Channels and Collaterals in Traditional Chinese Medicine
What Are Channels or Meridians in TCM?
Traditional Chinese medicine channels, which are frequently called meridians, are part of the distribution center of Qi or energy throughout the human body. They do not coincide specifically with actual structures like major arteries and veins. Instead, they exist as a type of canal system for the important fluids and essences that affect life and overall health.
Although the channels do not align specifically with today’s understanding of the circulatory system map, they do share a lot of similarities and do an overlap quite extensively. After all, the practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine were quite aware that blood was carried to vessels throughout the body to all the major parts and organs. Nevertheless, and a comparison between the two is circumstantial at best.
If you are just at the beginning of your research into TCM, you may have most frequently heard about channels or meridians associated with the practice of acupuncture. The understanding of traditional medicine practitioners of how the body worked and she contributed to the overall Yin and Yang balance would be firmly rooted in the concept of channels and the collaterals adjacent to them.
The 12 Primary Channels
Every one of the main channels that exist in the human body lies between two organs that represent the Yin and Yang balance that must exist for optimum health. Each channel has its own name and function. The corresponding organs include the Heart, Lungs, Stomach, Spleen, Kidneys, Large Intestine, Small Intestine, Bladder, Gallbladder, Pericardium, Liver, and a nonexistent organ called the San Jiao, which indicated some type of empty space or body cavity that she could flow through according to the traditional Chinese medical practitioners. They were also specifically associated with the hands and feet.
The paired organs or body systems linked with primary channels include:
- The Lung and Large Intestine
- The Spleen and Stomach
- The Heart and Small intestines
- The Kidneys and Bladder
- The Pericardium and San Jiao
- The Liver and Gallbladder
Each of these pairings list the organ most closely associated with the Yin prior to the one associated with the Yang. Besides the correlations between these two sides of the ultimate balance of life, they also have unique associations with the elements and essences that provide additional insight into the entire field of traditional Chinese medicine. These include things like metal, earth, fire, and water, seasons of the year, colors, emotions, and senses.
Because of the connections from one organ to the next, treating or otherwise stimulating one of them could affect the health of the other. Certain procedures or things like acupuncture are designed to prevent blockages of Qi, blood, or other essences from flowing sufficiently into the organs to maintain their optimum function.
If the primary channels or meridians act as the main canals that flow throughout the human body, the extraordinary ones are the branches that come out from them. These were not associated specifically with unique organs or body systems. Instead, they store blood and Qi to maintain balance in the larger ones and help to circulate Jing or the “genetic” essence that makes each person who they are and was given to them before they were born.
Although not a lot of information is known about the concept of divergent channels, some ancient sources point to an additional system of flow within the body that may have something to do with maintaining proper balance between the interior systems and senses or external forces. In many cases, they are described simply as part of the entire channel-collateral system that are influenced by the primary channels but do not truly perform any task specific to themselves.
How Is the Concept of Channels Used?
As mentioned above, channels exist to allow Qi to flow throughout the body and maintain balance in all the systems. Like water through a canal, Qi flows down the path of least resistance. If blockages exist, some action must be taken in order to improve flow and balance everything out in the Yin and Yang organs once more. Remember that the concept of traditional Chinese medicine has a lot to do with maintaining homeostasis, so you do not have too much Yin or Yang in any part of your body at one time.
These healthy Qi flow fixes are commonly done with the help of the following:
- Therapeutic massage
- Heat therapy
The entire system of both channels and collaterals exists as a type of continuous cycle or clock where everything must flow properly and evenly for the entire thing to function as it is supposed to. If one thing is off-balance or out of whack, the entire health of the individual can break down. This can lead to something as seemingly innocuous as a headache or incredibly serious issues like cardiovascular disease and ultimately death.
How Were These Associations Made?
While the history of source material for traditional Chinese medicine is extensive, the main way that practitioners learned about all of this was through clinical observation and how their various therapies worked for the people who were exhibiting health problems. Just as all medical treatments come to be, TCM was developed over many years because it genuinely worked for the people receiving the care.
The concept of meridians in the body made logical correlations between different organs and the parts of the body that seem to affect them. If a person was experiencing a certain type of discomfort or distress, introducing pressure or heat on a related part of the body could alleviate it.
What Are Collaterals in TCM?
Although it seems like channels or meridians make up most of the Qi and blood circulatory system described in traditional Chinese medicine, collaterals also existed in theory. These are metaphorically similar to smaller waterways that branch into individual fields from the main canals or the sap veins that run through smaller branches and leaves of a tree. Instead of being deep within the body and the organs, they are frequently found near or on the surface.
Because they are not associated with organs or body parts directly, only the largest divergent collaterals are stationary and mappable. There are also superficial and minute collaterals that are not associated with set pathways through the body. If compared to the human circulatory system, the smallest of these would be like capillaries.
The Hierarchy of Collaterals in the Body
Just as there were primary and divergent channels in this entire system, there are also larger and smaller collaterals associated with different parts of the body. All told, there are 15 connecting collaterals that help to connect channels to each other and the interior systems of the body to external points or stimuli. There are also superficial collaterals that exist on the surface and finally the smallest ones as mentioned above.
15 Connecting Collaterals – These larger branches of the system lie inside the torso and also run up and down the arms and the legs. They are essential for flow of Qi between these parts of the body, the related organs in the channel system, and to serve specifically the left and right sides of the chest and abdomen.
12 Divergent Collaterals – These smaller branches of the system come out of the connecting collaterals and bring Qi into smaller parts of the body. They diverge from the larger ones near the knees and elbows, also spread out through the abdomen and chest, and travel up into the neck and head. They are also responsible for flow of blood and essences closer to the surface of the skin.
Although the comparison between the channel-collateral system and the physical circulatory or lymphatic systems seems simple and appropriate, it is important to remember that none of these things in traditional Chinese medicine are actually physical structures. No ancient physician dissected a human body and found a primary meridian or a divergent collateral anywhere inside.
Of course, there were scientists back then who did. Inside the mystery of the human body or they would not have known anything about the organs and their general function. Where did they come up with the concept of channels and collaterals then?
Since the entire practice of traditional Chinese medicine incorporates both the physical, the metaphysical, and the spiritual, it makes sense that they would have an understanding of body systems that serve all of these things. Today, we understand all the different things that are carried through the bloodstreams and the lymphatic system. For the early practitioners of TCM, their understanding of things like Qi, Xue or blood, Jinye or other bodily fluids, Jing or essence, and Shen or spirit was just as meaningful and detailed.
That brings to mind the ultimate question of whether the idea of channels and collaterals formulated by those ancient eastern practitioners can translate into beneficial health, well-being, or medical procedures today.
Modern Applications of Channel-Collateral Theory
These two related practices are the primary modern applications of the entire system of channels and collaterals as defined by traditional Chinese medicine. You may have heard people talk about pressure points before. While these may include generalized suggestions that do not have anything specifically to do with TCM, the most common usage is for the meridians discovered and specified by practitioners.
Acupressure is a type of therapy or physical service that includes a trained practitioner applying pressure to specific points associated with the channels and collaterals in your body. They frequently do this with their hands, elbows, or specific tools developed for the procedures.
Acupuncture targets the same spots in most cases. Instead of simply applying pressure, the practitioner taps a small needle into the skin.
While there are an amazing number of potential meridian points that can be used for acupressure or acupuncture, all of them are not usually use for patients. Some of the most common points include ones to help prevent aches and pains, nausea, headaches and migraines, and to alleviate stress and anxiety.
The theory behind these practices involves stimulating the channels or collaterals to prevent Qi blockages and to improve internal balance and flow. While there have been quite a few modern research studies that show benefits for various health complaints, no overreaching scientific proof exists that the traditional Chinese medicine concept of meridians, Qi, and essence flow contributes to serious health problems in any real way.
Still, from the earliest days of traditional Chinese medicine to the many people that still look for more natural and effective ways to deal with health complaints and imbalances, maintaining proper balance inside and outside of the body and improving the flow of energy to all organs and systems makes a lot of sense. While you may not find a definitive scientific research study, the anecdotal evidence from people who have been helped with these methods is extensive.