Thoughts on the Efficacy of Acupuncture in Nei Jing

The Nei Jing does not state that needle treatment is effective and that herbal medicine is not effective, but most diseases are curable with needle treatment alone.  Huang Di makes this next statement at the very beginning of Ling Shu, chapter one:


“余子万民,养百姓, 而收其租税。余哀其不给,而属有疾病。余欲勿使被毒药,无用砭石,欲以微针痛其经脉,调其血气,营其逆顺出入之会,令可传于后世。” 

“I am responsible to all the citizens, [I must] nourish the hundred families, and to let and tax. I feel sorry for the incapable ones that cannot help themselves, especially those too sick to help themselves.  I have a great desire to not hurt the patients with medicine (herbal medicine), nor to use the stone device.  I want to use the tiny needle to unblock the meridians, to regulate the blood and qi, to nourish the rebellious and sooth the meeting points of the entrances and exits.  I order that this be recorded for later generations.”

Huang Di’s clear bias against the herbal medication used during his era.  To say herbal medicine he uses the words, “毒药” which means “injured by medicine.”  He must have seen the dangers involved in the use of herbs.  Yet, the doctors that teach Huang Di in the book do not hesitate to mention the cases that require herbal medication in conjunction with acupuncture.  


Cases where herbal medicine is recommended are rare.  There are two cases mentioned in Su Wen, chapter thirty-one.  The mention of herbal medicine is a reason why Zhang Zhong Jing, author of the herbal prescription classic, Shang Han Lun based his book off of this chapter of the Nei Jing.  The statements made by Qi Bo in chapter thirty-one leave room for the addition of herbal prescriptions, especially since no exact prescriptions are specified after the mention of herbal medicine is made.  

Throughout Nei Jing, it becomes clear that the lack of herbal prescription demonstrates the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment alone.  One of the last paragraphs of Ling Shu, chapter one solidifies this sentiment: 

“今夫五脏之疾也,譬犹刺也,犹污也,犹结也,犹闭也。刺虽久,犹可拨也;污虽久,犹可雪也;结虽久,犹可解也;闭虽久,犹可决也。或言久疾之不可取者,非其说也。夫善用针者,取其疾也,犹拨刺也,犹雪污也,犹解结也,犹决闭也。疾虽久,犹可毕也。言不可治者, 未得其术也。” 

“When people contract a disease in their five viscera, it is like having a thorn embedded in the body, like being tarnished, like being tied into a knot, like being closed down.  The thorn although embedded for a long time, can be removed; the tarnish although present for a long time, can be wiped clean; the knot although tied for quite a long time, can be untied; what was closed down can be opened again.  To say that a chronic disease is not curable is speaking incorrectly.  The doctor that is good at acupuncture can find the disease, can remove the thorn, can wipe away the tarnished, can untie the knot, and open the closed.  A disease, although chronic, can be overcome.  Those who say that diseases are incurable, have not mastered the art of acupuncture.”  

It is the needle that does the work, there was no mention of herbal medicine.  When translating the word acupuncture it must be noted that only one character is used in the Chinese of the previous passage.  Only the character for needle, “针” is used, not “针灸” which is the modern word for acupuncture.  There are no general terms used, like “eastern medicine,” only “needle.”  Therefore the needle must be reintegrated into the modern treatment.  It appears that many practitioners rely on herbal medication more than the needle.  These are the people that, perhaps, “…have not mastered the art of acupuncture.”

Published by Raul Ramirez, L.Ac., Ph.D.

Physician, Catch Wrestler, Kickboxer, Vegan, Progressive

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