Friday, January 28, 2022

The History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical theory that has experienced ups and downs in popularity for centuries. Though the origin of this medical treatment is debatable, what’s not debatable is that acupuncture had extensive influence over both Eastern and Western medicine that can still be found today.

Full-service chiropractors
and acupuncturists are still ubiquitous today in the US and across most of the world. These professionals can use needling therapy to help respond to a wide range of conditions such as lower back pain, swelling, and osteoarthritis. 

What Is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture includes the insertion of thin needles through your skin at strategic points in your body that can respond to overall wellness and stress management. Traditional Chinese energy explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force known as qi, though Western practitioners view acupuncture as a method to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. 

Why Use Acupuncture?

Acupuncture can respond to the following conditions:

  • Chemotherapy-induced and postoperative nausea and vomiting
  • Dental pain
  • Headaches, including tension headaches and migraines
  • Labor pain
  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Respiratory disorders, such as allergic rhinitis

Documented History of Acupuncture 

The theory and origin of acupuncture originated in China. It was first mentioned in documents dating a couple hundred years before the Common Era. Prior to needles, the Chinese used sharpened stones and bones around 6000 BCE. They also used these instruments for simple procedures such as lancing abscesses. 

Development of Chinese Medicine 

Though traces of acupuncture can be found as far back as 6000 BCE, the earliest traditions of Chinese medicine date back to the Shang dynasty in the 17th century BC. These people believed heavily in ancestors as being capable of endangering or destroying humans. The Chinese healing practices attempted to restore not only the living, but the dead.

As ancestral medicine waned, magical, demonological, and supernatural beliefs became the chief cause of disease in the Chinese people’s eyes. The demons of the human body caused swelling, and the insertion of needles and stones were used to exercise these demons.

The Han Dynasty represents the most influential period of Chinese medical traditions. During this time, the Chinese intellectual elite tried to categorize phenomena into limited numbers of cause and effects. Thus, Chinese medicine took a decisive turn. Yin-Yang and the Five Elements emerged during this period as preventative and therapeutic strategies.

Not that Han medical theorists didn’t consider demonological theories passed down from generations before- they did. However, their theories were more rationally based comparatively. Acupuncture evolved in lock-step with these competing theories. 

Development of Acupuncture in China 

The chronology of acupuncture follows a somewhat uneven timeline in China. The exact origin of acupuncture is widely debated. The very claim that acupuncture began in China also depends on two factors: the willingness to accept the early dating of historical texts and the definition of ‘needling.’ Given the use of other instruments as ‘needles,’ one could logically debate that acupuncture existed in contemporaneous cultures.

Documents as far back as 168 BC mention the first descriptions of mai, which are imaginary channels associated with diagnosis and treatment. However, needles aren’t mentioned in these texts. The earliest text referring to needles is in the historical text Shiji (Records of the Historian), of Sima Qian, in 90 BC.

The classic text, Huang Di Neijing contains the practice and theoretical concepts we largely associate with acupuncture today. The book introduced the concepts of the body containing functional centers connected by primary and secondary channels allowed for influences such as qi. The theory gradually became systematized from 960-1279 AD. The fine steel needles we associate with acupuncture today took place during Qing times, around 1644-1911.

Large scale skepticism surrounding needling occur in China by at least 1757. Eventually, Chinese and other Eastern cultures tried to eliminate the practice altogether. In efforts to modernize medicine, the Chinese government attempted to ban acupuncture in 1822, officially prohibited the practice in 1876, and by 1911 had eradicated it as a subject of examination for the Chinese Imperial Medical Academy.  

During the 1950s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong promoted traditional medical techniques as pragmatic solutions to providing healthcare to a vast population. 

Development of Acupuncture in the West 

Chinese medicine is mentioned in the Western annals as early as 13th century AD. The Western world started using acupuncture a few centuries earlier. By the late 16th century, a few stray manuals had reached Europe. Accounts of practice followed. It has since been rejected, forgotten, and rediscovered in four major waves.

Initially, acupuncture was well established in Europe, especially France and Germany. But by the mid-19th century, the practice had faded into obscurity in Europe. The practice would experience a revival during the 20th century. Though none of the early American accounts of acupuncture make note of acupuncture points, channels, meridians, they all claim to have substantial success as a result of inserting needles into painful areas.  

By the second half of the 19th century, Western practitioners had largely abandoned acupuncture. In 1859, Western medicine concluded that acupuncture had grossly over exaggerated the benefits of acupuncture. 


Twentieth century scholars have imagined a trial and error system of development whereby knowledge was collectively accumulated into a medical ‘system.’ One view has been that, over time, crude stone lancets were replaced with fine metal needles, and acupuncture points and channels were codified, leading to a new age of medical sophistication. However, there is now considerable doubt about the existence of a trial and error system,25 as well as the assumption that ‘needling,’ as described in historical Chinese medical texts, is today's acupuncture. Indeed, despite antecedent ideas and practices, modern acupuncture, which includes novel variants such as electroacupuncture, may never have existed in traditional China in anything like the form in which it is practiced today.

This is a guest blog entry.

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