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Nine Needles of the Ling Shu: The Essence of Acupuncture

I. Origin of the Nine Needles


The Ling Shu (灵枢), one of the two major texts of the Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经, Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic), holds a pivotal place in classical Chinese medicine. While the Su Wen (素问), the first part of the Neijing, provides a theoretical foundation encompassing the principles of yin (阴) and yang (阳), the five elements, and the etiology of diseases, the Ling Shu delves into the practical realm of acupuncture. It is in the Ling Shu that we find detailed discussions on the meridian system, the application of needles, and various therapeutic techniques that form the backbone of traditional acupuncture.


A notable feature of the Ling Shu is its emphasis on the nine needles (九针, Jiu Zhen), which are integral tools in classical acupuncture. These needles represent a sophisticated system of treatment tailored to address various pathological conditions through specific techniques. The differentiation and appropriate use of these needles are crucial for effective clinical outcomes in Ling Shu based acupuncture.


Nine needles of the Ling Shu

It is important to recognize that the term "needle," as used in the Ling Shu, encompasses a broad range of tools that can be categorized into three functional groups: non-insertive needles for rubbing and pressing, needles for draining body fluids such as bloodletting, draining pus, and reducing edema, and needles that resemble modern acupuncture needles. Each needle will be examined regarding its design, intended use, and appropriate techniques for treatment.


Understanding the nuances of these nine needles is essential for practitioners to ensure the correct application of acupuncture techniques. Using the wrong needle, such as employing the seventh needle (filiform needle) when addressing a condition at the blood level, can result in suboptimal outcomes or even exacerbate the patient's condition. Therefore, a thorough comprehension of each needle's specific role and application is imperative for the accurate and effective practice of acupuncture.


II. Historical Overview


The nine needles described in the Ling Shu represent a profound understanding of acupuncture tools and techniques in ancient China. The Ling Shu, often translated as the "Spiritual Pivot," is a foundational text in Chinese medicine, attributed to the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huangdi. The text itself is a dialogue between the Huangdi and his minister Qi Bo, focusing on the practical applications of acupuncture.


In the opening chapter of the Ling Shu, Qi Bo's first words emphasize the critical importance of understanding the nine needles. He explains to Huangdi that these needles are fundamental tools in acupuncture, essential for harmonizing the body's qi and blood, restoring balance to the internal organs, and dispelling diseases. Qi Bo's dialogue underscores that mastering the use of these nine needles is crucial for any practitioner aiming to achieve effective and precise therapeutic outcomes.


Origins and Historical Context


The Ling Shu, along with the Su Wen, forms the Huangdi Neijing, dating back to the Warring States period (475-221 BCE). The acupuncture needles and techniques described in the Ling Shu are very different and more diverse than the needles commonly used today. There was a greater emphasis on balance, harmony, and the flow of qi through meridians, rather than on the point actions and indications commonly used in modern TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).


In the Ling Shu, Chapter 1 (九针十二原, Nine Needles and Twelve Source Points), it states: “The needles are instruments of the sages. By the use of the needles, the sages harmonized the qi and blood, restored balance to the internal organs, and dispelled diseases” (Ling Shu, Chapter 1). This passage highlights the importance placed on the needles as essential tools for maintaining health and treating ailments.


The Ling Shu describes nine specific types of needles for particular functions, demonstrating an advanced understanding of therapeutic interventions. The detailed descriptions of the nine needles provide a structured approach to acupuncture. Each needle has a specific technique and use associated with it. The needles are selected based on the location and type of disharmony or pathogenic influence affecting the patient.


The careful study of the nine needles underscore a fundamental tenet of acupuncture: the importance of selecting the appropriate tool and technique for each specific clinical scenario. The Ling Shu emphasizes that improper use of needles can lead to adverse outcomes, a caution that remains pertinent in modern practice. As stated in Chapter 1: “If one does not adhere to the principles of the nine needles, the disease may not be resolved and can even worsen” (Ling Shu, Chapter 1).


The historical context provided by the Ling Shu offers invaluable insights into the development and refinement of acupuncture tools and techniques. Understanding the origins and evolution of the nine needles enhances our ability to apply these ancient practices effectively in contemporary clinical settings. Most modern acupuncturists have not been properly exposed to the nine needles and therefore are limited in their interventions. The Ling Shu offers a wide array of healing tools through the nine needles, and embracing them can enhance patient outcomes.


III. The Nine Needles: An Overview


The nine needles, as detailed in the Ling Shu, each have unique shapes, sizes, and intended uses. This classification allows for targeted treatments tailored to address various pathologies and patient conditions. Understanding the categorization and applications of these needles is essential for practitioners aiming to harness the full potential of traditional acupuncture techniques.


Categorization of the Nine Needles


To facilitate their application, the nine needles are categorized into three groups based on their functions and techniques:


  1. Needles 1-3 - Non-Insertive or Very Lightly Inserted Needles:

  • These needles are primarily used for treatments, stimulating the skin, muscles and primary channels without insertion.

  • They include the Arrowhead Needle (镵针, Chan Zhen), Round Needle (圆针, Yuan Zhen), and Blunt Needle (鍉针, Di Zhen).

  1. Needles 4-6 for Draining Body Fluids:

  • Designed to address conditions involving excess fluids, such as bloodletting, draining pus, and reducing edema.

  • This category includes the Sharp-Edged Needle (锋针, Feng Zhen), Sword-Shaped Needle (铍针, Pi Zhen), and Round-Sharp Needle (员利针, Yuan Li Zhen).

  1. Needles 7-9 Inserted Needles:

  • These needles are the most similar to those used in contemporary acupuncture practice, intended for deeper insertion and manipulation.

  • The Filiform Needle (毫针, Hao Zhen), Long Needle (长针, Chang Zhen), and Large Needle (大针, Da Zhen) fall into this group.


Each needle within these categories has specific indications and techniques associated with its use, underscoring the importance of proper selection and application in clinical practice.


Importance of Categorization


The categorization of the nine needles in the Ling Shu (灵枢) serves several key purposes in traditional acupuncture:

  • Precision in Treatment: By understanding the unique characteristics of each needle, practitioners can choose the most appropriate tool for the patient's condition, enhancing treatment efficacy. This principle is supported by Chapter 5 of the Su Wen (素问), which discusses the importance of needle depth and the specific layers of the body that need to be targeted:

  • "The five depths of insertion correspond to the five layers of the body, each layer having its own therapeutic effect. The shallowest insertion treats the skin, the next level treats the flesh, the third level treats the blood vessels, the fourth level treats the tendons, and the deepest insertion treats the bones" (Su Wen, Chapter 5).

  • Safety and Efficacy: Proper needle selection helps prevent adverse effects and ensures that treatments align with the patient's specific needs. Less invasive interventions should be use when the disease is in its early stages.

  • Therapeutic Versatility: The diverse range of needles allows for a broad spectrum of treatments, from superficial stimulation to deeper, more invasive interventions. This flexibility is crucial for addressing various pathologies and patient conditions effectively.


The nine needles of the Ling Shu represent a sophisticated system of acupuncture tools, each designed for specific therapeutic applications. By categorizing these needles into three functional groups, practitioners can more effectively harness their unique properties to achieve optimal clinical outcomes.


The Descriptions of the Nine Needles of the Ling Shu


The foundational text of acupuncture, the Ling Shu, outlines nine distinct needles, each with unique features and therapeutic applications. Understanding these needles is key for practitioners seeking to provide effective and precise acupuncture treatments.


Non-Insertive or Lightly Inserted Needles


These first three needles are designed for superficial treatments, primarily stimulating the skin and muscles without deep penetration.

  1. The Arrowhead Needle (镵针, Chan Zhen): This needle, with its sharp, pointed tip, is ideal for superficial pricking. It's often used to release stagnation, stimulate qi flow, and address conditions like heat rashes and localized pain. The technique involves light, quick pricking motions. It treats the most yang levels.

    1. This needle is commonly used in traditional Japanese medicine as the Zanshin. This variation on the classical needle has added functionality of sweeping strokes to gently stimulate the channels.

  2. The Round Needle (圆针, Yuan Zhen): With its rounded, blunt tip, this needle is used for gentle massage and pressure on acupoints and meridians. It's effective for treating muscle tension, spasms, and areas of qi stagnation. The technique involves pressing and massaging with the rounded tip.

    1. In traditional Japanese medicine this tool is known as the Enshin and is commonly employed to disperse areas of excess (trigger points) and for rubbing and massage techniques.

  3. The Blunt Needle (鍉针, Di Zhen): This needle features a flat, blunt end designed for pressing and spreading qi within muscle tissues without breaking the skin. It's used to address muscle stiffness, tension, and superficial qi blockages. The technique involves firm pressing to spread qi. It is also use for tonification of the primary channels.

    1. In traditional Japanese medicine, this is known as the Teishin and is commonly used for contact needling, scattered needle technique, and a whole range of functions. There are Japanese practitioners who no longer use insertive needles and perform treatments using the Teishin as their primary tool.


Needles for Draining Body Fluids


The second group of needles is specifically designed for techniques like bloodletting, draining pus, and reducing edema.

  1. The Sharp-Edged Needle (锋针, Feng Zhen): This needle has a triangular, sharp tip for shallow, precise incisions. It's used to release small amounts of blood to expel heat and toxins and treat conditions like localized swelling and superficial infections.

  2. The Sword-Shaped Needle (铍针, Pi Zhen): Featuring a broad, flat blade, this needle is designed for deeper incisions to drain larger amounts of fluids like pus or blood. It's used for abscesses and deep-seated infections.

  3. The Round-Sharp Needle (员利针, Yuan Li Zhen): This unique needle has a rounded body with a sharp point, and is shaped like a calligraphy brush. It is used for drain edema and fluids from tissue.


Needles Similar to Modern Acupuncture Needles


The final three needles closely resemble those used in contemporary acupuncture.

  1. The Filiform Needle (毫针, Hao Zhen): This thin, flexible needle is used for deep insertion into acupuncture points and meridians. It's essential for manipulating qi and blood in deeper layers, treating internal organ disorders, chronic pain, and deep-seated qi stagnation.

  2. The Long Needle (长针, Chang Zhen): Characterized by its extended length, this needle is used for deep needling in thick muscles and deep tissues. It's effective for conditions like deep muscle pain, sciatica, and issues affecting deeper body layers.

  3. The Large Needle (大针, Da Zhen): With its thicker, sturdier body, this needle is designed for robust stimulation and moving large amounts of qi and blood. It's used for severe pain, large areas of stagnation, and chronic conditions requiring strong stimulation. It is also associated with warm needle techniques.


Gua Sha tool

The Importance of Correct Needle Selection


Selecting the right needle is paramount in acupuncture. The Ling Shu emphasizes that using the wrong needle can lead to ineffective treatment or even worsen the patient's condition. Each needle's design, purpose, and associated techniques must be thoroughly understood to ensure safe and effective treatments.


IX. Conclusion


The nine needles of the Ling Shu represent a sophisticated and nuanced approach to acupuncture, highlighting the depth of traditional Chinese medicine's understanding of therapeutic tools and techniques. By categorizing these needles into three functional groups— non-insertive, fluid-draining, and modern-style needles—practitioners can achieve precise and tailored treatments for a variety of conditions. By mastering these tools, practitioners can deliver precise, effective, and personalized treatments, honoring the legacy of traditional Chinese medicine while meeting the needs of modern healthcare.


References

  • Unschuld, P. U. (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text.

  • Unschuld, P. U. (2016) Huang Di Nei Jing Ling Shu: The Ancient Classic on Needle Therapy

  • Wu, J (2002) Ling Shu or The Spiritual Pivot

  • Cecil-Sterman, A (2018) Advanced Acupuncture, A Clinic Manual


About the Author


Mark Parzynski

Mark Parzynski. DAOM, L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and educator with a diverse background in the field. He has studied in the United States, Japan, and China and uses a range of unique therapeutic approaches to create personalized treatment plans for his patients. Dr. Parzynski has over a decade of experience as a clinical supervisor and has taught graduate students and clinicians.

In addition to his work in acupuncture, Dr. Parzynski is also a skilled craftsman and silversmith. He began making teishin and gua sha tools as an acupuncture student. His passion as an artisan has continued, and for over a decade, he has been making tools for practitioners worldwide, including some of Japan's most renowned masters.

Dr. Parzynski is also a Chinese internal martial arts practitioner, which he incorporates into his acupuncture practice and daily life. He was a senior student of the late Sifu Gregory Fong and has taught Taiji Quan, Yi Quan, and Qi Gong since 2006.


For acupuncture tools and classes provided by Dr. Parzynski, visit www.AcuArtistry.com 

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