Japanese Meridian Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Classical and Clinical Comparison

Japanese Meridian Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Classical and Clinical Comparison

A Note From Shawna

This paper was originally titled, "Classic Texts: The Foundation of Japanese Meridian Therapy Assessed Clinically in Comparison to Traditional Chinese Medicine." I wrote it during the final years of my masters program in acupuncture at AIMC Berkeley for a course on classical texts.

This paper presumes knowledge of the medicine so is most appropriate for other practitioners, but as patients often ask about Japanese vs Chinese medicine, a general audience might find it interesting to skim. I'm happy to discuss any questions you may have after reading.


How can Japanese Meridian Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine have come from the same classic texts and yet come to such different conclusions for diagnosis and treatment? This is the question I chose to consider by delving into Chapters Sixty-Nine and Seventy-Five of the Nan Jing, considered the foundation of Japanese Meridian Therapy.

Meridian Therapy was founded in the 1930s out of a desire to “reexamine the classics and to clinically test the knowledge gained therein in order to extract the truth” (Kuwahara, xvii). The principle methods of Japanese Meridian Therapy (JMT or MT) are to palpate and assess the meridians, using the pulse for both diagnosis and continual assessment of the progress of treatment, and to use the meridians in this way to understand the balance of deficiency and excess caused by pathogens, the seven emotions, and the fundamental interaction of the meridians and organs to themselves and each other (the Five Phases). This is fairly different from Eight Principle and Zang Fu Diagnosis as interpreted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In the TCM approach, we utilize the four diagnostic methods (asking, looking, listening, and palpating), base our diagnosis on the collection of symptoms and signs based on the chief complaint, and identify a specific pattern based on the organs, yin/yang, and body elements (like blood, body fluids, and qi) in disharmony, all of which determines the course of treatment. Depending on the TCM practitioner, palpation may be used to refine the choice of points (this is common at least in the case of choosing local ashi points) or at the extreme they may only use the trusted points in texts from Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion (CAM). I admit this is a gross simplification of the vast differences within the practices of TCM and JMT respectively, but seeing from the extremes can help to highlight the differences between the disciplines.

Contact Needle Treatment for Cancer Pain

The week before Thanksgiving I attended a lecture and demonstration on using contact needles for cancer treatment related pain by Dr. Keiko Ogawa of Kanazawa, Japan. Dr. Ogawa published a study in 2013 on using contact needles to treat chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). I was excited to see research on contact needles available in English and to learn this was the first time she was teaching in the US. There is a wealth of research on contact needle therapy in Japanese, but most of it has not been translated for a Western audience.

My silver contact needle tools (similar in size to golf pencils)

I often use a specialized silver contact needle tool in my treatments. Dr. Ogawa performed her study using disposable silver needles more similar to the stainless steel needles we use for insertion needling. Regardless of the tool, the method is to settle the needle on the relevant acupuncture point rather than inserting the needle into the skin. This is a painless form of treatment that has the added benefit of reducing infection risk, a key feature in treating cancer patients who may have weakened immune systems due to their cancer and/or their Western treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, etc).

From ancient times, it has been said that the larger the needle is and the deeper the needle is inserted, the stronger the stimulation will be. If the stimulation is too strong, the patients’ condition becomes worse, especially when their constitution is weak. CNT is known as a method of weak stimulation. In this aspect, CNT is effective and appropriate for treating cancer patients.
— Efficacy of Contact Needle Therapy for Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy, 2013

CIPN often prevents patients from continuing valuable anti-cancer treatment and can make daily activity difficult or impossible. As the hands and feet are often the most affected, this can mean inability or difficulty walking or doing daily self maintenance and household activity, much less working or caring for others.

Dr. Ogawa explained and demonstrated a number of specific techniques for us that subtly address the causes of pain and weakness for a variety of patient types. I can now use these methods in a manner specific to an individual patient. Treatments consist of 15-20 minutes for the front and 15-20 minutes for the back. Based on patient strength, we may either combine front and back treatments or do only one side per week. There is a set of points and treatment methods we'll use in every treatment and another set I'll choose among based on how you are doing during that particular visit.

I love that this approach highlights the key approach of Japanese acupuncture: to do as little to the body as possible to assist it in bringing itself back to balance. Your body is always trying to regulate itself and my methods are meant to help that process, not to do all the work and tire you out or make you reliant on treatment to feel well.

Though this study has a very small number of patients, it has promising results to be explored with a larger sample size, making it a successful pilot study. Both improved movement ability and a decrease in breakthrough pain (in other words the sudden sharp sensation of pain or shock) can improve quality of life to a strong enough degree that contact needle therapy using these methods is something I am happy to offer to my patients.

Read the full study "Efficacy of Contact Needle Therapy for Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy" by Keiko Ogawa et al. in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2013, Article ID 928129


Shawna Seth, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac. is a California state licensed and nationally certified acupuncturist focused on promoting women’s health, especially surrounding menstrual health and fertility. She uses the gentlest effective methods possible to guide her patients to balance. Shawna sees patients in her private practice on Sutter Street in San Francisco. Make your appointments online or email contact@shawnaseth.com. To learn more about Japanese medicine and the world of acupuncture, follow her blog A Cuppa Qi.