Distal Acupuncture Points: Explained

A very common question heard in all acupuncture clinics is, “Why are acupuncture points often used far from the site of pain?” There is a simple answer to that question and a highly technical one. In this article you’ll learn both.

Dr. Richard Tan’s explanation:

One of the most famous teachers of acupuncture for pain was the late Dr. Richard Tan. He had a simple and poetic example that he’d use with his patients.

When you wish to turn the light in the room on or off, where is the switch? Is it on the ceiling next to the light or is it at a distant location on the wall? We needle where the switch is.

Dr. Tan was an epic healer who had people lining up to get treatment. His kind of popularity doesn’t happen on accident, it happened because he was an expert at needling points far from the source of pain. His work is an inspiration to thousands of acupuncturists and his education has helped millions of people.Tan Switch

The poetic analogy he gives satisfies most people but many of us want to know why “needling the switch” works. That’s a bit more technical of an answer: So hang on tight!

Scientific explanation

We know through scientific research that distal acupuncture works not only better than a placebo but also better than local points. It is no mystery on why local points work, by stimulating blood flow to the area. But for quite a while science was not advanced enough to figure out why distal needling worked so well.

There are many excellent theories as to why distal needling works but the leading theory of how it works scientifically has to do we how the body develops from an embryo to a fetus then to a baby. The body, as it develops, goes through an unraveling process where you begin as a ball-like glob with each separate part of your body once part of one whole. Notice in the photo below how the tail bone is near the face, the shoulder near the ankles, etc. As the body unravels in it’s development the glob separates its physical connections however the neurological connection between those parts remain. “Therefore if a needle is placed into the wrist, it will send impulses to the midbrain, which releases chemicals to open up the blood vessels of the areas that the wrist was once connected to as a fetus.” (thank you Rodney Capriotti)


The embryological theory of acupuncture is quite extensive and well researched and the science of acupuncture is exploding. A book that is rapidly becoming required reading by all acupuncturists is The Spark In the Machine by Daniel Keown an ER doctor turned acupuncturist. I recommend all acupuncturists read this book but also other medical practitioners and even the general public. His writing isn’t too technical and can be quite the eye opener to the truly curious patient who wants to understand their own body from a perspective they never considered.

If you notice the picture of the embryo above you will notice how the feet and tail bone are near the eyes. There is a point on foot that for two thousand years was used to benefit the eyes. It was a mystery to how this process worked but the theory of embryology explains it and in 2002 a ground breaking experiment confirms it.  A group of scientists lead by a Dr. Cho used a fMRI machine to measure changes in the brain when needling the points that benefit the eyes. They stimulated the eyes with light, then stimulated them with acupuncture. The results were absolutely amazing.

Occiptal FMRI

One of my favorite books that explains Dr. Cho’s research and other amazing bits of information is called the Healing Power of Acupressure and Acupuncture by Matthew Bauer. Not only is this a good book for all acupuncturists to own, but it’s requiring reading, in my opinion, for patients. Also 100% of the profits Matthew earns from that book gets donated to The Acupuncture Now Foundation.

Dr. Tan taught acupuncturists about the importance of “needling the light switch”. Science proves him right. So the next time you get acupuncture treatment far from your site of pain you can smile knowing a little bit more of the healing techniques that Keep you moving forward.

RIP Dr. Richard Tan


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