By Susan Mosley, LAc
I’m sure you are all aware of acupuncture’s uses for musculoskeletal problems, but I’ll bet you are not as familiar with its effectiveness for internal medicine and psychiatric disorders. Herbal treatment is a vital component of treatment as well, but that is a topic for another article!
Why even use acupuncture for emotional problems?
Chinese medicine has long history treating mental illness and emotional disorders.
Ancient texts describe the use of ‘ghost points’ used for what our European ancestors would have called possession by demons, or what we’d now classify as dementia, psychosis, or schizophrenia. To treat ‘ghosts’ you needle a series of 13 points sequentially.
Some acupuncture physicians also describe use of the window of the sky points, generally located on the neck or around the base of the skull. These points are used for situations like confusion, mania, or seizures. I think they can be particularly effective when blood flow to the brain is obstructed, by arteriosclerosis, for example.
To treat psychiatric disorders with acupuncture, it is not necessary to delve into psyche or do talk therapy, though most acupuncturists will tell you they hear just as many confessions as a hairdresser, bartender, or priest! Because acupuncture can be so powerful at treating emotional problems, emotional balancing can be an unintended result. Sometimes people seek treatment for a simple orthopedic problem, like a knee or shoulder and come back reporting that they aren’t yelling at the kids anymore, their insomnia is gone, or their anxiety has disappeared.
How does acupuncture work for emotional problems?
Acupuncture aims to bring harmony and balance back to the individual. Most Americans have a Heart-Mind split, where the ego dissociates from the body. You see it all the time, where people think their body is just a vehicle carrying around the mind, and the physician is a mechanic who can install new spark plugs and all will be well. Or they make no association that the fact that they are cheating on their spouse is causing their upset stomach. Acupuncture is uniquely effective for reintegration of body/mind/spirit thereby healing the psyche as well as the physical body.
An old story by Carl Jung illustrates this mind/body disconnect better:
A Lakota chief told him about white people “They are always uneasy and restless. We do not understand them; we think they are mad.”, “Why?” “They think with their heads.” Jung: “Where do you think with?” Chief “We think with our hearts.”
Americans live too much in their heads, and don’t pay attention to what is in their hearts. What is the Chinese view of the mind?
The mind is a form of Qi, or energy, which flows through the meridians and organs of the body. To quote eminent teacher and practitioner Giovanni Maciocia “…if essence (constitution from congenital inheritance, diet and intake) and qi are strong and flourishing, the mind will be happy, balanced and alert. If essence and qi are depleted or obstructed, the mind will suffer and may become unhappy, depressed, anxious, or clouded.’
Consider the acupuncture meridians as a series of canals. If one of the waterways is blocked by fallen logs, when rain comes you’ll have flooding, runoff, and damage. The cure is to simply the clogging debris from the waterway. To metaphorically clean your gutters or reboot your computer, we recommend that you get treatment 4 times a year at the change of seasons. At this time we stimulate points on the extraordinary meridians, which act as a reservoir for energy.
Even if you don’t believe in meridian theory, we have plenty of evidence that acupuncture can work for many diseases. According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture alters brain chemistry directly by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, thus regulating immune reactions at the cellular level, normalizing blood pressure, heart rate, blood flow, and body temperature, as well as aiding the activity of pain killing endorphins. Acupuncture also affects serotonin levels, aiding sleep, depression, satisfaction with food, etc.
And now we are finding out that neurotransmitters and neuropeptides have receptors in the GI tract, white cells, kidney, and pancreas. If your emotional trauma or stress is repressed or indulged (you all know those people who rejoice in their misery) or even misdirected, you can eventually show up with physical symptoms. Of course, different people will react differently to the same environmental and emotional influences, according to their congenital inheritance, personality type, and habits, including diet and exercise.
Western medicine is finally recognizing this tendency of different personality types to tend toward certain diseases. (Note your classic type A and type D personalities.) Consider a 12-year study of middle-aged men and women which showed “that suppressed anger significantly interacted with elevated blood pressure to produce the highest mortality". It appeared that people with high blood pressure who suppressed their anger were five times as likely to die as hypertensive people who expressed it.
Conversely, if your internal organs are imbalanced for a long time, the mind may be affected as well. One simple example is a person with chronic disease developing depression.
According to Chinese theory, you feel and store emotions in all of elemental organs.
Anger, according to tradition, affects the liver; this can also show up as depression, irritability, frustration, bitterness, inability to focus. Treat this type with LV 14 and GB 20 for the anterior pituitary. Liver toxins or disease can also affect the emotions. We all know an alcoholic with poor impulse control and anger issues.
Rumination taxes the spleen/pancreas. The spleen is the seat of logical and intuitive thinking and memorization. Disharmony manifests as repetitive thoughts, obsessive behaviors, or chronic worry. Insomnia is common because you can’t fall asleep from not being able to shut your mind off. Use Yintang and SP 20.
Grief and sorrow deplete the lungs, often leading to asthma or recurrent upper respiratory problems, or simply weakened immunity. As an example, look at how loss of a spouse often leads to illness or death of the survivor.
Excessive joy affects the heart, with disharmony leading to excessive craving, desire for unattainable things, or obsessive love.
Fear or lack of willpower affects the kidneys. This can be simply fear of change, fear of losing a relationship, fear of confrontation, or fear of the unknown. Use K27 and BL 10 to effect posterior pituitary. Since the kidneys rule the bones these people often have low back pain.
Of course over time, an imbalance in one system leads to problems in the other organs. Such as liver overacting on lungs, where the person has a chronic cough that has no physical cause but appears when the person is angry or irritable. Or liver overacting on stomach, where with emotional upsets the patient has diarrhea or heartburn.
Each treatment may be different, even with same diagnosis. That’s one reason that not too many double blind studies have been conducted on acupuncture. The Chinese think it is unethical to not treat someone who is suffering, so they do not allow placebo treatments. Each and every patient is treated according to the pattern of symptoms, not to a specific point formula.
Common points used to treat emotional illness:
HT7 quiets the heart, so it’s not only good for insomnia and anxiety, but it can regulate rhythm and rate, good for back pain in men
SP6 particularly good for hormonal fluctuations in females accompanied with PMS or irritability
Yintang is the reflex point of pituitary, also known as the3rd eye, or ‘happy point”.
DU 20 calms mind, improves concentration and memory (ADHD, confusion).
K1 restores consciousness revival point; also works well for bipolar treatment, or flat affect. Auricular acupuncture is particularly suited for addiction recovery and stress related symptoms, and can be used for narcotics, smoking, and weight loss. The standard NADA protocol treatment helps reduce anxiety, and curb appetite and cravings. Ear points are also used to enhance effectiveness of standard acupuncture treatments. These protocols are probably less than 50% effective over the long run for addiction, but are very useful as an adjunct therapy.
Here are excerpts from some studies on acupuncture:
The journal Psychiatric Times did a very small sample study where 3 groups of patients received specific treatment for depression, or a general acupuncture treatment, or were placed on a waiting list. The study did find that the patients who did receive acupuncture had “significant symptom relief at rates comparable to standard treatments such as psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy”.
For chronic emotional disorders the outer bladder line (also known as the emotional bladder line) on the back is used frequently. some physician acupuncturists are injecting minidoses of steroids at tender points along this channel, with improvement in patients where pharmacotherapy was unsuccessful. These were patients who complained of hallucinations, nightmares, agitation, depression, schizoid personality, or repetitive thoughts. Traditional practitioners would use moxa and needles at these points. These tender points often radiate into the neck or shoulder with pressure. The muscle tension in the area itself contributes to the ongoing nature of the symptoms. This treatment regimen had outstanding results in 80% of the patients, though some have to continue therapy indefinitely. People with tightness in the upper back, neck, and shoulders are often more controlling, often perfectionists, and ‘carry the weight of the world on their shoulders’. I think that many cases of hypertension in the US are caused by just this neck tension occluding the carotid receptors in the neck.
For anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and depression, as well as stroke recovery, and other neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, scalp acupuncture is very effective. In China they do strong needle stimulation, which can cause pain and bleeding, but in the US, we use electrical stimulation. Serotonin and norepinephrine are affected by using electroacupuncture at Yintang, DU20, GB5, GB 8, DU 24, 26, and GB20. Low frequency stimulation, 1.5-12 HZ seems to be better for depression; while high frequency (120 HZ0) is better for schizophrenia. I treated a gentleman with major depression once a week for only one month with this protocol, with spectacular results, plus herbal therapy. This type of treatment was considered effective for 55-95% of the patients in the studies. In China they do these points daily for up to 6 weeks. I find it better (and more financially feasable) to do treatment more slowly like once or twice a week, with a more gradual reduction in the patient’s medications.
Another study was conducted in which patients wore headgear with magnets arranged in Sishencong point pattern around DU 20 at the crown of the head. 7 of 10 patients who wore the device had long lasting relief of depression. However, if they wore the magnets for more than an hour a day they often were hyperactive. This treatment was also used effectively for cases of sleepwalking.
For ADHD, 155 patients were treated with scalp points, plus body points according to their Chinese pattern, for 5 treatments a week for 2 weeks, for a total of 12 weeks. Therapy was more effective in the hyperactive types and in the younger patients, less so after age 12.
As you can see, evidence is mounting that acupuncture is effective for many emotional and psychiatric problems. To find a qualified practitioner in your area, go to www.acupuncturetoday.com or www.acufinder.com and enter your zip code. You don’t have to suffer!