What Is The History of Acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been a fixture in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and it remains a staple form of treatment in many countries. The evidence backing acupuncture and its effectiveness are impressive, so much so that the practice is now commonplace in many of the world’s developed nations.
There’s no doubt that acupuncture has a place in modern medicine, but where did this traditional form of medicine get its start? Acupuncture’s story starts thousands of years ago.
Acupuncture’s Earliest Beginnings are a Mystery
Like any story that’s thousands of years old, the exact details aren’t completely clear. Historians debate when acupuncture was first used to treat health conditions, but there are some intriguing theories.
One speculative theory is regarding Otzi the Iceman, discovered in 1992 and believed to have lived more than 5,000 years ago. Upon recovering Otzi, researchers noted that the preserved iceman was covered in ornamental tattoos. Many of these tattoos were positioned over acupuncture points intended for use with needles. Further, the tattoos were close to acupuncture points associated with lower back pain or abdominal pain relief, and additional research determined that Otzi’s body did have lower back issues. It’s an interesting theory, but one that historians are not convinced is true.
Some historians do believe that acupuncture could’ve been in practice as early as 600 BC, due to the presence of hieroglyphics that depict the practice. However, there are no contemporary written records that complement these hieroglyphics, casting doubt on the idea. Also, some experts have stated that China did not have access to the materials needed to make reliable acupuncture needles, also undermining the theory.
There’s even speculation that stone tools dating from the Neolithic era could be associated with acupuncture. However, most researchers believe that such tools were used for other medical purposes, including moxibustion.
The First Recorded Practice of Acupuncture
Historians will probably never be able to pin down the exact origin of acupuncture, but they can trace its development through written records.
Two pieces of medical literature stand out regarding acupuncture’s history. The first is The Inner Classic of Huang Di, dated around 100 BC. It’s the earliest known document containing explicit knowledge of acupuncture, including organized treatment methodology. Another document is the Shiji, also dated around 100 BC. The Shiji details what were mainstream treatment practices at the time, as well as information about early acupuncture theory, like the use of meridians and their interaction with “qi.”
This written history corroborates with the earliest known architectural evidence for acupuncture—a set of acupuncture needles found inside the tomb of Liu Sheng. Liu Sheng was a king during the Han dynasty, which lasted between 202 BC and 220 A.D.
All of this evidence suggests that acupuncture has been in formal practice for more than 2,000 years.
Growing Popularity and International Spread of Acupuncture
In China, the number and reputation of acupuncture practitioners grew for several centuries. Over those centuries, acupuncture spread to many of China’s neighbors and through trade. The first nation to pick up acupuncture from China was Korea, around the 6th century. Japan was soon to follow, as the practice was also brought there in the 6th century. Vietnam was next, as evidence suggests physicians were using it as early as the 8th century.
It would be a while before acupuncture was introduced to the west. Specifically, it wasn’t until the late 17th century, when the East India Company’s surgeon general encountered and studied the practice closely. He developed a respect for the practice and recommended its adoption among European people. He even authored a work on the subject (published in 1683), detailing the system and method of acupuncture.
Even with the surgeon general’s recommendation, though, it would be a little more than a century before any European physician took real interest in acupuncture. A French physician, Louis Berlioz, is believed to be the first western physician to experiment with acupuncture and relate its concepts for a modern European audience.
Acupuncture’s Place in Modern Medicine
From the early 19th century on, acupuncture was well-known among western physicians and patients, though it would occasionally come in conflict with some tenets of western medicine. For example, acupuncture diagrams and western anatomical diagrams did not always agree at first, but this conflict has been mostly resolved.
That’s because modern acupuncture practices observe proven trigger points related to the location of nerve tissue. The efficacy of using such trigger points has been demonstrated through extensive medical research and analysis. For example, the use of acupuncture leads to better outcomes in patients suffering from back pain, neck pain, headaches, osteoarthritis and more. This is compared to patients who do not receive acupuncture as part of their treatment protocol.
Multiple meta-analyses published in reputable western journals of medicine have backed this up, and most of these studies have been published in the last 15 years.
Every year, more than 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered to U.S. patients. It’s even more popular in Europe, where acupuncture is a standard treatment offering at pain management centers. Acupuncture is the leading alternative pain treatment option in Switzerland, and in Japan, more than 25 percent of the population will eventually undergo an acupuncture procedure.
Acupuncture is so commonplace that many physicians have incorporated it into their practice, including western-educated physicians. These physicians utilize acupuncture services as a support therapy, designed to complement mainstream western treatment practices.
From ancient medicine to modern medicine, acupuncture’s 2,000 (or more) year journey speaks to the practice’s effectiveness.