Root and Branch

In classical meridian-based acupuncture, practitioners relied heavily on palpation of the body to find tight, tender areas in the musculature and connective tissue. These constricted areas, in their understanding, were a blockage that represented a stagnation of blood or "qi", the body’s vital energy. It was said that where there is pain, there is no free flow and where there is free flow there is no pain. These tender areas were referred to as "a shi" or tender points.

Often, the blockages mentioned above are caused by an acute injury, such as a muscle tear, or they may stem from long-standing problems such as repetitive motion and/or chronic overuse of a muscle or joint. In these cases, the level of the cause matches the level of the effect, i.e. damage to the outer musculature causes disorder in the outer musculature. However, practitioners will often discover constricted areas of the body which stem from no external cause. These disorders are likely an outward manifestation of an internal cause that can be vague, elusive or repressed. Not being readily visible does not mean that the problem is not of consequence, of course. Over time, the disorder will find an outlet, and in many cases, this outlet will be pain and constriction in the outer surface of the body. For example, anxiety and stress due to over-exertion of the mind will often manifest itself as tightness and constriction in the upper body, in particular the shoulders and chest. Mark Seem refers to this type of phenomenon as a "holding pattern", a way in which a person reacts to stress or holds stress within the body. Common to a clinical presentation such as this is the beginning of a "snowball effect", in which the physical discomfort caused by the stress leads to only more stress and exacerbates the problem.

Believing, as acupuncturists are inclined to do, that the body is a complex, inter-connected web of many different systems, it stands to reason that treatment of the outward manifestation would have a direct consequence on the underlying factor. The underlying factor (stress, in this case) would represent the "root", and the outward manifestation (tightness and/or pain in the upper body) would represent the "branch". To continue the analogy, the root is that which is hidden beneath the surface -- not visible but directly responsible for that which grows out of it. The branch is the part of the disorder that we can see and touch and is what the root has become. Since we can’t needle the stress directly, we must focus on treating what we can needle – the muscles and connective tissue. When we release blockages and restore flow to these areas – and couple it with recommendations on exercise, diet and lifestyle – we assist the body in restoring its normal rhythm and moving closer to optimal health.

Seem, Mark. 1993. A New American Acupuncture: Acupuncture Osteopathy. Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy Press.
Root and Branch

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