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A Needle in Time Saves Nine (acupuncture & timely treatment)

With a title like this, Kung-fu fans may be forgiven for thinking of the mythical “Touch of Death” or “Dim Mak” – using a single strike at a “forbidden” location to inflict delayed death or paralysis. It has been speculated that such a strike lead to the subsequent unexplained death of Bruce Lee and has been immortalised in Hollywood numerous times: Jet Lee uses a single acupuncture needle in exactly this way in his film “Kiss of the Dragon” and Tarantino also gives the idea a nod in his “Kill Bill” double feature.

Acupuncturists might be hoping for a discussion on the possibility of the “perfect” acupuncture treatment using only a single acupuncture point.

As fun as such discussions might be, I actually want to talk about something a little more prosaic but ultimately of fundamental importance to every single one of us. Lets start with a story.

Bian Que and the Marquis of Cai* A few hundred years before Christ was causing consternation in Jerusalem, there was a legendary doctor in China called Bian Que**. His abilities of diagnosis and treament were so remarkable that one legend speaks of his having the ability to literally look inside the bodies of his patients to see the state of their organs and diagnose disease. Perhaps history’s first record of the concept of x-ray!

One day, Bian Que was passing through the State of Cai. His fame was such that the Marquis of Cai personally received him at the palace (an honour reserved for only the most important visitors – and certainly unusual for those of the medical profession). Once the formalities and pleasantaries required by custom were completed, Bian Que requested that he be allowed to speak openly. With the Marquis’s agreement he said:

I am afraid that Your Lordship is ill. It is a disease at the level of the skin and should be easily resolved if treated.

The Marquis laughed and replied that he had never felt in better health. When Bian Que had departed, he told the members of his court that this physician was searching for fame and reward by claiming to treat some imaginary disease. A few days later, Bian Que again met the Marquis. This time he said:

Lordship, the disease has progressed – it is now located at the level of your blood vessels. If not treated soon, this will become more serious!

The Marquis became angry and again told his attendants that Bian Que was simply seeking to exploit fears to gain prestige. Bian Que departed and the Monarch did not heed his advice. After a few days they met again, and despite the obvious dis-pleasure in the Marquis’s bearing he felt compelled again to deliver his warning:

I am afraid the disease is now deeper still – it is located in your organs and intestines. Without prompt treatment I fear it will be impossible to reverse!

The Marquis ignored his imporings and dismissed Bian Que from the court with a much curtailed version of the required pleasantries. Some days later, Bian Que unexpectedly encountered the Marquis in the city, but upon seeing him he made off in the opposite direction. The Marquis was surprised as such behaviour was against the customs. He sent an attendant to inquire of Bian Que’s break in etiquette. Bian Que responded:

The disease has now entered to the depth of the bones – it is beyond cure. For this reason there is no good purpose in my meeting with your Lord.

It was not long before the crown of the Marquis passed to his successor.

Nip it in the Bud The implications of this history are so clear and well illustrated that elaboration is unnecessary. Instead I would like to translate a couple of lines from the “bible” of acupunctue, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. The classic bemoans the application of medicine only after a disease has manifested:

It is as if to begin digging a well when already parched with thirst;

to cast weapons when the fight is already underway!

Miraculous Diagnosis? One strength of oriental medicine is its focus on the delicate and constantly shifting balance of health of the patient. Diagnostic skills which may appear miraculous (like those of Bian Que) are attainable and tangible. They are simply the result of dedicated practice and study in observing the sublte cues given by the body as it ebbs and flows from one state to another.

Thus a skilled and experienced acupuncturist will diagnose and correct a wayward course even before the appearance of symptoms.

Of course, if there are already symptoms, all is not lost and treatment is finely adjusted to the exact state of the patient at the time of application. This expertise is set out in another Classic*8* which describes the progression and treatment of febrile disease from a ‘sniffel’ to a ‘cold’ to influenza/ pneumonia/ tropical fever etc.

Yes, we can successfully treat people suffering from colds!

Nine Needles The title of this Newsletter is obviously intended to allude to the concept of timely (if not preventative) treatment. However it is also intended to introduce the idea of the many different shapes and sizes of needles employed in classical acupuncture – (many of which will need to be used if such timely treatment is not applied!)

The Yellow Emperor’s classic actually describes 9 different types of needle. The shapes and methods of use of these needles may challenge your current concept of what is a “needle” and what is “acupuncture”. In this Newsletter, “To the Man with a Hammer…” (the nine needles) I elaborate!

And remember, if you are (feeling) well, maybe its a good time for an acupunture treatment!


Notes * This story is a translation (with artistic license) from “Records of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian of the Han dynasty. ** Actually, his name was Qin Yueren but his medical skills were such that the people gave him the same name as a semi-mythical / legendary doctor (Bian Que) from the time of the Yellow Emperor (about 3 thousand years before Christ). *** The Shang Han Lun (Classic on Cold Damage) was written in a time of devastating epidemic and provides detailed & nuanced understanding of disease progression and treatment strategy.

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