You might have heard the term Qi (Chi) being thrown around where acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine is involved, but what is it?

Right now you’re probably in the mindset that it’s a load of ol’ balderdash (or words to that effect if you’re not a 19th century gentleman) but what if it isn’t?

The key problem between the translation from Chinese theory to western medicine is that things are taken a little too literally.

Qi isn’t magic, it’s not like the force, it’s a theory. It follows very simple principles.

The body has a continuous loop of energy in 12 channels (meridians) that connect to one another and all of your giblets (inside stuff). And when you have an injury along a meridian it causes pain and disrupts the flow.

The treatment is to needle specific points along the channels, with the hope that if you can unblock the meridian you can remove the stagnation and reduce the pain.

These meridians also feed the organs, so by needling specific points depending on the issue, you can affect the internal organs and improve their functions.

Now to you and me it might sound a little out there, however explained in terms we’re used to it’s not actually far off the truth.

The channels mentioned, can be attributed to neural pathways, and when these are triggered by the application of acupuncture needles, they serve to deactivate pain centers in the brain(1).

While controlling and managing pain (including increasing production of the natural opioids ATP, GABA and serotonin), the needles also help trigger immune responses, supporting and stimulating the body’s natural defence mechanisms(3)(4).

There we have it, our meridians, and the explanation for the pain management and treatment. Quite sophisticated for a >2000-year-old treatment huh?

The WHO (no, not the band, the World Health Organisation) wrote a full analysis, based on controlled clinical trials, of acupuncture in 2003. The 96 page document lists over 23 diseases which showed effective treatment results from acupuncture. You can download the full document here and read through yourself (page 33).

There’s also nice and concise report by Dr. Bartosz Chmielnicki on the effect of acupuncture on signal transmissions within the body (the neural pathways we mentioned). The report aims to tackle the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of QI and tackle the cultural bias of western medicine. It’s worth a read if you have the time

  1. Longhurst, J., Chee-Yee, S., & Li, P. (2017). Defining Acupuncture’s Place in Western Medicine. Scientia, 1–5.
  2. Zhang, Z.-J., Wang, X.-M., & McAlonan, G. M. (2012). Neural Acupuncture Unit: A New Concept for Interpreting Effects and Mechanisms of Acupuncture. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012(3), 1–23.
  3. Harris, R. E., Zubieta, J.-K., Scott, D. J., Napadow, V., Gracely, R. H., & Clauw, D. J. (2009). Traditional Chinese acupuncture and placebo (sham) acupuncture are differentiated by their effects on μ-opioid receptors (MORs). NeuroImage, 47(3), 1077–1085.
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