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  • Writer's pictureBen Davies

What IS Acupuncture? Part One

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Its just putting a needle in someone right? Well unfortunately, its not that simple - Acupuncture has many styles. But lets start with the simple, most accepted explanations of Acupuncture.

It is widely known and accepted that culturally, Acupuncture originates from East Asia, and it uses the application of needles to achieve change in the body, by using Acupuncture points to effect what is termed the 'Qi' of the body (or indeed energy). This in most countries requires degree level training, from generally between 3-8 years, and is legislated at the national level. Within this definition of Acupuncture, there is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Five Element Acupuncture, Japanese Acupuncture, Neoclassical Acupuncture, Tung Acupuncture, and quite a few more, all working roughly on the above principles but with different variations and interpretations. In total, there about 12 predominant varieties globally. It is important to note that there is little legislation at the national level within the UK, meaning almost anyone can call themselves an Acupuncturist, but we’ll explore this more in part 2 and what this means for Acupuncture. For now, we’ll briefly explore the three styles of Acupuncture I practice predominantly. First, TCM.


TCM is by far the most widely practiced form of Acupuncture, and if you go to China, this is generally what you will find. This form of Acupuncture came into being during the Chinese cultural revolution in the 1950s, and is an amalgamation of different styles, as well as Chinese Herbalism, into one body. The integration of Chinese Herbalism has created some problems in some respects for Acupuncture, but this is something I may explore more in another post. TCM in essence uses Acupuncture points to try to address patterns of disharmony, such as Liver Qi Stagnation, Spleen Qi deficiency, Kidney Yang deficiency, etc. These disharmonies are the cause of illness within TCM, and by addressing these disharmonies, the being will improve. To identify the disharmonies, TCM uses a combination of pulse taking, tongue examination, symptoms, signs, as well at times palpation. For example, a Kidney Yang disharmony may manifest as back pain and also feeling cold. By treating points that improve Kidney Yang, you will ease the back pain / sense of cold, and make the patient better. So these disharmonies will manifest as many different illnesses and conditions. There is a lot more depth to TCM than this, but I am trying to keep it as simple as possible for the time being.

Five Element

Five Element Acupuncture is an interesting and different approach to TCM. Five Element does not really exist in modern day China, but some have argued that it was much more predominant pre the Cultural revolution - I’m sure its a possibility but I have personally not looked into it. Some would describe it as a much more subjective, spiritual approach to Acupuncture. A person is essentially determined by their element, which can be either Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal or Water. To determine someones element, the practitioner will observe the patients voice, emotion, colour and even smell to help identify their element, also known as causative factor (CF). By then treating their element, all disharmonies, symptoms and signs will improve. For example, a patient who has quite a loud voice, but also has difficulty expressing anger can be an indication of someone who is a Wood CF.

Now quite beautifully, it is possible to combine both TCM and Five Element. By treating the CF, you will address all the disharmonies identified by TCM. Where I trained in Chinese Medicine taught this method of using both approaches, and together they can work very well.

The final style I will talk about is Neoclassical Acupuncture, a new kid on the block, but a very very interesting one!

Neoclassical Acupuncture

I came across this style last year, when another practitioner posted within an Acupuncture group how his patients had had miraculous results from this new technique, and everyone must learn it. I’m very glad I did.

Neoclassical Acupuncture from the perspective of the founder is likely a very old technique, but has been forgotten (possible even hidden) over the ages. There are several important aspects to it, the first that there are six rather than five elements. This does make a lot of sense (from an Acupuncture perspective) and in the future I will be writing a post to further illustrate the differences to this and Five Element. These six elements exist within three axes, and need to be in balance. There are also obstacles that can be present in the body, as well as closed channels. To determine what element is out of balance, the obstacles, etc, palpation is the ONLY method used. No tongues, no pulses. One of the most interesting parts is that when you hit the right point, the pain at the point of palpation changes rapidly - often instantly, which means feedback is very instantaneous. At the advanced level of this technique, you only require one needle, which again produces remarkable results. Personally, I love this approach as the feedback is fast, the results quick, and most importantly, the patient will ALSO feel if it is helping or not. One patient commented that it was nice not to feel like a pin cushion (!). I will be exploring Neoclassical Acupuncture more in another post.

Most practitioners you find here in the UK will do TCM, Five Element or both. I would argue (as many others would) that these techniques, as well as Neoclassical, are indeed what constitute ‘real’ Acupuncture. They all involve the use of Acupuncture points, to help facilitate healing / homeostasis, using what is termed the bodies Qi.

But what about 'Medical' Acupuncture? Or Dry Needling? These two approaches are essentially the same, and are not really Acupuncture, as defined above. Part two, which is coming soon, will explore this more.

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