Meaning shift: Findings from wellness acupuncture

Mark Stibich, Lawrence Wissow

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Wellness or holistic acupuncture places an emphasis on working with and developing the patient's understanding of health and illness. This research project examines changes in meaning in 367 letters from successful wellness acupuncture. Mentions of changes of the meaning of health and illness were categorized into themes using content analysis. Five main meaning shifts were identified in the data. These shifts are (1) from a goal of fixing the problem to a goal of increasing health, (2) from symptoms as problems to symptoms as teachers, (3) from healing as passive to healing as active, (4) from being dominated by illness to moving beyond the illness, and (5) from regarding the practitioner as a technician to regarding the practitioner as a healer or friend. The shifts in meaning seen in the data illustrate a potential pathway for bringing health benefits to patients and may provide a useful strategy for healing. Narrative (defined here as "first-person accounts by respondents of their experience") is thought to play a major role in the manifestation of symptoms and the ability of patients to cope with illness. Patients suffer not only from their primary symptoms, but also from the results and effects of their illnesses, such as depression and changes in their relationships. For the patient, symptoms often hold much meaning beyond physical sensation. A recurrence of symptoms can have other unpleasant results, such as additional trips to doctors, paying for medications, time off from work, not being able to play with children, or changes in relationships with family members. In many cases, the anxiety and depression surrounding the symptoms causes suffering which are greater than the suffering caused by the physical symptoms directly. These factors also change how the ill individual interacts socially, thereby reducing both instrumental and emotional social support, resulting in a downward spiral of suffering. By interacting with narrative, a path to improved health that augments conventional or alternative treatment can be used. Narrative is the point of access to the patient's mental state about illness; it is the manifestation of meaning. Patients express the meaning of their illness in their own narratives. By expressing narratives, patients articulate and develop the meaning of their illness. This process itself can be therapeutic. By shifting the individual's meaning from a detrimental to a beneficial one, a great deal of suffering may be eliminated without any change in the physical sensations. Certain individuals (eg, a socially-sanctioned healer) are given social roles in the ongoing story of someone's illness. These socially sanctioned individuals (ie, physicians) have an important role in interpreting and developing the individual's understanding of his or her illness. Therefore, in addition to physical interventions targeting the cause of the sensations, a great deal of suffering may potentially be alleviated through interacting with the patient's understanding and appraisal of symptoms. Patient meaning shift may be one of the most effective means by which to aid the patient. This article examines patient accounts of acupuncture experience for narrative concerning meaning shifts to gain insight into their role in wellness acupuncture practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)42-48
Number of pages7
JournalAlternative therapies in health and medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Complementary and alternative medicine


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