TCM & 5E Discussion

The College Uses TCM & 5 Elements Theory & More

When you say five-element acupuncture to the Chinese they look confused. “But surely all acupuncture uses the theory of 5 elements,” they say. They are right and Japan, Korea and others have all used 5 element theory and developed it in their own way. This means that 5 elements are often used as the primary or even exclusive method of diagnosis by some practitioners there.

JR Worsley, the creator of 5E Acupuncture was never forthcoming about his sources, (as discussed in the book “In the footsteps of the Yellow Emperor” by Eckman). But it seems obvious that a lot of his ideas came from Japan and Korea. Techniques like the AE drain, The Akabani test, the Possession treatment and the needling techniques he used are all examples of this. He formulated what he called 5 Element acupuncture and since then confusion has reigned about what exactly it means. I think it means Worsleypuncture, his own interpretation of techniques that he liked and put together into a format that he used to inspire others. However, I believe that what was most inspiring about Worsley was his understanding of what makes people tick and what makes them sick. As an Englishman from a humble background, Worsley knew more about one thing than any Japanese, Chinese or Korean, and that was how it actually feels to be English/British/European. He knew that what ails us is emotion and that if you can help people who are struggling emotionally you will potentially help them with any other issue they may have. This is the very essence of holistic medicine. I believe this was the key understanding he brought to acupuncture in this country and it was the thing that first inspired me. As soon as someone suggested to me (as a 25-year-old) that my emotions/feelings and body were linked, I just knew it was right. Worsley was described by Ted Kapchuk (author of books on CM) as a great shamanic healer, and despite having some highly questionable Guru like tendencies, he was also a great inspiration to many and a great teacher as well.

If 5 Element acupuncture was JR Worsley’s baby then TCM was Chairman Mao’s. China is a vast continent, especially when you include countries on its borders, and healing techniques and traditions had developed there over thousands of years. But it was all too vague, disparate and uncontrolled for Mao so he determined that they establish a standard. TCM is that standard and it is the standard for Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture. This means that quite a lot of TCM (most of it according to some experts) has little to do with acupuncture. It also means that at the time of TCM’s creation much of the traditional knowledge was abandoned. Despite all this, we still use TCM for the basic diagnosis we do, as do the majority of acupuncture colleges. But we don’t go over the top, it is a basis for what we do but not the only thing we do.

To this end, I would say: “The practice of acupuncture is far more important than the theory behind it. Any theory can be effective if you believe in it, develop it, and practice it seriously and consistently. Each of us must discover what aspect of acupuncture most inspires us and focus on that, for that is where the power and magic lie. Acupuncture is about people—the practitioners and those they treat. It’s also about the moment, especially the moment the needles are inserted.”

I know that everyone needs to find their own way through this subject in order to make the most of it and that means there will be some disagreements or defending of positions or ideology. People make various statements which are fine but they should always be framed in the 1st Person. Statements like: “To be an acupuncturist you have to study for at least 3 years” or “You can only treat emotion with 5 element acupuncture” these should be phrased as: “I studied for 3 years” or “I treat emotion with 5 element acupuncture”.

What we want to do at this college is to inspire people to heal others through the medium of acupuncture.

5 Elements

  • 5 Elements. In diagnosis, the focus is on CSOE (Colour, Sound, Odour & Emotion) and observing these in order to diagnose a key element. In theory, observing these will take us to one core element, sometimes with another as a close second. This is then called the CF (Causal Factor).
  • So your CF might be Earth or you might have another element, say Metal “within” (Metal a close second to Earth).
  • Practitioners will be looking for the colour of the face especially, and experienced diagnosticians see these colours. My own observation of this is that I think we are talking about auric colour here. TCM also talks of colour but it is a physical and clearly observable colour. The colour that 5E diagnosticians see would often not be visible to a layperson.
  • When it comes to sound you will see that as each element on the table of correspondences has a colour it also has a sound. A balanced voice is said to contain all “the 5 sounds” but with experience, people can observe what is either missing or overemphasised.
  • We should note that when observing CSOE what is missing is just as important as what is there. This is a key thing to remember and it often gets forgotten. For example, a person who laughs a lot might have a fire imbalance or be a Fire CF. But a person who does not laugh or who lacks any laughing or joy in their interactions could also be Fire. It’s the “appropriateness” of the laughter that is the observation.
  • With odour the same applies, either an excess or (theoretical) lack of an odour would indicate an imbalance within an element.
  • Finally emotion, and this is probably the jewel in the crown of 5E acupuncture. 5E is concerned with understanding and empathising with a person’s emotional state and observing where they come from emotionally. Again this should guide us to an element and so long as the theory is working it will be the same one the other 3 suggested.
  • Once we have a diagnosis, like for example Earth with Metal as a second element we can plan treatments around the element and select points that work through that element. Most of these points will be on meridians that concur with the element, like Stomach and Spleen if its Earth.

See the Five Element key Correspondencies Chart


  • TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is based on tradition but has only existed in its current form for about 60 years.
  • In some ways, TCM is easier to use than 5E because it is constructed in a logical manner in keeping with western minds.
  • The organs have functions and there are recognised patterns of disharmony with certain symptoms, pulses and tongues.
  • Some of these are very common and come up all the time which explains why there are a handful of acupuncture points that regularly seem to feature in almost every prescription. Anyone who has had regular acupuncture from a TCM trained practitioner will probably recognise these points.
  • But TCM can go further and it can get quite complicated and detailed. This is fine for herbalists but not so relevant to acupuncture so we tend to keep it as simple as we can. Don’t ever forget that acupuncture is actually about Qi (energy) flowing through a system of meridians and that our job is to find and correct imbalances in that Qi.

Once we start to understand a bit of TCM and 5E the art of what we do is to try and start with a basic TCM diagnosis and then broaden that to include anything else that seems relevant including any elemental information. Often what happens is that we will find the two do complement one another and even if they dont we can focus part of our treatment time on one approach and then part on another. Often this takes the form of some “touch” on an element at the end of a TCM treatment.

More On Elements

5E does inspire people because it is a good way to begin to understand yourself and those around you better or in a new way (as explained in the video). Students often ask “what is my element” and I say that I am not sure because it’s not always so easy to say. Since acupuncture depends upon your individual practitioner and their assessment, your element tends to be the one they decide upon. However, I think a group of experienced 5E practitioners observing a person would tend to agree about elements most of the time.

People often enjoy filling out quizzes that give some insight into what their element might be, and even though they may be subjective in their diagnosis they are still a learning resource to understand more about elements in the 5E Worsley tradition. Sometimes these can be found online by searching 5 Element test or acupuncture 5 elements test

Other Methods

There are probably hundreds of good methods to practice acupuncture, to name a few: Ear Acupuncture, Micro Techniques (Hand, Foot, Abdomen), Family (also called Tung) Acupuncture, Trigger Point Acupuncture, Lazer Acupuncture etc. We sometimes borrow from these using Ear or Tung techniques or points but they do not form part of our core ciurriculum.

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