I’ve heard this question a lot over the years. Coming from a culture in which the primary medicine is one-size-fits all, it is not surprising that we have a hard time grasping the way acupuncture works. In Western medicine if you have a particular symptom or disease, there is a specific treatment for that, a drug or a therapy or what-have-you. There is sometimes a bit of tailoring in which, of the 5 drug options, you are given one based on factors that are unique to you. In general though, each disease has a set treatment, no matter the patient’s constitution or other symptoms.
In Chinese Medicine, the opposite is true. Each person is looked at individually, all symptoms are considered relevant, and the underlying imbalance is treated. We often say, we treat the person not the disease. For instance, if there are 5 people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the Chinese Medicine doctor will look at each of the five individually. Each will get a Chinese Medicine diagnosis, possibly all 5 will be different. One might have qi stagnation causing the IBS, one might have Spleen qi deficiency, one might damp phlegm collecting, one might have too much heat, etc. The doctor will then prescribe points and herbs specific to those five individual imbalances. There are points that move the qi, and do so very well in the digestive system. There are points that build spleen qi, and so on. There would likely be some crossover, but it is very unlikely that each person would receive the same exact prescription of points.
Acupuncture points do not treat specific diseases, rather, they have the effect of adjusting the imbalances in the body in different ways. Stomach 36 is a powerful digestive point, but western disease diagnoses do not correlate to specific points. Sometimes St 36 would be called for in someone with IBS, sometimes it would not depending on the imbalance in that particular patient. Points are combined in such a way as to bring the individual back into balance thereby eliminating symptoms of dis-ease.
This is why seeing a licenced acupuncturist for acupuncture rather than an MD or Chiropractor with a few hours of “acupuncture training” is so important. While the MD may be able to reduce a little pain using acupuncture needles, to get to the root of the imblance using Chinese Medicine, a differential diagnosis needs to be made so that elegant point combinations can be chosen. Acupuncture was never meant to be practiced in a “this point is good for this disease” way and it is far more effective when used within the broader framework of Chinese Medicine as a whole system of medicine.