What Have the «Five «Elements» Got to Do with Acupuncture?

In a previous post I talked a little about the five-element system of looking at the world. But what has it got to do with acupuncture? Well, acupuncture is a method used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and as I exemplified in that post the five elements in that system have a very great deal to do with the way the body works in health and disease. One of the major classic texts of Chinese medicine, the Huang Di nei jing su wen or Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, describes in detail the various pathological states that are believed to arise from imbalances in the five elements.

In modern acupuncture schools five-element theory is taught as being fundamental to the practice of acupuncture. You puncture this point and you stimulate a “wood” point, that one and it’s an “earth” point and so on. There are complex methods devised to manipulate with needles the laws that govern energy transformation between the phases (“phase” is another, perhaps better word for “element” in Chinese medicine).

However, among scholars doubt exists whether these methods are actually traditional at all. One school of thought has it that for much of the history of acupuncture, points were selected on the basis of what collective experience told about what symptoms they successfully treated, rather than theoretical considerations about the five elements. According to this school of thought, the latter is a quite recent invention stemming from the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” (1950s and 60s respectively). I have also read that the relevance of the five elements to clinical practice was transplanted to acupuncture from herbal medicine, where it is more clearly applicable. That certainly makes sense to me.

My reflections on my own experience lead me to believe that five-element theory has little bearing on the success or otherwise of acupuncture treatment, and I do not base my practice of acupuncture on this theory any more.


Copyright © Robert Hale 2021. Image: The Five Elements Cycle by Manonastreet, reproduced according to Creative Commons licence CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Hale is an osteopath, acupuncturist and naturopath in Santa Eulalia del rio, Ibiza. / Robert Hale es un osteopata, acupunturista, y naturopata en Santa Eulalia del Rio, Ibiza.

Holistic Medical Systems Do NOT Treat the Cause

I am going to say something controversial. Holistic health systems do not «treat the cause». It is so often stated that they do, in contrast to conventional («allopathic») medicine which «just dispenses drugs and surgery». This is not true. «Finding the cause» is proper to good conventional medicine.

You are feeling weak and tired and your complexion is dull and pale. Your doctor arranges blood tests and it turns out that your blood lacks iron and your red blood cells are few and small. Your doctor prescribes an iron supplement and you begin to feel better. Your doctor has correctly diagnosed that iron deficiency anaemia is the cause of your symptoms. Your doctor goes further. Why are you lacking iron? Is your diet providing sufficient iron? If you are a woman, are your periods very heavy or are you bleeding between periods? Have you abdominal pain? Is there blood in your stools? These are all questions for good conventional medicine. The way it is practised is not always good. But the fact that a doctor may not be thorough does not damn the discipline of medicine as such. Its aim and its technical abilities are geared to finding out a cause. That is its strength and also its blind spot.

It is a blind spot because health and ill health, life itself in fact, are not that simple. To speak of «the cause» is frequently a distorted portrayal of reality. To do so habitually is a symptom of a deeply ingrained, distorted view of the world. Just say that you continued the «why game». Your anaemia, your doctor has found out, has its origin in a bleeding duodenal ulcer. That is successfully treated, but why was it there? From that point on it often becomes a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, behavioural and emotional factors. There is no one cause, it is multifactorial. At this point it should be a question of assessing influences then joining the dots rather than looking for a single cause. But here conventional medicine is inclined to stop in its tracks with a prescription of omeprazol.

Do holistic systems manage better? Perhaps the one that comes closest is true naturopathy (not the mix-and-match assortment of «techniques» that often passes for it), which focuses on diet and lifestyle. A criticism that might be levelled against the typical naturopathic mindset however, is a reluctance sufficiently to acknowledge psychological factors. I believe this to be on the one hand a reaction to the perceived tendency in conventional medicine to brand any unexplained symptoms as «psychological», and on the other the ego tendency of some naturopaths (untrained in clinical psychology or psychotherapy) to convince themselves that with their special insights they can be all things to all people.

What of other disciplines? I will speak of those I know best: osteopathy and acupuncture. The truth is, these systems do not seek out and treat «the cause», instead they find ways of:

  • Reducing strain in the organism so that it can free up resources for self-healing.
  • Improving function in certain parts, systems or domains of the organsim.
  • Improving the body’s interaction with its environment, and its resilience to environmental stressors.
  • Providing psychological cues which promote healing.

But many osteopaths also have a naturopathic mindset and many acupuncturists also have a rounded knowledge in diet and lifestyle from a traditional Chinese perspective, so all in all, they can set up a context for healing both within and without the body.

Copyright (c) Robert Hale 2022. Public domain image from Pixabay.com.

Robert Hale is an osteopath, acupuncturist and naturopath in Santa Eulalia del rio, Ibiza. / Robert Hale es un osteopata, acupunturista, y naturopata en Santa Eulalia del Rio, Ibiza.