Acupuncture is the ancient East Asian practice of poking people with needles in specific places and in specific ways in order to produce any one of a very wide range of results that could generally be classified as medicinal or health related. I don’t know much about it, but Wikipedia tells us:
Its general theory is based on the premise that bodily functions are regulated by the flow of an energy-like entity called qi. Acupuncture aims to correct imbalances in the flow of qi by stimulation of anatomical locations on or under the skin called acupuncture points, most of which are connected by channels known as meridians. Scientific research has not found any physical or biological correlate of qi, meridians and acupuncture points, and some contemporary practitioners needle the body without using a theoretical framework, instead selecting points based on their tenderness to pressure.
Leave it to Wikipedia to find the least intuitive way to spell “chi.”
Changa, I can describe to you more authoritatively because I’ve studied it, a bit and lived in it’s region of use, though I’m sure there are others who know much more about it. This is the practice of making numerous small, often parallel cuts in the skin, and then (usually) rubbing ash into the cuts. The ash is made of a mixture of selected leaves or other plant matter thought to have curative properties which are burned to make the ash. Often the plant ash is mixed with ash from a convenient wood fire, and if there are no available thought-to-be-curative plants, the ash from the fire on its own will do. The ash is not applied hot.
Changa is used by various culture groups in Central Africa, and is identical in method to a form of body decoration sometimes called scarification (it is only a subset of scarification). People who do this seem to use the same term for the medicinal practice and the decorative practice, and it is not clear that the two are fully exclusive of each other. One of the interesting things about Changa is that you can often guess the chronic illnesses a particular person suffers by observing their body scars, their extent, and distribution. For instance, since malaria is common in the region, most people who practice Changa (which means, essentially, most people) will have Changa marks on their forehead.
I’ve never observed acupuncture, but according to one study, applying traditional acupuncture, “incorrect” acupuncture (where you poke someone with a needle but not in the “correct” manner) and poking someone with a sharp wooden stick (a toothpick) all produce similar results: The severity of chronic back pain is reduced, compared to a control which does not involve poking with a sharp object.
I’ve only observed Changa being carried out once, despite the fact that I’ve seen many people with scars indicating it had been done, and I’ve seen many people with immediate post-Changa cuts. Of course, I’ve never seen most medical procedures done in the West either, yet people have them all the time. The one time I saw Changa carried out, it seemed to work exactly as expected. An infant had been in obvious pain, and cried pretty much continuously, for a few days before the infant’s father applied Changa to his distended stomach. Dozens and dozens of cuts were applied, and the ash wiped into the wounds. About half way through the process the infant stopped crying, and over the next 24 hours or so cried very little, his stomach reduced in size, and he seemed to improve overall. His mother, who apparently had mastitis, died within 48 hours after the Changa was applied to the infant, and her sister married the infant’s father (Levirate marriage) and since she was with milk, took over nursing the child.
I could list all the reasons why the Changa seemed to work and we could have a lengthy and exhaustive discussion about it, but instead of that, I’ll let you speculate based on the information provided and tell you the simple version of what I think happened. At the scale of hours or days, the mother of the infant, quite ill with a deadly infection, stopped producing milk which was, in turn, poisoning the child. In the meantime, the mother’s sister increased the amount of milk she was providing the child. The Changa was done to the child during this hand-off, so prior to Changa the child was quite ill, after it, not as ill. The reason why the child stopped crying during the Changa, even though he had been inconsolably crying for a very long time prior and was still quite ill, is more speculative. Chance or coincidence is certainly a possibility, but I think, guess really, that something else happened. I suspect that dozens and dozens of tiny slices in your stomach is rather distracting both to the psyche (even of an infant) and to the various homeostatic mechanisms of the body. The child passed out in pain, got some sleep, and woke up healthier because of a change in milk supply. Maybe.
I would guess, and this is only a guess, that Acupuncture and Changa have two things in common. The first I’m rather sure of, the second is pure conjecture. The first is that each has a set of associated behaviors which are fetishized and considered important, but in truth irrelevant to the effectiveness of the procedure, and are essentially window dressing. As I say, I don’t know much about Acupuncture, but adjusting where a needle will go based on readings of Chi is obviously not part of any system of anything that actually does something. There is no such thing as Chi. There seem to be a number of fetishized elements of Changa as well, the most obvious and easily documented is the use of multiple plants with specific “properties” in the ash mixture. Since these are all leaves of saplings, mainly one kind of fig or another, I’m sure there are not any interesting secondary compounds in the leaves. Since they are burned to ash before they are used, I’m sure the substance being rubbed into the wounds is mainly carbon, but since it is just burned, at least it is fairly sterile.
The second thing they have in common is that they both inflict pain and directly invade the body. I doubt this will have too much effect on an infection, depression, or evil spirits/bad chi, but I do wonder if adding more pain to pain … or different pain to pain, or specific pain to general pain, or whatever … could have an effect on pain other than making it hurt worse.
Oh, but wait, there may be another difference, not between the methods, but between those who use the techniques. I’m speaking here more of the patients than the practitioners, though in the case of Changa there is pretty much total overlap between those groups. This is, again, conjecture and it is based on my own limited observation.
I’ve known a number of people who chose “Alternate” medicine such as homeopathy, naturopathy, or chiropractic services over mainstream medicine, pursuing the former with vigor while at the same time rejecting, even disdaining the latter. Of those people I know, including verified cases of people who know people I know, one had to have major life threatening surgery to survive the alternative treatments (which he could not refuse since he was in a coma), one spent months in pain, others have been variously inconvenienced or not cured, and one is dead.
I’ve known a number of people who chose Changa, but none who chose it over whatever Western Medicine was available. Be assured that the father who Changa’d his son went to me first for medicine for the infant. Turns out I was not much help in that case, but I never met a person in those cultures who was not very happy to have antibiotics or other Western treatments, either instead of or along side of traditional methods, and I never met anyone willing to argue that traditional methods were better than Western ones.
I wonder what American New Agers would think if they knew that; People living in a “state of nature” surrounded by wonderful natural cures and remedies have much more faith in Western Medicine than they do in their own time honored traditional cures. Of course, if you live in a parasite-rich sometimes nutrition starved jungle, you can’t afford the luxury of being an idiot.
So, which is better, Acupuncture or Changa? Tell you what. I’ll give you the Acupuncture and you can keep the Changa.