A scientific perspective on qi and meridians

In the last 15 years or so, studies have been conducted revealing a correlation between the planes of connective tissue (fascia) in the human body, and what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has for over thousands of years known as jingluò, or meridians.[1]

Our bodies are held together by a weave of connective tissue, sometimes referred to as the extracellular matrix or ECM. It takes many forms in the body; its hardest manifestation is in bone, and at the other end of the scale is our soft tissue. The word ‘fascia’ refers to this soft tissue, which permeates our entire structure, forming

a whole body continuous 3D matrix of structural support. It penetrates and surrounds all of the body’s vital organs, muscles, bones, and nerve fibres, creating a unique physiological environment.[2]

This environment supports all our body’s metabolic processes, and conducts signals between systems in the body.

In 2002 Hélène Langevin and Jason Yandow published their scientifically controlled study[3] of the relationship between acupuncture points (and meridians) with planes of interstitial connective tissue: the tissue that makes up the spaces between our muscles, or between a muscle and bone or tendon.

By mapping acupuncture points onto anatomical cross-sections of a human arm, they found ‘an 80% correspondence between the sites of acupuncture points and intermuscular and intramuscular connective tissue planes’.[4]

As the authors explain, in acupuncture 12 primary meridians (consisting of externally located points) are said to connect the limbs with the trunk and head, with accessory and internal branches that start at peripheral points along these primary meridians and enter deeply inside the body to reach internal organs. This is exactly what the fascial network also does. Connective tissue does not just exist around and within muscles, but is continuous with many different kinds of specialised connective tissue in the body, including the lining of our brain, spinal cord, and lungs; it “permeates all organs and surrounds all nerves, blood vessels, and lymphatics.”[5]

Langevin and Yandow found that

during acupuncture needle rotation, connective tissue winds itself around the acupuncture needle, creating a tight mechanical coupling between needle and tissue [which] allows further movements of the needle to pull and deform the connective tissue surrounding the needle, delivering a mechanical signal into the tissue.[6]

As the authors go on to explain, this is important because mechanical signal transmission in connective tissue affects the information our cells receive. The body can convert a signal that starts out as mechanical into one that is bioelectrical or biochemical, and all these transmissions have knock-on effects in cell activity, even changing the composition of connective tissue itself – which in turn affects the way cells in this tissue can transmit future signals.

Langevin and Yandow’s proposition that ‘acupunture points may correspond to sites of convergence in a network of connective tissue permeating the whole body, analogous to highway intersections in a network of primary and secondary roads’[7] leads them to suggest further anatomical and physiological translations of key concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine, shared by Qigong and acupuncture[8]:

Meridians: connective tissue planes

Acupuncture points: convergence of connective tissue planes

Qi: Sum of all body energetic phenomena (eg metabolism, movement, signaling, information exchange)

Meridian qi: connective tissue biochemical, information exchange

Blockage of qi: Altered connective tissue matrix composition, leading to altered signal transduction.

Restoration of flow of qi: Cellular activation/gene expression leading to restored connective tissue matrix composition and signal transduction.

Like acupuncture and acupressure, part of the aim with the movements of Qigong and Tai Chi is to gradually free any blockages in the flow of energy through the meridians, which is seen as the prerequisite not only for healing of illness, but also for maintaining good health. Slowly moving and holding the limbs and the trunk in particular positions with meditative attention, while breathing in a relaxed and open way, would also stimulate the connective tissue. While this is not proven, it will be interesting to see how new research evolves into connective tissue behaviour and its role in Qigong.

[1] See Yu Bai et al, ‘Review of Evidence Suggesting That the Fascia Network Could Be the Anatomical Basis for Acupoints and Meridians in the Human Body’, p3, in ‘Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Volume 2011, Article ID 260510. Vivien Shaw has anatomically investigated vascular structures as the pathway of meridians: Shaw, V., ‘Chong Meridian an Ancient Chinese Description of the Vascular System?’, British Medical Journal, Acupunct Med 2014; 32:279-285.

[2] Ibid, p3.

[3] Langevin, Hélene, and Yandow, Jason, 2002, ‘Relationship of Acupuncture Points and Meridians to Connective Tissue Planes’, The Anatomical Record (New Anat), 269:257-265. DOI 10.1002/ar.10185

[4] Ibid, p257.

[5] Ibid, p 263.

[6] Ibid, p259.

[7] Ibid, 264.

[8] Ibid, Table 1 Summary of Proposed Model of Physiological Effects Seen in Acupuncture