History of Acupuncture


Ancient acupuncture needles
Bone Needles in the New Stone Age (10,000~4,000 years ago), Preserved in Shanghai TCM Museum, China

Acupuncture: An Historical Perspective

Acupuncture’s chronology is well established, albeit alongside a slightly uneven timeline. Claims made that acupuncture is many thousands of years old are under suspicion, as neither archaeological nor historical proof implies acupuncture was practiced within China before the mid-second century BC at the earliest, and these claims are up for debate. In fact, exactly when acupuncture may be said to have started in China depends upon a couple of things: (a) willingness to accept early historical text dating and (b) definition of ‘needling.’ If the practice of any type of penetrating instrument is considered acupuncture, acupuncture started early within China yet additionally within contemporaneous cultures, who also utilized bleeding and cautery at points upon the body.

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 Acupuncture Needles: From Animal Bones, Stones to Steels

As this practice developed, Bian stones were no longer used and instead, needles of pottery and stone were used. The primitive, simple needles still are utilized in some rural regions of China. Ultimately metal needles started appearing and took the form of the classic ‘nine needles’. Such needles comprised of a large needle for puncturing painful joints, a long needle for thick muscles, a filliform needle, a round sharp needle for fast pricking, a sword-like needle for draining an abscess, a three-edged needle for puncturing the vein, a blunt needle for pressing or knocking, a round needle for massaging, and an arrowhead needle for superficial pricking.

Acupuncture needles found in Ming dynasty
Acupuncture needles found in Ming dynasty tomb (replica), Dojindo Museum, near Beijing, China,

Current Acupuncture Needles

The primary needle currently utilized for acupuncture includes the filiform; the majority of the other needles were substituted with more complex surgical tools, for example, the sword-like needle was replaced by a scalpel.

Initially, ‘nine needles’ were comprised of either silver and gold, or bronze, and were originally utilized around 2,000 years ago. Prince of Chungshan’s tomb, which dates from the 2nd century BC, was taken from the ground within 1968 and had a set of 9 needles; 4 were of gold and 5 were of silver. A handful of acupuncturists utilize silver and gold needles yet most only use stainless steel ones.

The earliest archaeological discoveries, from the 70s, including 4 gold and 5 silver needles, found inside Han Dynasty Prince Liu Sheng’s tomb (about 113 BC) within the Hebei Province. As these artifacts were discovered in relation to additional therapeutic tools, they might’ve been used in therapeutic ‘needling’ of some type. The true nature of this ‘needling,’ however, isn’t clear and it might not have been utilized for purposes we consider today as acupuncture.

The Origin of Acupuncture?

The earliest Chinese medicinal texts of today were found at the Mawangdui graves, sealed within 168 BC and Zhangjiashan burial site– that was closed from 186 to 156 BC. Those documents offer the original descriptions of mai, imaginary ‘channels‘ which were related to treatment and diagnosis. But, inside these texts, therapeutic interventions, or needling, never are discussed. The earliest reference of the literature of any type of therapeutic ‘needling’ is discovered within a historical, instead of medical, text, the Shiji of Sima Qian, which was written around 90 BC. It mentions one case of ‘needling’ within the texts yet that needling wasn’t related to a system of insertion points or fundamental conduit systems whose qi flow may be influenced by this type of needling. In fact, the tale of resuscitating a dead prince using a needle put inside the back of his head might, indeed, simply reflect the lancing of an abscess or boil.

Traditional Acupuncture Theory

The classical text Huang Di Nei Jing spoke of the theoretical underpinnings and practice of what became human acupuncture within the historical sense. The book, now comprising of 3 distinct redactions, is comprised of textual pieces by different authors who wrote at different times. Though it isn’t clear when individual pieces were recorded or included within the larger textual tradition, the primary content of the book will date from later centuries and earliest recoverable versions will date from the Fifth and Eighth centuries AD. The majority of the texts currently available went through their final revision as late as the Eleventh century AD and these revisions might not record earlier work.

The Huang Di Nei Jing presented the concept that the human body had functional centers linked by a sequence of primary and secondary conduits which enabled influences (qi) to pass inside the body and enter from without. Older portions of the book are influenced by directions to treat sickness by bloodletting. The text, interestingly, ignores certain skin points at which needles may be inserted. As a matter of fact, needling includes a minor tradition within the book and a lot of the therapy defined in the text includes massage, bloodletting, and minor surgery.

Subsequently, maybe in Song times, (AD 960 to 1279), acupuncture became more systematized, as typified by Wang Weiyi’s work in relation to his acupuncture bronze man. Later on, systematic correspondence theories were incorporated with acupuncture. The last measure, which took place no earlier than the Qing times (AD 1644 to 1911) included the creation of fine steel needles. All throughout Chinese history, acupuncture included a minor tradition, and just within the past few decades has acupuncture grown to a dominant tradition, even to the close exclusion of Chinese herbal medicine that historically was a lot more important.

Doubts about the efficacy of needling therapy arise early. Repeated quotations that, if an individual doesn’t believe in needling, he or she shouldn’t use it, appear within Han dynasty recordings. Subsequently, for reasons that are unknown, needling lost a lot of its intrigue by the middle of the 2nd millennium. By 1757, there was a ‘loss of acupuncture tradition’ and it was reported that the acupuncture channels, points, and practices used during that time were different from the ones mentioned in ancient texts. Ultimately, the Chinese and additional Eastern societies took measures to attempt to totally eliminate the practice. Within an effort to make medicine more modernized, the Chinese government tried to ban acupuncture for the initial time of several attempts in 1822, as the Qing government forbade the instruction of moxa cautery and acupuncture inside the taiyiyuan. Officially, the Japanese banned the practice within 1876. Acupuncture, by the 1911 revolution, was no longer a topic for examination within the Chinese Imperial Medical Academy.

Within the 1950s Great Leap Forward and the 1960s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong promoted the practice of acupuncture and traditional medicinal methods as pragmatic solutions to offering health care to a massive population that was undersupplied with physicians and as a better alternative to ‘imperialist’ practices. There they lay until rediscovered within the latest wave of intrigue within Chinese medical practices, which date from Richard Nixon’s 1972 visitation to China that ended almost 1/4 century of China’s isolation from the United States.

Western Acupuncture

Chinese medicine was initially discussed within Western literature as early as the Thirteenth century AD inside the travel logs of William of Rubruck, yet the Western realm became alert to needling a couple of centuries later. By the late Sixteenth century, some stray manuals, currently held by the Escorial inside Madrid, Spain, reached Europe. Recordings of actual practice followed soon thereafter, some very detailed.

It reached the United States somewhat later. It since has been rejected, forgotten and then rediscovered again within at least 4 major waves, which includes the present one. For some time, acupuncture became well established within portions of Europe, especially in Germany and France. Many prominent French doctors advocated acupuncture within the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, yet additional equally prominent physicians weren’t impressed and accused proponents of resurrecting what they referred to as an absurd practice from well-deserved oblivion. England, in the 19th century also witnessed a short span of acupuncture popularity; an 1821 journal recorded that acupuncture comprised of ‘inserting a needle within the muscular portions of the human body, to the depth, occasionally, of one inch.’

Acupuncture, in the United States, enjoyed a short stint of popularity within the 1st half of the Nineteenth century, especially among doctors within the Philadelphia area. Three local doctors, in 1826, performed experiments using acupuncture as a potential means of resuscitating drowned individuals, based upon reports by European experimenters that they’d successfully revived drowned cats by inserting needles inside their hearts. These same doctors did not have the ability to duplicate their successes and eventually ‘gave up, disgusted.’ The Tavernier’s Elements of Operative Surgery 1829 edition, involves 3 pages about when and how one may conduct not only acupuncture yet additionally ‘electro-acupuncturation.’ Publications that extolled the practice occasionally appeared for the next twenty years.

Though none of the early American recordings of acupuncture mention acupuncture channels, points, or meridians, all of them claim significant success as a consequence of inserting needles right into, or within the vicinity of, painful or afflicted areas. But, by the 2nd half of the Nineteenth century, many Western doctors had abandoned acupuncture.

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Current Usage of Acupuncture

In the past three decades, however, acupuncture has rapidly grown in popularity and recognition in the United States.  The sharp increase of interest in acupuncture was ignited following President Nixon’s visit to China.  The New York Times foreign correspondent James Reston who accompanied Nixon, wrote a personal experience about how acupuncture reduced his abdominal pain after surgery.  His article is considered the first news of acupuncture that appearedon the mainstream North American media.  The curiosity and excitement intensified, following successful cardiac surgery utilizing only acupuncture as anesthesia .  Although the initial excitement regarding acupuncture anesthesia in 70’s has long been over as surgeries areno longer attempted with acupuncture alone, even in China, it certainly triggered an interest of Western physicians, particularly among anaestheologists.  A sharp increase in the number of acupuncture studies published in English has further validated usefulness of acupunctureas an effective pain management method.  A number of training courses in acupuncture have also been established in major Universities such as UCLA and Harvard Medical School.

In 1997, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) formally recognized acupuncture as a credible therapy with a statement documenting the procedure’s safety and efficacy for treating a range of health conditions. There are hundreds of clinical studies on the benefits of acupuncture now. Acupuncture has been used successfully in the treatment of conditions ranging from low back pain, neck pain, digestive problems, migraine, anxiety, and insomnia.

In recent days, acupuncture has been increasingly used in conjunction with modern medical treatments. For instance, acupuncture has been widely used in cutting- edge infertility treatment, in particular, in conjunction with in-vitro fertilization procedure (IVF).  It has also been shown to be effective in controlling postoperative nausea and vomiting, and it has been used to decrease anxiety prior to surgery. Furthermore, the US military has been incorporating a  specific acupuncture style, called Battlefield Acupuncture, to ease soldiers’pains and discomfort due to their injuries.

In 1997 a report from a Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated that acupuncture is being widely practicedby thousands of physicians, dentists, acupuncturists, and other practitionersfor relief or prevention of pain and for various health conditions.  In some Canadian jurisdictions such as Ontario, chiropractors, physiotherapists, naturopath, and registered massage therapists (RMT) are allowed to perform acupuncture as part of their scope of practice.

According to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey, the largest and most comprehensive survey of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM),the usage of acupuncture by American adults was estimated at 8.2 million U.S. adults, and an estimated 2.1 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture in the previous year.  The number has been increasing to-date.

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