Dry needling has been developed on a foundation of the general principles of Western medical science. The understanding and practice of dry needling require that the practitioner has formal medical education, with comprehensive training which should include coursework in basic science as well as clinical courses like human anatomy, physiology, pathology, neurology, clinical diagnosis, etc. In addition, practitioners need clinical experience dealing with patients in terms of personal interaction, recording the medical history, and so on.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture developed about 3,000 years ago as an empirical clinical procedure. We have inherited much valuable experience from this ancient healing art, but this does not equal and cannot replace modern medical training, even though physiologically, traditional acupuncture is a type of dry needling therapy.
Confusion about traditional acupuncture can be avoided if we understand more of the history of its development. The distinguished scholar Professor Chen Fang-zheng, senior researcher of the Chinese Academy of Science and former director of the Institute of Chinese Culture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in his recent book Heritage and Betrayal: A Treatise on the Emergence of Modern Science in Western Civilization (San Lian Shu Dian Press, Beijing, April 2009) that modern science could not evolve in Chinese culture as it did in the West because the ancient Chinese did not develop a method of logical enquiry into the objective world but focused only on practical aspects of their life. The same holds true in the development of traditional Chinese medicine.
Professor Chen Xiao-ye of the Academy of Chinese Medicine in Beijing also stated in a personal communication that TCM accumulated a great corpus of clinical experience, but did not develop consistent theories, so that today we have to formulate modern theories to explain its traditional methods. Professor Huang Long-xiang, Vice-President of the Acupuncture Institute at the Academy of Chinese Medicine in Beijing, came to the conclusion that the "meridian channel" theory of TCM has successfully accomplished its historical mission of preserving and developing acupuncture; now it has become the narrow neck of the bottle which is impeding further development of acupuncture medicine in the 21st century.13
For six decades, since the 1950s, the Chinese government has invested huge financial and human resources in studying acupuncture meridians. Researchers discovered and confirmed many "meridian phenomena" but no independent anatomical channels were found to match the meridian concept.
Such research, however, is not wasted, because it has clearly shown us that the concept of meridians was invented by the ancient doctors and that many "meridian phenomena" are of unknown physiology, but do have some relation to physical tissue, especially to our nervous system. Many laboratory scientists claim that they have discovered or confirmed the existence of meridian channels from research such as infrared imaging or similar procedures. If these researchers understood the neuroanatomy of the peripheral nervous system, the neurology and pathophysiology of the human body, and if they knew clinical needling mechanisms and had experience with real patients, they would interpret their results differently and reach different conclusions.
Why do many modern clinicians still cling to meridian theories if meridians are a human invention? There are social and empirical reasons. Practically, acupuncture based on meridian theory works. It is not uncommon in human intellectual history for mistaken theories to work quite well in terms of the empirical results. Also, in the tradition of Chinese medicine, theories and facts are not well differentiated and theories are often treated as facts.
The concept of meridians is a typical example of such confusion. Facts were often trimmed to fit the theories, which, in the words of Professor Huang Long-xiang, is like "cutting the foot to fit the shoe."13
Chinese medicine developed very slowly in the last 2,000 years because in both theory and practice it was subject to the dominance of traditional philosophy over human experience. Traditional Chinese medicine is no longer able to develop on its own as it is heavily dependent on a philosophical foundation that has become stagnant and fossilized. The theories of traditional acupuncture are no longer adequate for explaining the clinical mechanisms, benefits, and limits of dry needling.
We do not need to create new theories to explain how dry needling works. As with any modern medical procedure, the mechanisms, physiology, and clinical procedure of dry needling are based on universal scientific rules—the rules we discovered in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.
Dry needling acupuncture has brought new concepts, a new system, a new interpretation and a new approach to learning and practicing healing therapy with needles. Both practitioners and patients will greatly benefit from this new approach.
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