Needling the medical establishment

By Audrey Ronning Topping

“Acupuncture: The yin and the yang are contained within the chi, the basic principle of the entire universe. They create all matter and its mutations. The chi is the beginning and the end, life and death, and it is found within the temples of the gods. If you wish to cure disease, you must find the basic cause.”

Ancient Chinese treatise

In 1971, I became the first Western journalist to witness the use of the ancient art of acupuncture for pain therapy and anesthesia in major surgery in China. With Dr. Chu Fa-tsu, head of the surgical department at Wuhan Union Hospital, explaining the procedure, I watched in trepidation through an observation dome as a surgeon spent 12 minutes removing a large tumor from the neck of a fully conscious 54-year-old woman. Twenty minutes before the operation began, an acupuncturist had inserted two fine, flexible needles about two centimeters long into each wrist and whirled the needles between thumb and two fingers until the patient reported numbness in the throat. When the incision was made, she didn’t twitch, but I did. Chu said the needles had been inserted into nerve centers controlling the afflicted area of the body.

“It is very difficult to explain exactly what happens,” he said. “There are about 500 nerve points that we know we can use. We know the results we get but, like aspirin, we cannot explain exactly how it works or why we get favorable results, even in animals.”

The patient remained conscious and much calmer than I was, even speaking at times to the operating team. Seconds after the last suture was tied, she sat up, ate some orange slices, put on her robe, thanked the operating team and walked out. On the way she stopped to wave her “Little Red Book” of Mao Zedong’s quotations at the amazed observers.

We also witnessed open-heart surgery on a 33-year-old woman, who in addition to needles in the wrists had an additional needle in each forearm. Chu said the purpose of the operation was to enlarge the valve between the left auricle and the left ventricle of the heart. After the chest incision and the removal of a rib and some tissue, the heart was exposed and beating while the patient was awake and smiling. It looked authentic but so incredible I wondered if I was being duped.

The acupuncture procedure may employ nine different fine needles, chosen according to the disease. They are inserted by a highly trained practitioner into the patient’s skin at certain well-defined nerve points located along the 12 main meridians believed to transport the life force (chi) from organ to organ throughout the body. They act as carriers, six for the yin (female forces) and six for the yang (male forces). Silver needles were advised for treatment of yin disorders and gold needles for yang. The theory is that when yin and yang are evenly balanced, good health results. But if the energy – flowing constantly like gentle streams through these 12 channels – becomes dammed up, stagnation and imbalance will occur, causing various illnesses. Acupuncture needles are used to puncture and hopefully burst the blocked meridians thus releasing the evil air and restoring healthy circulation and proper balance to the affected body.

The first use of acupuncture was recorded in “Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen,” a 24-volume set of dialogues between Huang Ti – the legendary Yellow Emperor (2697 to 2597 B.C.) – and his chief physician, Ch’i Po. The work still stands as the basis of Chinese native medicine.

For centuries, acupuncture had been derided by the Western medical profession. One critic declared that the needles used were “hat pins,” while another said, “I refuse to have my ‘seat of honor’ used as a pin cushion.” They claimed there was nothing scientific about it. On the contrary, they felt it was covered with a prehistoric, mystic patina, and sometimes appeared to be scarcely comprehensible.

My reports in The New York Times and the experience of Times’ columnist Scotty Reston – who underwent an appendectomy in a Chinese hospital, in which acupuncture was successfully employed as a postoperative pain killer – stirred debate worldwide about the efficacy of acupuncture. The Chinese press contended that acupuncture was successfully used to treat illnesses ranging from paralysis and arthritis to stomach and headaches. A hospital in Hunan reported success in mental illness.

After some diplomats witnessed the innovative use of acupuncture in anesthesia, the old healing art suddenly became the main topic of impassioned conversation at all the diplomatic parties I attended in Peking (Beijing). Foreigners were dubious in part because acupuncture was tinged with a strong ideological character, since “Mao’s Red Book” was often credited by the Chinese with inspiring astonishing cures. The debate, which is still going on, began to rage between those who believed the Chinese had made an important breakthrough and others who claimed that acupuncture was hypnosis or a placebo effect.

The latter was debunked in the 1960s and ’70s by a number of Western scientists – including Dr. Louis Moss in England and Dr. Elizabeth Frost, a professor of anesthesiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, international expert in the field and Westchester resident. They devoted much research to the study of the effect of acupuncture on the nervous system, confirming what the Chinese discovered by clinical observation thousands of years ago. Using an electrical Wheatstone bridge, Frost demonstrated that acupuncture points corresponded to points of decreased electrical resistance. Moreover, pain relief caused by acupuncture needling could be immediately reversed by a morphine antagonist, Nalaxone. In other words, acupuncture spurred the body to produce its own opiates.

In 1971, Dr. Arthur W. Galston – professor of biology at Yale University, who also observed the use of acupuncture in China – told me he was convinced that Western pharmacology had much to learn from traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture came into wide use later in many countries outside China for a variety of treatments but not for anesthesia in surgery. Chinese doctors, however, continued to employ it in surgery when they felt it was preferable to the use of drugs or where operations had to be conducted at localities lacking modern anesthesia apparatus.

Today, many aspects of traditional Eastern wellness, including Tibetan herbal medicine, are accepted or at least considered worth trying in the West. Acupuncture is seen not as a panacea but an effective tool in certain cases.

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