In traditional medicine, the concept of vital pathways determines treatment

Zhang Ciyun
The theory of meridians and collaterals forms a network linking tissues and organs into one organic whole.
Zhang Ciyun

One great theory of traditional Chinese medicine is jingluo (经络), which is often translated as the “meridian system” or “channel network.”

The World Health Organization calls it “meridians and collaterals.” It says the concept describes pathways for “vital life energy” called Qi and for blood flow throughout the body — together forming a comprehensive network linking the tissues and internal organs into an organic whole.

Even though scientists haven’t yet found anatomical evidence that supports the theory, jingluo has long been deemed a “vital system” in traditional Chinese medicine. It has played a fundamental role in guiding the clinical practice of acupuncture for thousands of years.

The meridian system is typically divided into two categories: jingmai (经脉), or “meridians,” and luomai (络脉), or “collaterals.” The latter are branches of meridians, including minute collaterals, blood collaterals and superficial collaterals.

Along the meridians and distributed around the meridian system are 720 acupuncture points, through which one may readjust the flow of Qi in one’s body to help achieve and maintain health.

According to the “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon,” the earliest literature on traditional Chinese medicine, changes in the meridians can determine life and death, treat all kinds of diseases, and balance deficiency and excess. Therefore, full knowledge of this concept is essential.

Another common saying in traditional Chinese medicine is tòng zé bùtōng, tōng zé bùtòng (痛则不通, 通则不痛), which means “if there is pain, the flow is blocked; if the flow is not blocked, there is no pain.”

The flow here refers to the circulation of qixue (气血), or Qi, blood and body fluids. According to traditional Chinese medicine, pain often results from obstructed or impaired flow of qixue. And “blood” is defined as the red liquid that circulates within the blood vessels to moisten and nourish the body. It is an essential substance to maintain life activities.

Traditional Chinese medicine theories all conclude that there are altogether 12 principal meridians and eight extraordinary meridians in the human body.

In traditional medicine, the concept of vital pathways determines treatment

12 principal meridians in human body

The 12 principal meridians are analogous to the 12 months in a year and to the 12 shichen (时辰) in a day. Each shichen is a two-hour period, according to ancient Chinese timekeeping convention.

Also, the 12 principal meridians are directly associated with zangfu (脏腑), or “internal organs.” So, there are individual meridians for the lungs, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine, bladder, kidney, gall bladder and liver, plus the pericardium meridian and the sanjiao meridian.

On the other hand, the eight extraordinary meridians are different from the 12 principal meridians. If the latter can be described as the main canals, the former could be termed lakes or reservoirs, which are the storage vessels of life energy.

A full understanding of the concept of jingluo and how the system works in the human body helps explain physiological and pathological changes, and guides the clinic practices of traditional Chinese medicine.

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