lowered resistance that exactly match established acupoints of the face and arms.
1975 Researcher Bossy confirms Grall’s work and established acupoints of lowered electrical resistance all over the body. He also found that the transmission of electrical activity between points was not entirely dependent upon an intact nervous system, as these points were identified as well on fresh and embalmed cadavers.
The existence of acupuncture meridians or channels of energy have been demonstrated by a body of evidence from Chinese studies. This phenomenon is known as “Propagated Sensation along Acupuncture Channels”—PSAC. This perceived acupuncture sensation (felt as an electrical sensation or an ache) has been measured to travel along the channel at a rate of 1 to 10 centimeters per second, far slower than the rate of nerve conduction. Since 1990 a number of interesting studies have been performed using a radioactive tracer isotope (technetium 99) injected into the acupoint. The migration of the tracer did not follow vascular or lymphatic channels but followed established acupuncture channels.
The existence of an electrical resistance between two acupuncture points on the same channel has been found by researchers to be consistently less than the resistance between two nearby control points. A French researcher, Mussat in 1974, demonstrated the existence of electrical propagation along the acupuncture channels.
Joseph Helms, M.D., founding president of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, states in his book Acupuncture Energetics that acupuncture analgesia is probably the most thoroughly researched physical modality in medicine. “More is known about its mechanisms of action than about those of many pharmaceutical agents in routine use.” The insertion of two needles into specific acupoints in the hands electrically stimulated produce the endorphins, encephalon, cortisol and other neurotransmitters that are released in the cord, the mid brain, and the pituitary gland. Canadian researcher Bruce Pomeranz, neurophysiologist at the University of Toronto, has spent the last 20 years unraveling much of this research. It was because of his research that the FDA in March of 1996 moved the acupuncture needle into the same medical category as the syringe and scalpel. Researcher Omara, Looney, and Lee found that acupuncture increases the blood flow locally on the side of the body that is needled and to the contra lateral symmetrical region. In addition to acupuncture mediating pain and inflammation, there is also growing reports that some of the neurotransmitters released by acupuncture influence the immune system as well.
Besides the compelling evidence done within the research laboratories, there is a huge body of clinical research that is more impressive, if not compelling. In the world medical literature, including clinical research studies and anecdotal reports since 1960, Dr. Helms found in excess of 3,425 articles appearing in western European languages. Most Americans think of acupuncture for pain. In the world literature, only 25% of the articles concerned pain i.e. musculoskeletal, headache, arthritis, neuralgia, dental and malignant. 40% of the literature focused on organic lesions i.e. acupuncture treatment for conditions affecting respiratory (13%), cardiovascular (12%), gastrointestinal (10%), gynecologic (10%), dermatologic (4%), hepatobiliary (4%), oncologic (3%), otologic (2%), rheumatologic (1%). The other major areas, besides organic and pain, were surgical analgesia (16%), neurological (10%), substance abuse (5%), and psychiatric (4%).
Veterinary acupuncture research has spread to the west concurrently with that of human acupuncture. Many skeptics of acupuncture have suggested that the effects were purely placebo i.e. the patient thought it would work and it therefore did. This explanation completely falls apart with animals. Dogs, horses, cattle and cats are not easily healed by placebo agents and no amount of positive communications convinces them of their betterment. If acupuncture is effective with animals, and it is, it is pretty compelling evidence.
The Acupuncture Needle
R. Peter Goodfield, D.C., P. Ac.
In the first introductory article to acupuncture, a brief overview of some of the research of the last 40 years was presented. In this article, the acupuncture needle itself is the topic.
The acupuncture needle is a solid stainless steel needle. It was not designed to remove body fluids or inject pharmaceutical agents. It, therefore, is not the large diameter, hollow needles that most of us quickly envision from personal unpleasant childhood or adult experiences. On the contrary, the acupuncture needle is so thin and small, it could fit inside a hypodermic needle. It has smooth surfaces and a rounded tip, not a sharp cutting edge like the hypodermic and therefore creates negligible incision of the penetrated tissues. Because it is of such a small gauge (size 30, 32, or 34), the pain on insertion is very minimal as it passes through the skin. It is usually painless once in position.
There is rightful concern about needles and infection. Both AIDS and hepatitis are serious infectious diseases transmitted by dirty needles. Acupuncture needles used in the U.S. offices are disposable. They are sealed in sterile packs, once used and thrown away. The sites to be needled are prepped with alcohol and the needle itself, as shall be seen presently, creates a direct electrical current which inhibits the growth of bacteria. While the practitioner may be at some risk due to accidental needle stick when removing the needles, the patient’s risk is so minimal that infected needle points are rare.
The needle, once inserted, becomes an electrode, which explains in part the mystery of how acupuncture works. The needle is made up of two parts: the stainless steel shaft and a handle of copper or silver spiraled up to one half the needle length. When the needle is removed from the sterile pack, it is at room temperature. The result of this temperature gradient is called the thermoelectric effect of Thomson-Kelvin. The heated tip end becomes a positive electrode, while the handle becomes a negative electrode. The electrical gradient along the shaft is augmented by a second electromagnetic phenomena created by two metals in close contact (stainless steel and copper or silver). The needle, once inserted, becomes a miniaturized bimetallic battery or micro battery. There is a measurable direct current produced by an inserted acupuncture needle of 2 to 3 micro amperes. It takes 10 to 15 minutes for the needle to reach a uniform temperature. A direct current positive charge acts in the tissues in a manner similar to cold. It disperses energy or drains heat that has gathered in injured tissues. A fifteen minute treatment is usually required to treat acute conditions such as muscle spasms, strains, sprains or inflamed joints and tendons such as carpal tunnel disease.
Acupuncture needles can be heated. When the handle is warmed, the polarity is reversed. The handle is now warmer than the tip end and the tip end now becomes electrically negative. Negative current acts in tissue in a similar manner as heat. It adds energy or tonifies the tissues, increasing blood flow. Any condition that is characterized by sluggishness, stiffness, cold, poor circulation or congestion such as sinusitis would receive tonifying acupuncture treatment where heat or electric current would be added to the needle so that the depleted energy from the tissues would be built up i.e. tonified so that a movement of energy through the tissues would be created.
These localized tissue effect from the electromagnetic currents produced are completely separate from the neurochemical effects (endorphins, encephalons, cortisol) spoken of in the first article and are not often mentioned in articles for the public. They do work in concert together, coupling local tissue healing responses with stimulation of neurochemical agents that mitigate pain and inflammation. It is hoped that this explanation will help in the understanding of why acupuncture is effective in treating such a wide variety of problems. Not only is the acupuncture needle safe from transmitting infectious disease, it is a safe medical alternative because it produces none of the side effects of the pharmaceutical agents.
Acupuncture: The Currents of Injury
R. Peter Goodfield, D.C., P.Ac.
In the last article, I addressed the acupuncture needle itself explaining that the needle once inserted into the body becomes a micro battery, producing 2-3 micro-amperes of electric energy to the tissues. In this, the third article, I would like to pursue the electric effects of acupuncture a little more in depth.
What is the significance of 2-3 micro-amperes? It would seem to be such a low level of electricity that it would hardly play a significant role in the healing process. This assumption does bring us to a very interesting question: just how does the healing occur in the human body? When a wound occurs, what starts the healing process? What controls this process and tells the cells what to do? What stops the process? These are basic questions not answered in medical physiology texts. These were questions that Robert Becker, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon, has spent his life attempting to answer through his current research into the electricity of the body. His research (Body Electric 1985, Cross Currents 1990) reveals that it is very tiny electrical direct currents, “currents of injury” that are responsible for starting, controlling, and stopping the healing process. Dr. Becker, working with Dr. Murray, chairman of the Dept. of Orthopedic Surgery at SUNY medical school were able to put the red blood cells of a frog into a dish and change those cells in less than 60 minutes into primitive non-differentiated cells by using the exact tiny amount of electricity that in fracture healing would be further changed into bone cells. This was exciting breakthrough research. They proved the red cells could be differentiated by very small amounts of electricity. This process of healing is called regeneration and it is initiated, controlled and stopped by very small electrical direct currents within the body. Dr. Becker states, “For the first time in thousands of years of medical practice, physicians could actually control a growth process by inserting the appropriate energy.”
This has led to a whole new field of medicine called Energy Medicine, which is characterized by three hallmarks. First, energy medicine treatment was found to do no harm. It seeks to harmonize with the body, helping the innate force within to heal itself. Practitioners of energy medicine view the body as having natural innate intelligence that is beyond our understanding. Rather than dictate to the body what it shall do with potent drugs, energy medicine seeks to assist and work together with the body’s natural regenerative powers. Second, energy medicine treatment was found to often do some good. It was found to often help, but even when it is not successful, it did not do any harm. There are no side effects. Third, energy medicine treatment was found to be much less expensive than orthodox medicine. In many cases, expensive surgical procedures could be replaced with inexpensive energy treatments.
In the forefront of the various forms of energy medicine is acupuncture. Dr. Becker’s research discovered that acupuncture impacts the electrical currents created in the body by semi conduction. It has always been assumed that all the electrical currents produced in the body were of ionic or chemical sources. Today, we know the body also produces electrical currents through semi conduction which is best illustrated by the nervous system. In addition to a nervous system that works on a digital basis, like our computers, which is a very fast information exchange, and forms the basis of orthodox medical understanding, there is also within the nervous system an analog system that works on the basis of closed circuit semi conduction, which by contrast is very slow and primitive. It codes information by the strength of the current, the direction of the flow and wavelength variations. Since the acupuncture needles, once inserted, act as micro batteries producing very small direct currents of positive and negative electricity and since the strength, frequency and direction of flow of these currents can be controlled with micro electrical units attached to the needles, acupuncture is able to “speak” in the same analog language which controls the regenerative healing processes of the body and thus has formidable potential to impact the healing powers of the body. This is an exciting field of medicine as old as antiquity, but in need of much research in the 21st century to achieve its rich potential.