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FAQs - What are acupuncture and ZB, anyway?

I hear a lot of questions from clients and other lay-people about acupuncture and zero balancing. This month, let’s explore some of those good, good questions!

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is an entire system (actually, multiple systems) of medicine, completely separate from Western medical thought and theory. Those who first began practicing acupuncture made hundreds of thousands of observations of the natural world and the body in health and in illness. From these observations, they created several interwoven theories of health, illness, and growth for the human experience. The theory used in Chinese medicine is fundamental – the observations the ancients made cover the most basic of functions (basic, binary, “on/off” functions), and such complexities such as reproduction, the progression of disease, and mental health. Each part of the body is viewed in much the same way as a member of the court or army - a tiny piece of the interwoven world that is a body working in or out of harmony, but without which the whole would collapse. This microcosmic view of the body is what gives acupuncture its uniquely holistic perspective, and which draws so many to its practice and use.

Those theories that evolved to explain the effects observed when particular points were manipulated in particular ways are the closest we as acupuncturists have to understanding why acupuncture works. Over the millennia, our theoretical ancestors have taught us, “do this, in this fashion, with this tool, this frequently, for these symptoms, which indicate this breakdown in function at this level due to this pathogenic factor.”

As Western medicine collides with Eastern medical thought, we have tried to determine the Western physiology behind that je ne sais quoi of acupuncture’s effects. Present theories include manipulation of the nervous system through direct physical contact, manipulation of the substances and membrane transports between nerve cells, inducing inflammatory responses on a mild level at needle sites to promote local healing, and more.

The short answer? We’re not sure!

If that seems weird to you, consider that the first use of general anesthesia (the drugs that make people sleep for surgeries) was in 1846, but we just made the first breakthrough in 2019 to begin understanding how that class of drugs works ( If it took 170 years to begin to understand drugs that just do one thing (and those drugs were developed by Western docs for use in Western medicine), it’s understandable that it’s taking so long for Western medicine to figure out acupuncture, a procedure with dozens of components and hundreds of indications and uses in its literature. And, since this system was developed independently of Western medical thought, the theories used in its development and administration do not align well with the methods and theories of Western medical researchers, making it that much harder for us to study it.

I said I had back pain, so you needled my ankle. What are you expecting to happen? Why did you needle my ankle if it’s my back that hurts?

One of the primary theories of acupuncture is called “channel theory.” According to this theory, all of the areas of the body are interconnected through a network of energetic flow. The channels follow body structures such as bones, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves throughout the body.

For example, the Bladder channel begins at the inner corner of the eye. From there, it travels up the forehead and over the top of the head to the nape of the neck. Then, it divides into two simultaneous pathways which run down the back in parallel lines with the long muscles of the back called erector spinae that help us to maintain an upright posture. The channel then zigzags across the sacrum over the sacral foramen and the nerves which run through them (these are special holes in the bone which create pathways for nerves from the spine to the legs, and to the pelvic organs). Then, the channel travels down the back of the leg (following the pathway of the sciatic nerve, and running between two of the hamstring muscles) and the pathways meet again at the back of the knee. From here, the channel runs right between the heads of the calf muscles, then along the outside of the Achilles tendon and down the side of the foot, to the corner of the pinky-toe nail.

If you come to me with back pain I will be concerned with the entirety of the flow of this important channel running down the back. There is a saying that when there is no flow, there is pain. In order to help with the symptom of back pain, I will aim to restore the flow of energy in the Bladder channel. I may do this using points anywhere within this channel, or within other channels which directly or indirectly influence the Bladder channel. Needling the ankle is a great way to effect change in the back!

What is Zero Balancing? Massage? Acupressure? Something else?

What does Zero Balancing do?

Zero Balancing (ZB) is a body work protocol developed by an osteopath and acupuncturist named Fritz Smith. It uses a deep understanding of the structures of the skeletal system as well as the theories and channels of Chinese Medicine to release held tension in the body. The protocol is performed on a fully clothed, supine (face up) client. The Zero Balancer (ZBer) moves around the table, pulling gently on several body parts such as the ankles, neck, shoulders, and pelvis with an arced motion, and sliding their hands between the patient and the table to press up into bony structures such as ribs, shoulder blades, and the pelvis. The practitioner may also gently press down in small places over the top of the body at the same time the other hand is pressing up from under the client in order to create a linear movement from back to front or front to back. The experience of the client is one of peaceful and gentle relaxation onto the table. A lot of my clients comment after a ZB that they feel taller, more expansive (like there’s more room in their body and less chaos and clutter), and that they experience smoother gastrointestinal functioning and better sleep after a ZB. Often, clients also report decreased joint pain, sinus pressure, headaches, and stress in the days and weeks following ZB.

I hope you enjoyed this brief post about some of the big questions in Acupuncture and Zero Balancing. Do you have more questions for an acupuncturist or ZBer? Email me what you want to read in next month’s post!

Working on a new year’s resolution? (Happy lunar new year, by the way!) Schedule your acupuncture tune-up today for renewed clarity as you plan your new year!

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