Updated: Jan 16, 2021
At GoodMedizen, we practice a style of treatment called “distal point acupuncture.” This style might be very different from what you have experienced at different clinics or how you imagine acupuncture to work. The purpose of this article is to help you understand not only what distal point acupuncture is, but why we use it for nearly all of our treatments.
In a nutshell, distal point acupuncture is the placement of acupuncture needles far away from, or distal to, the part of the body being treated. Let’s look at back pain for example. If you have pain in the right side of your low back, we will not place any needles in your back. Instead, we will likely place two to four needles in your left hand and another needle in your right foot. And that’s it. The treatments are quick, utilize a minimum number of needles, and—best of all—are often extraordinarily effective.
Distal point acupuncture offers many advantages, including:
Better treatment outcomes;
Rapid symptom resolution, often immediate;
Far less likely to aggravate the problem;
Patient can usually remain fully clothed; and
Results are long-lasting.
Distal point acupuncture also is known as “Tan Style Acupuncture,” “Tung Style Acupuncture,” or “Balance Method Acupuncture.” We choose to use “distal point acupuncture” because it succinctly captures what we do and because we are using the teachings of both Richard Tan and Master Tung (see below).
History of Distal Point Acupuncture
Acupuncture has a long and complicated history, with many variations and schools of thought evolving over several millennia. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the form of acupuncture most often taught in American acupuncture schools. TCM is actually a relatively “new” branch on the acupuncture and Chinese medicine tree, a tree that has been ravaged and nearly destroyed by the political upheavals of 20th century China. The Association of Traditional Studies provides a great evolution of TCM here.
During the communist revolution, much of Acupuncture’s rich history was lost because its best practitioners and scholars fled, were jailed, or were killed. Fortunately, one skilled acupuncturist escaped China and fled to Taiwan. That practitioner was Master Tung Ching Chang. Thankfully, while in Taiwan, Master Tung (pronounced Dong) took on several students and published a small collection of books documenting his extraordinary system of acupuncture. From those students and materials, a seed was planted that has continued to grow and is now bearing fruit around the world. Learn more about Master Tung and his lineage in the United States on TungsPoints.com.
My First Experience with Distal Point Acupuncture
I graduated from Bastyr University in December 2007 and almost immediately began working as a resident, teacher, and clinical instructor at the school. In April 2008, just four months after graduation, I attended a three-day seminar of Dr. Richard Tan’s “Balance Method” style of acupuncture. Much of what Dr. Tan taught was completely foreign to what I had spent the past three-and-a-half years studying—but much of what he said resonated as truth.
Dr. Tan relayed how, after graduating from acupuncture school, he was surprised by how poor the results were with his patients. He was surprised because he grew up in Taiwan, the son of an acupuncturist, and witnessed the very rapid and profound results from the treatments that his father administered. Now, I don’t know if Dr. Tan’s father had any connection to Master Tung, but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. I do know that Dr. Tan himself studied the works and systems of Master Tung.
Regardless, at the time, I had no idea who Master Tung was, but there was something about the promise of quick, lasting results that intrigued me greatly. I remember Dr. Tan saying, “In the United States, you see a patient, you burn incense, you play nice music, you give them some needles, you put essential oil on their forehead, do some cranial-sacral work, and then wrap it up by holding tuning forks on their feet and chanting. When the treatment is over, you ask the patient, ‘How do you feel?’ And the patient replies, ‘I feel really, really relaxed,’ to which you reply, ‘Yes, but how is the shoulder pain we were treating?’ And the patient says, ‘I feel really, really relaxed.’”
This story was very much the experience I had with acupuncture as a student and during my first few months as a resident. Dr. Tan relayed a saying in Chinese 立竿見影 or Li Gan Jian Ying, which translates as “Stand Pole, See Shadow.” He explained that this meant your results should be instantaneous. When you place an acupuncture needle into a patient (stand a pole), you should immediately be able to detect a change, away from the insertion point of the needle (cast a shadow). At the end of the seminar, Dr. Tan said, “If this is new to you, I realize you are probably skeptical. I ask you to give my system a chance by using it on your next 28 patients.” I have no idea why he chose 28 patients, but I committed to doing just that.
Although I don’t remember the first patient I tried Dr. Tan’s system on, I will never forget the second. A young man had shot himself through the little toe of his left foot with a nail gun the night before. He had gone to the emergency room, had the nail removed and the toe stitched up, but he was unwilling to take any pain medication. He could barely walk as he entered the treatment room. The students and I located several tender spots on the little finger and thumb of his right hand and inserted needles there. To my recollection, we inserted five to eight needles total. We then asked the patient how his toe felt. To all of our amazement, the toe was completely pain free! He walked out of the clinic that day with barely a hint of a limp. I was hooked and have never looked back.
Spreading the Word of Dr. Tan
I have spent the past eight years further studying and deepening my understanding of distal point acupuncture. And I attended every seminar with Dr. Tan that I could. They say if you want to really learn something, teach it. So from 2008 until 2012, much of my work was sharing with my students at Bastyr what I had learned. I even became known as the “Tan Guy,” a label that I wore proudly—we were getting great results, patient after patient, day after day, quarter after quarter. These results were not just at the Bastyr teaching clinic but in places like the Pain Clinic at Harborview Medical Center.
My time sharing the philosophies and systems of Dr. Tan allowed me to understand it at a level that I don’t think would have been possible with practice alone. Sadly, Dr. Richard Tan passed away in early 2016 while traveling and teaching in Asia. The acupuncture world lost an amazing teacher and clinician.
I left teaching in 2012 to focus on my private practice, which had been growing steadily alongside my teaching and began to require my full-time attention. Around that same time, I attended a seminar by Susan Johnson, LAc, on the points and techniques of Master Tung. I was immediately struck by the similarities between Tung and Tan. Although there were many differences, it was clear that the two systems were cut from the same cloth. I am now trying to go as deep into the systems and teaching of Master Tung as I can. I am pleased to report that this continuing exploration is resulting in even better clinical results and an even wider range of conditions that respond.
Every practitioner at GoodMedizen Acupuncture, located in downtown Seattle, has been trained in the systems of Master Tung and Dr. Richard Tan, and we all regularly receive additional training in distal point acupuncture. We recognize that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We are extraordinarily grateful for those who have come before us as well as those who continue to teach and expand the amazing gifts that these systems of acupuncture have to offer.