Ashley Baleno, LAc, DAc, LMBT
Great questions! In the United States, we are rarely exposed to acupuncture until we reach adulthood. It’s so vastly different from everything we are raised around and taught about.
Qi? Acupuncture channels? What are those? Like, yeah I hear that they are “energy channels” but what does that even mean? Is it something I’m just supposed to believe in, like a religion or something? If I don’t believe in it, will it still work?
If you’ve secretly asked these questions, then you’ve come to the right place. It’s healthy and smart to be skeptical, especially when it comes to your body and your health. As it turns out, there’s actually a LOT of information to answer these questions, but very few beginner friendly resources. I’m going to do my best to simplify the information into something palatable and easy to read, but if you want more information feel free to reach out!
The short answers to some of the previous questions are: Acupuncture is definitely real. It isn’t magic, it still works if you don’t believe in it, and I will tell you what we know about qi and acupuncture channels.
Qi is often translated as “energy” in English, but that isn’t really a very good translation. Qi is actually better translated as “metabolism”. Your metabolism is all of the processes that go on in your body to keep you "alive”. There are different kinds of qi. For example, gu qi describes the food you eat and water you drink, while wei qi describes your body's defense mechanisms, aka your immune system. Qi isn’t an ethereal, intangible thing, it’s simply a way of describing what it takes to keep you alive and healthy!
Channels get a little more complicated so I’m going to do my best to keep it simple here. Let me start by explaining what acupuncture channels are in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Think of acupuncture channels as roadways where the qi travels throughout your body. There are 12 primary channels running through the body, and on each channel there are points where the channel is most active-these are called acupuncture points. Healers from over 2000 years ago, with no technology, no imaging, and very crude tools, developed the first known anatomical atlas in the form of acupuncture channels and points. They were armed only with rare cadaver dissections performed by butchers, frequent physical examination,1 and strong observational skills. With these tools they managed to create an effective map of the internal body, complete with stimulation of the nervous system, the fascial network, and other biological processes.
In fact, without even knowing what fascia was (it’s a thin connective tissue membrane that surrounds your muscles, organs, nerves, brain, blood vessels, and basically everything else in your body, in case you were wondering) they somehow managed to map it out with wild accuracy. Imagine: you randomly mark 24 points on your arm. Then you erase them and do it again with different random points. Then you do it again…998 more times. On the 1000th time you might end up with 80% or more of those random points landing on fascial intersections. This is the accuracy that acupuncture points are mapped out with. Eighty percent of the acupuncture points on the arm land in fascial intersections, something that has less than a 1/1000 chance of occurring by coincidence. Additionally, half of the channels on the arm follow fascial planes- again, something with less than 1/1000 chance of being a coincidence.2
In addition to this, even though they didn’t know what nerves were or how they worked, all but one of the 324 acupuncture points were supplied with nerves. Even more impressive: one of the channels that runs along the leg, called the Spleen Channel, closely follows some major leg nerves called the saphenous and femoral nerves. The chance this would happen by coincidence is 1 in 34 million.3 That’s 1/34,000,000 or 0.000029%. In other words, the Spleen Channel pathway is no coincidence.
There’s so much more fascinating information out there, but I know you’re busy and we’re pushing the limits of the average attention span so I’m going to call this post finished. I hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights! If you want more information, it just so happens that I have a growing 14 page long annotated bibliography (nerd), so reach out if you want to dive deeper. And keep an eye out for the next blog post!
Shaw, V. 2020, The Anatomy of Acupuncture, PhD Thesis, Bangor University, Bangor Wales.
Langevin HM, Yandow JA. Relationship of acupuncture points and meridians to connective tissue planes. Anat Rec. 2002 Dec 15;269(6):257-65. doi: 10.1002/ar.10185. PMID: 12467083.
Dorsher, P. T., & da Silva, M. A. (2022). Acupuncture’s neuroanatomic and neurophysiologic basis. Longhua Chinese Medicine, 5, 8–8. https://doi.org/10.21037/lcm-21-48