Reconnecting the Body in Eastern and Western Medicine

Publication Harvard University

Langevin Helene M. and Schnyer Rosa N.

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. April 2017, 23(4): 238-241

Overview: Ancient and Modern Systems

Acupuncture is an ancient healing art that has been practiced continuously for thousands of years in East Asia, has spread throughout the world during the 20th century, and nevertheless remains difficult to define. In 1960s Communist China, acupuncture underwent a transformation that standardized its practice under the influence of Western medicine,1,2 while maintaining some of its distinct elements such as the insertion of acupuncture needles at discrete body locations known as “acupuncture points.” The result, “Traditional Chinese Medicine” or TCM style acupuncture, is now the dominant model in both China and the rest of the world, and is the official core curriculum taught at the majority of U.S. acupuncture schools.

However, the modernization of TCM left out some important aspects of “Classical” Chinese medicine that nevertheless survived in marginalized styles of acupuncture that were orally transmitted through family lineages. These “pre-TCM” acupuncture styles, along with Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions that developed from the classics, began spreading in the West before the Chinese cultural revolution and became established, first in Europe and then in the United States, through apprenticeships, select programs, and continuing education opportunities.3–6

In this article, we propose that some components of acupuncture missing from the TCM model are related to important 21st century advances in physiology and medicine, including systems biology, cross-system integration, matrix biology, and mechanotherapeutics. We further propose that understanding physiologic mechanisms underlying these “lost” components of acupuncture may yield important insights that could benefit medicine as a whole. It is important to clarify that this commentary does not seek to advocate a dogmatic fixation with ancient ideas for the sake of tradition. Rather, the overarching purpose is to emphasize the potential loss of valuable experience and information in the process of acculturation and modernization.