Acupuncturist Questions Acupuncture

What does "Qi" mean in acupuncture?

In my last session my acupuncturist kept throwing around the word "Qi" and I was just really confused. She didn't explain what it really meant. What does "Qi" mean in acupuncture?

8 Answers

Qi is the Chinese word for energy. You may have heard of Qi Gong, or Tai Qi. Both are arts that involve the movement of your body's energy. In acupuncture we use the needles in points that connect us to the channels of energy (meridians) so we can move your qi to help your body's energies balance so it can heal itself.

Sorry for the confusion - I hope that cleared it up for you.
Qi= energy flow.
A few hypersensitive people report feeling a sensation on the end of fingers or toes when a needle inserts in another place. Most of the times, you can have a mild localized feeling such as warmth, tingling, electric current, or soreness. The Qi sensation is variously based on the different connective tissues where a needle inserts.
Congratulations on spelling it "Qi" - which is the Pinyin version. It can also be spelled "Ch'i" "Chi" or lay people usually would say "Chee". The term being used comes from a Chinese character that in one section is the symbol for "rice" and another section is the symbol for "air" or "steam" or "heaven". etc. Please keep in mind that Chinese characters refer to a pictorial/conceptual idea more than an actual "single word definition".

With that in mind, Qi is something that is both physical and non-physical, hence the two parts combined as one. It represents the rice as well as the steam or the fuel we get from foods. Some translate it simply as "energy" others say it refers to "life force". In a sense, all things are qi in different forms, just as all things are energy in different forms. The character is almost the same as Einstein's equation E=MC2, where energy and material substance are the same thing.

So, the simple answer is that it is the energy systems in your body (lung qi works with respiration and distribution, spleen qi transforms food to energy the body can use, heart qi circulates the blood and houses our ability to experience emotions and on and on...) But at the same time is also the physical body itself, which is make up of the energy we transform through the air that we breathe and the foods that we eat.

The physical body is qi in a substance form (like the rice in the character) and the functions of the body (circulation, strength, activity of cells, thoughts, emotions, etc are the "non-tangible qi" that is represented in the "air, steam, heaven, etc" section of the character.

With acupuncture, we are manipulating, regulating, moving, building and assessing the "qi" (which is actually a plural term, not just a singular item) when we treat you.

I hope I was able to help you start to understand.

In simple terms, qi denotes energy. As an example, fatigue is considered to be a deficiency of qi. There are two basic type of qi - the energy a person gets from the parents (congenital qi) and the energy a person gets from food eaten and from the air taken in (acquired qi).

While there are other subdivisions of qi that guide the acupuncturist in defining the source of a person’s imbalance, it is likely that your acupuncturist was referring to qi in the broadest sense as energy.
Qi has been directly translated in the English language as “energy”, this may not be an accurate translation. The Chinese symbol for Qi actually represents 2 parts: Rice (sugar) and Air/vapor. So essentially Qi is the product of the food you eat and the air you breathe. In acupuncture, just like how western med uses EKG, we feel your pulse to diagnose which is based off of “Qi”. Some argue Qi could be the electrical force powering your heart and brain.
In the western world, it’s not a concept we’ve been used to hearing, so it’s not uncommon to feel that way at all. I like to relate it something we can identify with here. Simply put, Qi is energy, so if there were blood without energy, the blood would not flow, just as if there were trees and no wind. Qi creates the movement.
Qi is a metaphor use in acupuncture for increase cellular metabolism and blood circulation in the body. Often your acupuncture would say either qi deficiency for low immune system or symptoms of fatigue and low energy.
It's a good question, the problem is it's very difficult to answer. I have a 250'ish page book which attempts to define 'qi' in western terms. Some concepts simply do not translate well from Chinese and this is one of them.

Let's step back for a minute and provide a little understanding of the landscape. Just like with the English language where we have old English, middle English and modern English, in Chinese we have old Chinese, middle Chinese and modern Chinese. Also similar to the English situation, no one outside of certain scholars reads or speaks ancient Chinese.

This is compounded by the fact that written Chinese is not phonetic. In English, each letter represents a sound, the sounds together are a word and the word stands for an idea. In China, they cut out the middle man. Each symbol represents an idea - more similar to a hieroglyph - and that symbol has a pronunciation.

The character we render in English as 'qi' is an ancient symbol that has changed over the years. There's no guarantee the idea it conjures to a modern reader is the same as the idea the ancients had when they coined the term. Also, it's a term that is used in lots of different places - its use is not solely limited to Chinese medicine. Lastly, it's a culturally loaded term - the Chinese know exactly what they mean when they use it and they don't really have to explain things to another Chinese reader/listener. Most western practitioners of Chinese medicine don't understand the culture and don't speak or understand the language (NOTE: this does not mean they cannot be effective practitioners, it just means they have a very difficult time explaining what they're doing).

The ancient Chinese tended to describe natural processes in terms of metaphor - as being 'like' or 'similar' to some other thing they understood better. It's a technique many ancient peoples employed, in fact we still use many of those definitions today in conventional medicine. The word 'pelvis' comes from the latin for 'washbasin' - a reference, no doubt, to the general shape of the bone. The word 'acetabulum' (the hip socket where the thigh bone 'plugs in') also comes from latin and means 'small cup of vinegar'. Did the ancient Romans literally mean washbasin and cup of vinegar when referring to these structures? Probably not, it's a descriptive metaphor and the Chinese did the same thing - it's just that Chinese doesn't form part of the root for modern western languages and hence the concepts seem strange.

Which is a long and winding way back around to 'qi' and what does it mean? In my opinion, there are two good analogies for qi: function or information.

Organs in the body have a function and when that function is compromised in some way the Chinese modeled things in terms of excess and deficiency. We could have function excess giving rise to pathology - as in the case of hyperthyroidism. The thyroid is producing too much thyroid hormone which causes systemic problems. We can also have function deficiency giving rise to pathology - as in the case of hypothyroidism. In this case the thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormone which causes a different set of systemic problems.

Information is a useful analogy because in order to function properly, each tissue needs to know where it is, what it is and what it's supposed to be doing. If this information becomes scrambled, then the tissues cannot perform their function properly and, again, we see pathology.

The important thing here is not the language, it's the result. If your practitioner is able to achieve good outcomes for your health issues, then I wouldn't be too concerned about the fact that they don't have a solid handle on Chinese linguistics.