A new study from China looked at 3 different styles of traditional acupuncture and 1 group of sham acupuncture (random points) for migraine headaches and found that the 3 groups of traditional styles all worked about the same, and the sham acupuncture was only slightly less effective. All were more effective than the conventional prescription drugs. Read an ABC News article about it here. To me this is good news–I can rest assured that I am not missing out on clinical results by not tracking down some esoteric style master to study with (I’ve already done that a few times, anyhow).
My entry into the Chinese medicine world came through herbs, nutrition, and Taoist and Zen philosophy. Acupuncture grew on my over time–at first it somewhat terrified me, as among my childhood phobias was a fear of needles. It probably wasn’t a good parenting technique for my mom to tell me we were going to the circus before taking me to the doctor to get a vaccination in my butt. In fact, the combination of betrayal and fear led me to struggle to get away, and I was held down on the table while a needle was jabbed in my glutes. I suspect this was the start of my years of hip pain and dysfunction (to the point where I had a hard time walking due to the pain, probably caused by my Gluteus minimus spasming around the sciatic nerve). Fortunately, I was able to correct this in my college years through doing a few hours of yoga and martial arts every day until I retrained these muscles to be balanced.
Anyhow, that probably explains why the first time I observed acupuncture (with Wally Mui at the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Victoria, BC) being done when I saw that 1.5″ needle going into the glutes I my blood pressure dropped so much I almost passed out. I’m a big fan of overcoming phobias, but that’s topic for another time.
Anyhow, after enrolling in that school, I soon learned that there was another school across town that was a Five Element Acupuncture school. I didn’t find that Wally or Henry Lu were that down on the Five Element school–they just said “we also use Five Element theory, but our TCM focusses on the whole system including Chinese herbs which are about 50% of what we study, whereas many Five Element schools only teach acupuncture, no herbs.” When I talked and read what the Five Element school had to say, I heard a much more self-important story: “We do the true classical spiritual acupuncture on such a high and subtle level that it makes your style look common and vulgar” was essentially their message.
The Five Element school looks up to J.R. Worsley, from the UK, as their chief modern leader. A bio about him has this to say:
Professor J.R. Worsley, universally acknowledged as the father and master teacher of Five-Element acupuncture in the modern world, brought this system of medicine to the West. A titled Master, a designation bestowed upon him by his Masters, J.R. died on June 2, 2003.
I’ve read some of his books and of course had to learn the traditional five element point attributions and theories in my classes at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. Going through Worsley’s books again now, a few things have jumped out at me that I’d like to share with you.
Worsley, in _Talking about Acupuncture in New York_ (page 3) states:
The one thing I want to impress upon you first of all is that there are many different types of acupuncture. And one that is predominantly practised in the Western world is what we call ‘barefoot doctor’, or ‘local doctor’.
This is where we can put a needle in various parts of the body and we can take away pain. This is true. There is hardly any pain that we cannot take away by inserting a needle. But, of course, what happens is that after a period of time the pain returns. So what we are really doing is giving symptomatic relief…
To learn how to become a local doctor is just child’s play…
The vast difference between traditional Chinese medicine and the methods I have just described is that traditional Chinese medicine does not treat the symptoms…
It is a very in-depth, personal system of medicine. And to become a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine takes ten years of training. There is a vast difference between someone who does traditional Chinese medicine and someone who does local doctor, which you can probably learn in a few weeks… This system has not changed in five thousand years; and it will not change in the next five thousand years.
Other than being historically wrong, Worsley is also showing himself to be another deluded egotist. Because, of course, his system is “the real traditional acupuncture” and all of the other systems are just “ignorant barefoot locals.”
How has acupuncture changed in 5000 years?
For one, before about 200 BCE, acupuncture needles were stone, bone, or bamboo (ouch!). The earliest metal needles were found in a tomb from 113 BCE and were gold. They were thick. The best of them were silver or gold, steel wasn’t developed until later. They got reused time and time again. Additionally, the earliest works on Chinese medicine mentioned just the channels, and not the points.
One of the best books on acupuncture history is the great scholar Joseph Needham’s _Celestial Lancets_ which is well documented with original source references. On page 100, there is a table which charts the growth of the number of acupoints in the original source literature. In the 2nd century BCE, there were 160 points named. In the 2nd century CE there were 349, in 1601 CE there were 359. I could go into more detail, but you can see that for anyone to claim that true traditional acupuncture hasn’t changed for 5000 years is not just oversimplifying, but is plainly wrong. In fact, Worsley bases his philosophical lineage on the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) which most scholars agree was written around the 2nd century BCE, making it about 2200 years old, not 5000 years old. 5000 years ago in China was before the earliest known dynasty, the Xia dynasty, which was before writing was developed. In the Xia dynasty, one of the few legends has to do with their attempts to stop flooding. They certainly were not practicing any sort of fully developed acupuncture, and were probably mostly trying to stay warm and fed. Perhaps they popped boils with sharp sticks.
I have been doing acupuncture now for about 18 years. I like to think of myself as a ‘common sense’ acupuncturist. I integrate what I know of trigger points, dermatomes (nerve innervation paths), and muscular anatomy with some traditional acupuncture distal points (points far away from the area of focus, such as a shoulder point on the shin). Like many acupuncturists, most of my patients come in for various types of pain. I love treating pain, as I love to get a definite positive result from what I do. J. R. Worsley once said the worst thing you can do in acupuncture is to treat pain. If someone came to him because of a shoulder injury, he would insist (whether he told them or not) on treating them for some perceived “spiritual imbalance.” I’ve heard this explained as “what they really might need is to lose their stressful job and move to a new place, and I can put those forces in motion if I do the right esoteric acupuncture points.”
Sorry J.R., my patients hire me to help them reach a specific goal. Sometimes it’s for “stress” or to help them feel that their energy is more balanced and flowing. But often it is to help an injury heal or reduce a chronic pain. I’m quite familiar with Chinese medical theory and when appropriate use the traditional differentiation process to evaluate patterns that underlie symptomatic presentations.
Worsley’s claim that when you treat pain with acupuncture, it comes back after a bit is not my experience with my “common sense” acupuncture. I have had many patients who had just a few treatments with me for a severe chronic pain, and it has gone away totally and stayed gone. In fact, I used to think if someone didn’t make more appointments that they didn’t like me or my acupuncture. Over the years, I learned not to jump to that conclusion, as I would get calls 3 years later from someone who said, “You totally fixed my back pain, but now I’ve hurt my neck, so I want you to fix that too.” This has even happened with people who have been told by their MD that they needed surgery or would have pain for the rest of their life. This makes me proud of my career and of my skills as an acupuncturist, and any acupuncture stylist who wants to tell me that I practice a “lower form” of acupuncture while they have the “true tradition” that hasn’t changed in 5000 years can take a flying leap and go visit the rabbit on the moon.
Worsley says a few more amazingly incorrect things such as:
The Chinese didn’t use the words ‘heart,’ ‘small intestines, ‘ ‘liver’ and ‘gall bladder.’ They didn’t know what the hell they were! And why I think I like the system of medicine so much is because it is so child-like; and I love being a child. (page 70, _Talking about Acupuncture in New York_)
People paid to study with this guy? Of course the Chinese had words for these and knew what they were! For example, the use of bear gallbladder has been around a long time, and it uses the same Chinese character that is applied to humans when talking about the gallbladder meridian and gallbladder issues (dan). Certainly the Chinese people (especially the butchers) were familiar with liver, heart, and intestines. There was a taboo against dissecting humans (except executed criminals) which slowed the developement of Chinese medicine and led to more metaphysical ideas about anatomy (especially the nerves). In Worsley’s world, it appears Chinese medicine hasn’t changed for 5000 years and they didn’t have words for organs because they didn’t know about them but it’s still the best medical system out there (at least his version of it). Doing pain-relieving acupuncture is child’s play and lower than his method, but he likes his method because it is child-like and he loves being a child! I think this type of linguistic loop is where the term “loopy” comes from.
Just because I can’t resist pointing out ideas that most people will think are a bit “out there” here is Worsley’s comments on the colors of clothing (page 86, _Talking About Acupuncture in New York_):
Of course, you may not know what colours are advantageous to you and what colours are not advantageous to you, because, initially, as imbalance gets worse–we were mentioning green helping the liver and gallbladder– then the colour could be worsening the disease… Colour is really devastating… Don’t stay all the time in these blue jeans and blue what have you. Oh no! I know they may be very convenient; but, if needs be, dye the jeans red, or yellow, or some other colour, but don’t just stay in blue jeans. You are exposing yourself far too much to the radiation from that colour and it will sap your energy. The longer you wear it, the more it will sap your energy and the more lethargic you will become… So flip the colours around, particularly where they come into contact with the skin.
I guess I should paint my house and bedroom a different color for each season. I don’t know what to do about the sky, perhaps rose colored glasses would help. Did you see he is back to mentioning that the Chinese had color associations with organs liver and gallbladder, 16 pages after saying the Chinese didn’t have words for liver and gallbladder as they didn’t know about them? I suspect Worsley managed to instill obsessive-compulsive color neurosis in some of his students and patients. A study could be done on people who wear blue jeans all the time to see if they have more lethargy than people who vary their pants color, but I suspect there are better things to do with the time that would take. I wonder if Worsley blamed his patients for wearing blue jeans too often if his acupuncture failed to cure them. I hear he liked to blame a lot of things on coffee drinking, too.
J.R. Worsley had a high regard for the role of the heart in traditional acupuncture. He taught that special insight into treating all levels of the heart (which includes spirit/consciousness) set traditional acupuncture apart from more common forms of acupuncture. He made great claims to be one of the few teachers who had the true tradition that had these high spiritual and medical insights, and he was not shy about saying that every other school/style was inferior, as you’ve seen in his direct quotes above.
Ironically, J.R. Worsley had a number of heart attacks and died at 79 of heart disease.
I’m sure many acupuncturists trained in Five Element Acupuncture, including J.R., have had great clinical success with a number of their patients. It is not my goal to say that Five Element Acupuncture doesn’t produce useful results, but simply to point out that it probably doesn’t produce better results than most other styles of acupuncture, and much of the clinical relationship boils down to the communication skills of the practitioner. Since competition between schools and styles is usually motivated by profit and ego, I encourage patients, students, and other acupuncturists to be suspicious of anyone’s claim to have the one special magical traditional classical system.