Korean Oriental Medicine Reaches Out Beyond Korea


In a narrow sense, a prescription is a document specifying the drugs and doses thereof to be administrated. From a broader prospective, it refers to all treatments of diseases. In addition to the medicines to be administrated, the prescription in Korean Oriental medicine specifies the therapeutic treatments to be rendered based on the diagnosis of the patient’s condition. These treatments include acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, exercise, and dietary therapy as well as the doctors’ specific directions and advice to the patient based on the characteristics of the patient, including his or her constitution.

In acupuncture therapy, the prescription specifies the acupuncture points that correspond to the patient’s specific ailments or symptoms, or site to be treated such as legs, fingers, and toes. It is also used in the same manner in moxibustion, exercise therapy, dietary therapy, and other available therapies.

According to this narrow definition of the prescription, the diagnosis determines which medicines are to be administered to the patient and how. It entails preparing a remedy by mixing a number of medicinal substances in precise dosages and administering them to the patient.

Medicinal therapy generally involves what are called sovereign, minister, assistant, and courier medicinal ingredients. Sovereign ingredients signify the primary medicinal ingredients of the prescription. Minister ingredients refer to medicinal substances and supplements that help the administration of the primary medicinal ingredients, bolstering their effectiveness. Assistant ingredients neutralize any possible toxicity of the sovereign medicinal ingredients and relieve their side effects. Courier ingredients help the active ingredients work on the target sites of the body and temper the functions of the ingredient mixture. Jujube, licorice, and ginger are the three most frequently used courier medicinal ingredients.

A needle can be used as a medical tool to treat diseases in humans and animals. Acupuncture is the treatment of illness or pain by sticking needles into the body. According to various historical accounts, acupuncture originated in the eastern part of China adjacent to the Korean Peninsula and spread throughout East Asia.

It is believed that needles were first used for medical purposes in the Stone Age. The oldest acupuncture tool is a stone needle. It was made by grinding stone or jade into an awl or wedge. Such a stone needle was used to stimulate the skin, to cause blood letting by shallow pricking, or to squeeze pus out. In primitive societies, people may have suffered from more various kinds of aches, pains, and wounds as they lived in hilly or dark and humid areas. This gives us clues as to how a stone needle must have come into use.

There are nine general types of classical acupuncture needles according to size, shape, and use: the shear needle, round-pointed needle, spoon needle, lance needle, stiletto needle, round-sharp needle, filiform needle, long needle, and big needle. Needles are typically used to prick the skin or muscle, deeply or shallow. Sometimes a knife-like needle is used to cut the skin and squeeze out blood or pus or to draw stagnant water out from a joint. Of these nine classical needles, filiform needles are used most widely in acupuncture. They are 2-17 centimeters long and relatively thin at 0.2-0.4 millimeters in thickness. Once stuck into the skin, they can be lef for a while partially embedded in the skin without causing irritation.

Acupuncture has been used to treat all kinds of disease including internal, surgical, gynecologic, pediatric, otorhinolaryngologic, and ophthalmologic diseases by controlling the flow of gi. It has also been used for anesthesia, diagnosis, and the treatment of animals. In addition, acupuncture is used to help people quit relief and recovery from sprains, indigestion, children’s convulsions, and acute diseases such as tonsillitis, conjunctivitis, and syncope. For chronic diseases such as neuralgia, and dysphasia, satisfactory results require long-term treatment.

Moxibustion treats diseases by heat stimulation. A drug material is burned on a certain spot of the skin, or such spot is exposed to the hot smoke from the burning material. The most often used material is dried mugwort. Basically, moxibustion raises the body temperature, so it can be used for all diseases with a “cold nature”.

While acupuncture temporarily makes you lose giun (energy), moxibustion raises your giun, making it effective for treatment of enervation due to a lack of jeonggi (vitality) and chronic diseases that consume your energy.

There are two types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. In the direct method, dried mugwort is burned directly on the skin and the spot festers, which in turn improves your constitution and immunity. In the indirect method, the skin does not have direct contact with the burning mugworts, but is only exposed to the heat emitted from it.


Compared with acupuncture, cupping is rather simple. You place a suction cup on a gyeonghyeol (acupuncture point) of the skin with its mouth down and vacuum the cup using heat or a compression pump so that the cup will tightly adhere to the skin. The spot soon becomes congested with blood. This process can be used to change the blood composition or to remove bad blood from circulation. The process also activates gas exchanges in the body, which in turn facilitates metabolism and stimulates the autonomous nervous system. As a result, digestion, defecation, and sleep are improved.

Cupping is basically either wet or dry. In wet cupping, the suction cup is larger than the blood-extraction area. Caution should be exercised to not extract more than 10 cc of blood per session. Dry cupping does not involve blood-letting, but only applies suction on the skin. This is used for patients who are feeble or when the purpose or treatment can be achieved by only a change in blood composition.

Since it is easier to place a cup over a larger area that contains a gyenghyeol than to stick a needle into such a point exactly, cupping has long been a common folk therapy. Many families in South Korea practice cupping by themselves even today to treat light pains such as a stiff shoulder.


Chuna is a therapy that prevents and cures disease by tapping or massaging gyeonghyeol and gyeongnak (meridians; pathways of gi) on the surface of the body with the power applied by the fingertips and palms. It helps to strike a balance of gi-hyeol (energy for the organs), facilitate the natural flow of go through gyeongnak, and improve metabolism and the body’s resistance to germs. Chuna has also in recent years come into wide use to rectify spine and joint problems or to improve blood circulation.


Source: KOREA People & Culture Magazine, March 2012



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