Acupuncture: A Brief History

Acupuncture originated in China. Recorded references begin in about 6000BC but the practice probably existed much earlier. It’s thought that the early use of sharpened stones and bones for necessary interventions like lancing abscesses and boils evolved into a more therapeutic and preventative concept that embraced a philosophy of ‘life forces.’

Evolution of tools, that is technological advances and discoveries that enabled thinner and stronger needles, meant the concept of acupuncture could extend further. The theory of energy flow that underpins modern acupuncture, however, was slower to coalesce – documents from 198BC found in sealed tombs in China indicate acupuncture practice was prevalent but perhaps not yet connected to a meridian system.

The theory of energy flow – qi pronounced ‘chee’ – is fundamental to our understanding of acupuncture today. Qi is believed to travel through the body via a matrix of channels (12 channels known as meridians), a system which can be diverted to achieve balance and enhance wellbeing. These channels do not correspond with vein/artery pathways or with the nervous system – but are in concert with and represent organs and functions of the body. Manipulating particular points along these meridians – acupuncture points – can alter and increase energy flow, theoretically addressing specific and systemic ailments. (When Otzi the the Iceman, a 5300 year old mummy was discovered in an Alpine glacier in 1991, the 61 tattoos across his body were reminiscent of these meridian lines, suggesting this systematised physiology existed beyond China – and early.)

The earliest written references to a systematised, qi-centric understanding of the body are from 100BC. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, energy channels and the concept of circulating qi are examined – but intervention via acupuncture is unexplored. By the fifteenth century, bronze statues – perhaps teaching aids – were depicting the precise meridian points targeted in modern practice – suggesting systematised acupuncture flourished during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A compendium from this time establishes a tradition that continues today, with 365 points at which needles can alter the body’s energy flow.

Acupuncture’s flourishing was followed shortly by its decline. From the 1600s on it was increasingly considered superstitious and then eclipsed almost entirely by the rise of Western medicine. (There were sporadic bursts of popularity across the globe with historic interest in Korea, Japan and Europe). Through the first half of the twentieth century acupuncture and other alternative Chinese medicine was relegated to the margins, and even banned in China in the 1920s. However, the censorious approach was exchanged for an enthusiastic revival of traditional Chinese medicines post 1949 – a state-sponsored push that saw acupuncture spread through China and beyond, gaining an unprecedented popularity and legitimacy (especially in the USA) as a complementary therapy.

Today acupuncture is commonly used as a component of remedial massage therapy. Acupuncture needles, when applied appropriately are able to release muscular tension, easing knots and enabling the wider muscular system to reassert its natural balance. Acupuncture can also serve to release nerves trapped by tight muscles, alleviating pain and muscle tension simultaneously.