What exactly IS five-element acupuncture?

Five-element acupuncture originated in ancient China more than two thousand years ago and continues to thrive today. In the 1960s, this unique system of medicine was brought to Europe by pioneers including the late Professor J.R. Worsley and Jacques Lavier.  

At the very core of five-element acupuncture is the fundamental belief that many of the physical ailments that patients present with today are the result of emotional or spiritual distress as much as any physical cause.

A five-element practitioner’s job is never to focus on the patient’s symptoms in the manner that other forms of acupuncture do, but rather to identify and treat the cause of all their symptoms by focusing on the individual as a whole. This system of medicine teaches us that all symptoms derive from a single cause which is unique to the patient. We believe that by treating the element of nature that is deficient within the individual, known as their causative factor, we can effect a cure for all of the patient’s symptoms, whether they are on a physical, mental or spiritual level.

According to ancient Chinese wisdom and philosophy, the living universe and all life forms within it operate through the five elements of nature; Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.

Within our bodies, the five elements present in several unique ways: There are five pairings of vital organs; five distinct odours that call to a practitioner when those organs are in trouble; five unique emotions that the acupuncturist can experience when with the patient, five different sounds within the timbre of our patient’s voice and five colours that, to the trained eye, can be viewed just beneath the surface of their skin. Each pairing of organs relates to one of the elements of nature. It is the five-element acupuncturist’s job to use their senses to identify which one of the elements within a patient is struggling using the clues the patient presents with; it’s a bit like being a detective!  Once we have identified their deficient element, the cause of all their symptoms, treatment can begin. The element and its associated pairing of organs can be nurtured and swiftly restored to health to work in harmony with the rest of the patient’s body. Once this state of balance has been achieved, nature will begin to effect a cure for the patient’s symptoms.

We should understand that all five elements are present within each patient; we are simply seeking the one that has not received enough of the available energy to function correctly, the one that’s having a kip in the corner! In order to be in good health on a physical, mental or spiritual level, all the elements need to have a relatively balanced share of the body’s available energy since it is this that helps to power our organs and therefore our lives. In Chinese medicine, each of the elements has a particular job function that they provide to all of the other elements. Therefore, if one of them is taking a nap in the corner, all the others will suffer. As the deficient element goes down, all the others are put under stress as they struggle to undertake tasks for which they are not equipped and symptoms in the patient will arise.

Imagine a busy office working at capacity when a key worker calls in sick. Their tasks and duties will not go away, so the manager is forced to reallocate them across the department. The team, who were already stretched, have to try and juggle the additional workload. The result is that every task is rushed and duties are completed in a haphazard and substandard manner. The workers become stressed and anxious and end up having to work through lunch and leave the office late, feeling exhausted and resentful. However, when the sick colleague returns and the work is allocated as it should be, the department returns to efficiency and the colleagues feel energised and motivated and are able to complete their jobs to the best of their abilities once more. The same analogy is true within us: When the pairing of vital organs which represent our causative factor go down because they do not have enough energy or Qi to work with, they are effectively taking time off sick and the vital functions that they provide to ALL the other organs of the body simply fail to happen. As a result, all of the organs struggle to keep up with the demands of the body and the patient will experience symptoms.

The importance of the Law of Cure

There are 5 laws that we observe in five-element acupuncture and the law of cure teaches us how a patient should respond once they are in treatment and their deficient or weakest element, known as their causative factor, comes back into balance.

Our first interaction with a patient includes a thorough medical history of any symptoms they may have, whether those are on a physical, mental or spiritual level (which simply put, is a reflection of how they feel within themselves).  We know that by improving the flow of energy or Qi within the patient, and specifically by nurturing the patient’s causative factor, the process of cure will be activated.

Once the patient’s causative factor has been identified and treatment has begun, we expect to see the patient’s Qi returning to a state of equilibrium. When this happens and all the organs of the body have a relatively equal share of the patient’s available Qi, nature can begin to effect a cure.  The law of cure teaches us that this happens in a very particular manner:

  • The patient will first begin to heal from the inside to the outside of their body – internally to externally.  For example, if a patient presents with acid reflux and eczema, we expect to see their acid reflux resolve ahead of their eczema.
  • Next, the patient will start the same process from their head downwards. For instance, if a patient has migraines as well as gout, we expect the headaches to improve before the gout.
  • Finally, more recent complaints will resolve ahead of those of a more longstanding nature.  In this example, a patient’s recent stress would be relieved ahead of the asthma they have suffered since childhood.

It is an unfortunate fact that, sometimes symptoms are exacerbated before they resolve completely. By understanding this important law, a practitioner can evaluate whether the law of cure is at work in the patient on subsequent appointments. This allows them to adjust treatment if necessary, in order to return the patient to a state of equilibrium and good health.

We see the law of cure at work in many areas of our lives, it is not confined simply to acupuncture and homeopathy.

Many years ago, and approximately 3 months after an extremely traumatic episode in my life, I developed an incredibly itchy, hot rash on my arm.  I visited the doctor on numerous occasions to be told that I had developed eczema and given increasingly strong creams and potions to apply to the rash.  Nothing worked.  Eventually I was prescribed a steroid cream which made the rash disappear from my arm only to pop out on my back, then on my scalp, then on my legs.  I questioned the doctors about whether it could possibly be related to the difficult time I was going through. All of them said that would not be possible and it was a physiological rather than an emotional issue.  Eventually, three years on and many, many bloodied sheets and ruined items of clothing later, I was referred to a dermatologist who concurred with the doctors and conducted allergy tests which all came back negative.  I was at my wits end and by this time, scarred by the constant and relentless cycle of itching and scratching. 

At around the same time, I came across an article on transcendental meditation and decided to enrol on a course.  The instructor felt it was extremely likely that my rash had been caused by the trauma I had been going through and warned me that, once I was meditating regularly twice a day, the rash could get worse before it improved and eventually resolved.  He was absolutely right.  For the first three weeks of my new meditation regime, my rash was at its worst, waking me in the night and causing me huge distress. 

Then, one day, I woke up and realised that I had slept right through the night and there were no bloody spots on my sheets.  My arm was less red and bumpy and my skin felt cool to the touch.  The itching had finally stopped and, with it, the rash began to disappear. 

I’m ashamed to say that my meditation has lapsed somewhat in recent times but I am kept in balance by my wonderful acupuncture practitioner. However, I do find that I am giving treatment more often than I am receiving it in these crazy times! Nowadays, I know when I am under too much stress or worrying excessively because my rash returns.  It’s a red flag alerting me to the fact that I need to visit my acupuncturist who will restore my Qi to relative balance, reduce my stress and resolve the issue.