In last week’s article, I explained the traditional Asian concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”) – the energy of which our body, mind, and everything else in the universe is composed. Qi is an idea shared by most East and Southeast Asian cultures, and is nearly equivalent to the Indian/yogic concept of prana.
Previously, we looked at how physicists are arriving at a parallel understanding of the fundamental makeup of the world: we are essentially oscillations of energy and lots of empty space. From a health perspective, this opens many possibilities, such as the potential to change – and to do so rapidly.
This seems even more feasible when we consider how quickly, thoroughly, and continuously the body demolishes and replenishes itself. We exchange all of our atoms for new ones at an incredibly fast pace. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in our body are replaced each year. In other words, ninety-eight percent of the body you think of as relatively unchanging – the same aches and pains, the same bum knee – will be literally gone in a year, replaced with new atoms in the same configuration, for better or worse.
To put a number on the magnitude of atom exchange happening here, the human body contains about 7x1027 atoms. [1,2] That’s a seven followed by twenty-seven zeros. It’s about seven hundred thousand times the total estimated number of stars in the universe. This is neither speculative nor cutting edge science – most of the research was done in the 1950s and it has been verified many times since. [3,4,5]
Despite the perpetual replenishment of our atoms, we are often unable to alter the process of re-manifesting the same physical problems perpetually. If there is a continuous supply of new atoms for all our tissues, the instructions for the construction of the body must be getting degraded as we age.
What if we could intervene in this process, reminding our body of the proper structural and cellular orientation of healthy joints, elastic skin, functional organs, and strong bones? What if we could instruct the body to change course – to stop losing its hair and regrow what was lost? Though most forms of healing take on this task to some degree, acupuncture, Qi Gong, yoga, meditation, and certain other modalities are especially suited to intervening at this level because they often deal more explicitly with Qi/energy. I believe the most potent intervention occurs by changing one’s thoughts and emotions in relation to the issue at hand. Even if these modalities don’t succeed at directly modifying the body, they may work indirectly by modifying the mind.
Acupuncture is based on the idea that a person’s Qi can be accessed and manipulated through a series of pathways just beneath the skin. These pathways, called meridians, vessels, or channels, cover the body and penetrate the interior to connect with our organs. Along the meridians are located hundreds of distinct points (called acupoints), each of which has a particular set of actions on the mind, body, and soul. Stimulating an acupoint by pressing it, heating it, or sticking a needle in it can have an effect on an individual’s entire network of Qi.
Each acupoint also has a name, most of which are rather poetic and can be interpreted in numerous ways. The twelve main meridians are named for the organs they are most closely associated with (e.g., Stomach, Liver, Heart), and the points on a given meridian can be thought of as having some effect on the organ the meridian is named for. But, because there are profuse interconnections between meridians, it is possible to affect virtually any part of the body with any point.
There are many different approaches to selecting acupoints for treatment. Usually, this is based on their names, actions, and the meridians they occur on. Often, we select acupoints by utilizing mirroring systems and microsystems, which highlights the intelligence of our Qi system and the holographic nature of our being – wherein every part reflects the whole.
In microsystems, the whole body is transposed onto a smaller body part, such as the ear, scalp, a limb, or the abdomen. This smaller micro-region can be used to treat issues anywhere in the body-mind. The ear microsystem is probably the most widely used in acupuncture. Microsystem diagrams often depict a homunculus – a picture of the human body superimposed onto the treatment region and altered in scale to show how the different parts of the body correspond with points on the treatment region.
Microsystems can be of great value in healthcare. In an acupuncture treatment, a few microsystem points can be easily added to enhance its effectiveness. And if a treatment needs to be done quickly or in a public setting, microsystem points can often be accessed without removing any clothing.
In the limb microsystems shown below, the arm and leg reflect the rest of the body. We can also use just the lower portion of each extremity – from the elbow down or from the knee down – to represent the whole body. Then we can look at an even smaller portion – just the hand and foot – and these are microsystems of the whole body also.  (Many people are familiar with these microsystems as hand and foot reflexology.) Each of the bones of the hand and foot is itself a microsystem of the body. And finally, each bone of each finger and toe is again a representation of the whole body. One could theoretically address any part of the body with any one of these bones. There are at least 102 microsystems on the body. 
If we include the correspondences lent by mirroring syö0stems, we can see that virtually any part of the body can be used to treat any other part (although, in practice, we choose the points with the strongest correspondence that elicit the most immediate favorable change). In mirroring systems, a problem on one side of the body can be treated in the same relative place on the opposite side of the body. Each arm reflects the other arm, and each leg reflects the other leg. So, a sore spot an inch below one elbow can be treated with a point an inch below the other elbow.
Also, each arm mirrors either leg, and each leg mirrors either arm. Thus, the same pain below the elbow can also be treated with a point below the knee. The top of the body reflects the bottom of the body and the bottom reflects the top – so the head can be used to treat the pelvis (or the feet), and vice versa. The front reflects the back and the back reflects the front. It is all a simple matter of balance.
An interesting note (seen in the diagrams above) is that most of the mirroring and microsystems work “upside down” as well as “right side up.” This factor adds another level of versatility to treatment and reinforces the interconnectedness of our many parts. Thus, the same pain below the elbow could be treated with a point below or above the other elbow or either leg.
These systems are utilized by seasoned acupuncturists in a highly sophisticated way, but even when applied in a simple fashion by novices, they are often very effective. I sometimes give patients a brief lesson in self-treatment so they can do their own health maintenance. While these strategies can be applied to any kind of health imbalance, they tend to work best for issues that have a specific location (as opposed to, say, insomnia), and are most immediately effective for pain.
A simple approach to treatment involves selecting a limb to work on; choosing a location along that limb that corresponds to the area you wish to treat; pressing firmly in that area, feeling around the whole circumference of the limb, to find a tender point. Meanwhile, see if you can perceive any change in the problem area while pressing and/or massaging any tender points you find. In the case of the pain below the elbow, you could quickly feel above and below the opposite elbow and above and below both knees (pressing all the way around the limb). Chances are, you’d find one or more tender spots which, when pressed on, alleviate the elbow pain.
After finding a treatment point that helps, try moving the problem area and using your breath to “breathe into” the problem area while firmly massaging the area you found. The combination of stimulating the acupoint and mobilizing the target area helps to connect these two parts and direct the action of the massage to the affected part.
I sometimes have knee pain while walking, so if it arises, I feel all around both elbows while continuing to walk. When I find a tender point, I press it quite firmly. (Since I’m continuing to walk, the affected area is already being mobilized.) I can always find a point that makes the pain better, and within a minute or so, it’s gone completely. This network is so fascinating and useful, I think it should be part of everyone’s basic instruction on the workings of the body.
Give it a try and drop us a line to tell us about your experience!
Dr. Peter Borten
- Kross, B. How many atoms are in the human body?. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education Web Site: http://education.jlab.org/qa/mathatom_04.html.
- Freitas, R. A. (1998). Nanomedicine. Retrieved February 19, 2009, from Foresight Nanotech Institute Web Site: http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine.
- Chopra, D. (1994). Ageless body, timeless mind: The quantum alternative to growing old. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
- Kestenbaum, D. (2007, July 14). Atomic tune-up: How the body rejuvenates itself. Retrieved February 19, 2009 from the National Public Radio Web Site: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11893583.
- Tan, R. T.-F., & Bensinger, J. W. (2003). Dr. Tan's strategy of twelve magical points: Advanced principles and techniques. San Diego, CA: R. Tan.
- Maciocia, G. (2004). Diagnosis in Chinese medicine: A comprehensive guide. New York: Churchill Livingstone.