May I Take Your Pulse? The Original Biofeedback Tool is Thousands of Years Old
In every acupuncture office the question arises at the beginning of the session: “May I take your pulse?” If you are new to acupuncture, it’s not always clear what information is being gathered when we acupuncturists take a patient’s pulse, and why we take the pulse in six different positions along the wrist and at varying degrees of pressure. We’re feeling for more than than the rate of the pulse, although that is part of the pulse reading. Each pulse position relates to an organ system and the quality of the qi (energy) of that organ system, can be felt along the channel, or meridian, as it surfaces at radial artery, at the area just proximal to the wrist. Here is a basic synopsis of what is read at each pulse position:
- Distal left wrist pulse position: Small Intestine (Yang) and Heart (Yin)
- Middle left wrist pulse position: Gallbladder (Yang) and Liver (Yin)
- Proximal left wrist pulse position: Bladder (Yang) and Kidney (Yin)
- Distal right wrist pulse position: Colon (Yang) and Lung (Yin)
- Middle right wrist pulse position: Stomach (Yang) and Spleen (Yin)
- Proximal right wrise pulse position: Triple Heater (Yang) and Pericardium (Ying)
The Yang energy of the pulse is felt with just slight pressure at the wrist (described in classical acupuncture texts as “3 beans” of pressure). Just below the yang channel is the energy of the paired yin channel. For example: the Colon and Lung are organ pairs representing the health of the Metal Element in the body. The healthy pulse feels like a steady sine wave, we are also feeling for width (nether too wide or too thin) quality (is it choppy? slippery?), rate (around 60-100 bpm for adults) and steady rhythm.
Ideally the pulse and it’s qualities are even and healthy upon palpation. But often, due to mental or emotional stress, physical illness or injury the pulses have to be re-balanced. Each acupuncture needle inserted changes the pulse (if the point is the correct intervention for the patient), the pulses should be checked after each set of needles to ensure that the treatment is effective. In so doing, we treat the root cause of the imbalance rather than chasing symptoms. If the primary source of the imbalance is treated, symptoms (referred to as the branches) resolve more easily because the root cause of distress or imbalance is being attended to.
For example, a pulse finding shows that the Heart pulse is slightly fast, thin, and regular volume and rhythm, and the Small Intestine pulse is excessive in volume and width. This is known as a split between the pulses – the energy is not being shared equally between the paired yin and yang energies of the element (in this case, the Fire Element). A split in the yin and yang can have wide-ranging effects. The meridian that is blocked, in this case the Heart, will be effected. There may be pain along the heart channel (from the pinky finger to the inside of arm, and the area where many people experience golfer’s elbow (the medial epicondylitis). Emotionally, this could case sadness, low mood/depression, and a feeling of being cut off from one’s essential self.
One way to address this is to use what is called the junction (luo connecting) point on the deficient meridian. The junction of the deficient meridian and the corresponding organ system is needles and tonified. Moxa (mugwort) may also be applied to further nourish the energy of this point. In this case the point needled would be Heart-5, translated as Penetrating Inside. This point nourishes the energy of the heart, calms the mind, and allows heart agitation (in the form of heat, often) to drain via its Small Intestine pair to the Bladder.
Checking back in on the pulse, even one needle can have a universal impact on all 12 pulses. Biofeedback has become widely used by many holistic health practitioners today but the art and science of pulse taking is biofeedback in one of it’s oldest forms.
Physical symptoms often show up along a channel or meridian that is blocked because of a deficiency or excess of qi in an element that flows preceding or following. For example – the flow of the meridians on the body goes in this order: Heart – Small Intestine – Bladder – Kidney – Pericardium – Triple Heather – Gallbladder – Liver – Lung – Colon – Stomach – Spleen. If the Liver pulse volume is felt to be excessive and the Lung pulse volume is very low, there is a blockage between the Liver and and Lung qi. Emotionally, this is often experienced as anger sitting on top of grief. Physically, there can be pain around the ribcage, sighing, and perhaps shortness of breath. To treat this blockage, the exit point on the Liver channel: Liver 14, Gate of Hope, and the entry point on the Lung Channel, LU-1 Middle Palace, have to be needled in sequence.
Once this pulse block is removed, energy can flow to all of the channels feeding each organ system appropriately. This is only a small window into the world of pulse-taking, but I hope it has provided some insight into what your acupuncturist is doing when she asks to feel your pulse!