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Acupuncture: A Brief History



Acupuncture is a popular complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practice. A chief component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it involves the insertion of needles into the skin at specific points on the body. Practitioners use acupuncture for pain treatment.

TCM defines acupuncture as a technique that balances the flow of universal life energy, known as chi or qi. By inserting needles into specific energy pathways or meridians, practitioners believe they can re-balance energy to improve well-being.

Western practitioners view acupuncture in a different light. They use the technique to stimulate nerves and muscles. They believe this stimulation improves blood flow and activates natural painkillers in the body.

Acupuncture in Antiquity

The origin of acupuncture in Chinese history is unclear. One explanation credits arrow punctures with healing soldier wounds. Another says the practice dates back to the Stone Age and the use of sharpened stones. A 1960s discovery of an ancient “bian” stone pushes acupuncture to the Neolithic Period.

Ancient writing systems and cave drawings suggest that acupuncture was practiced during the Shang Dynasty, also called the Yin Dynasty, between 1600 BC and 1000 BC. Apparently, it was not until the second century BC, during the Han Dynasty, that metal acupuncture needles replaced those made from stone and bone.

After examining a 5,000-year-old mummified body that was discovered in the Alps, European scientists discovered several groups of tattoos located on areas recognized as acupuncture points. This has led them to believe that acupuncture was practiced in Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age.

Acupuncture’s Middle History

The practice of acupuncture spread from China into other parts of eastern Asia including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Between the Han Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, TCM practitioners wrote nearly 90 treatises on acupuncture. An emperor commissioned the production of a bronze statue to illustrate the energy meridians and acupuncture points.

Eventually, acupuncture was seen as a technical practice rather than an academic profession. Medications replaced acupuncture for pain treatment, and it became associated with less-esteemed practices like midwifery and shamanism.

It is thought that sixteenth-century Portuguese missionaries brought acupuncture to the Western world. Later, a Danish surgeon described the practice during his travels to Indonesia and Japan. In the late 1600s, a Dutch physician wrote the first European discourse on acupuncture, describing its effect on arthritis.

The growing popularity of medications contributed to the decline of acupuncture as a lost art. In China, the practice became associated with illiterate practitioners and the lower classes. A nineteenth-century Chinese emperor banned the teaching and practice of acupuncture within the Imperial medical academy. European views were a mix of praise and skepticism.

Modern Day Acupuncture

Acupuncture made headlines in the United States during the early 1970s when an American journalist described acupuncture in a New York newspaper article. Traveling with President Nixon during his historic visit to China, James Reston required an emergency appendectomy. He received acupuncture for post-operative treatment and wrote about it on his return home.

Shortly afterward, America’s first national acupuncture association introduced the practice to the West through research and seminars. In 1972, Dr. Yao Wu Lee opened the first acupuncture clinic in the United States. The following year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recognized acupuncture procedures as a medical expense.

Modern practitioners perform acupuncture for a variety of health ills. The practice is said to relieve symptoms for numerous conditions including headache, fibromyalgia, backache, labor pain, menstrual cramps, arthritis, dental pain, and chemotherapy side effects. Some medical professionals believe it can be an effective complementary treatment to conventional medicine. Researchers continue to study acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects.