History of Acupuncture


Acupuncture is known in Chinese as ‘zhenjiu [針灸]’, where zhen means needle therapy and jiu relates to moxibustion therapy (Birch & Kaptchuk, 1999). Acupuncture is the practice of inserting very fine needles in particular points of the body to improve health and well-being. It is one component of traditional Chinese medicine. The word ‘acupuncture’ originated in “late seventeenth century Europe” (Birch & Kaptchuk, 1999, p.12). Nightingale (1994) notes the relative newness of the term ‘acupuncture’ and suggests that it derives from “the Latin acus (a needle) and punctum, (past participle of the word pungere, meaning to puncture or pierce)”.

Acupuncture, as a practice is not new. The first needles ‘bian’ were developed during the Stone Age (Beijing et al, 1980). They were made of stone and provided a rudimentary form of acupuncture for healing purposes. Then, through the Iron and Bronze Ages, metal needles were developed. The first medical ‘text’ written in China describing acupuncture as a central component of traditional Chinese medicine was ‘Huangdi-Neijing’, which was compiled between 500-300 B.C. (Beijing et al, 1980). It is notable that the Chinese studied anatomy from the outer body. For cultural reasons they did not dissect human bodies in order to study anatomy or the workings of the inner body until the 20th Century (Filshie & Cummings, 1999). As a result the early Chinese descriptions of bodily organs and their functions are very different from current understanding in Western medical science.

Traditional Chinese medicinal texts reveal centuries of analysis involving observation and painstaking classification (Birch and Kaptchuk, 1999).

Acupuncture spread from China to Korea and Japan in the 6th Century (Beijing et al, 1980). It reached Europe in the 1700s from Jesuit missionary contact with the Chinese (Baldry, 2005). However acupuncture did not commend itself to European medical practitioners until the 1800s. A few doctors in Britain practised acupuncture without using Chinese theories, but by inserting needles at the site of greatest pain (Baldry, 2005). Acupuncture was more generally accepted in Europe in 1950 when George Soulie′ de Morant was nominated for the Nobel Prize in physiology for his work in acupuncture (Davis, 1973). The Medical Acupuncture Society in Britain was founded in 1959 (Bivins, 2001).

It was not until 1971 that the ‘discovery’ of acupuncture reached Western public consciousness. A Western pressman was successfully treated with acupuncture during the 1971 Sino-American negotiation in Beijing (Bivins, 2001). Further worldwide publicity followed visits from American and British doctors to witness acupuncture analgesia (Bivins, 2001) and later when President Nixon visited China in 1972 (Baldry, 2005).

Having undertaken many investigations into acupuncture, the World Health Organisation in 1979 proclaimed acupuncture as a clinical practice, which due to the available evidence must be taken seriously as a treatment of significant value (Mole, 1992). This appearance of an integrated traditional medical practice strongly influenced the dissemination and practice of traditional Chinese acupuncture in the West (Birch and Kaptchuk, 1999).

Traditional Chinese Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese acupuncture is the application of ‘dry’ acupuncture needles in accordance to the individual traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis. The needles are known as ‘dry’ needles to differentiate from needles used for injection purposes. Often in the treatment of musculo-skeletal conditions, acupuncture points used in traditional Chinese acupuncture treatment will loosely correspond to points selected for Western acupuncture treatment. There can be similarities in traditional Chinese acupuncture and Western acupuncture needling, but the means of reaching a diagnosis and determining therapy is radically different in each of the two paradigms.

Development of Western Acupuncture

The British physician and acupuncturist, Felix Mann first encountered acupuncture in France in the 1950s (Baldry, 2005). Mann considered he was medically ‘unorthodox’ because he used acupuncture without knowledge of how it worked (Bivins, 2001). Mann (1998) considered that the results traditional Chinese acupuncture achieved were not through the postulated traditional Chinese medicinal methods. His acupuncture teaching from the mid 1970s was based largely upon Western acupuncture principles (Campbell, 1998). Thus a modified version of acupuncture, based on anatomical distribution of acupuncture points, came to be practiced in both the West and China (Payne, 1986).

As alternative medicinal practices gained popularity in the Western world, a variety of research projects including those on acupuncture have been undertaken (National Institute of Health (NIH), 1997). These include laboratory studies and clinical trials in order to gain more understanding of the mechanism of action resultant from acupuncture needling. The scientific world has also made advances in relation to the neurophysiology of pain, which has provided further insight into the possible mechanisms of acupuncture action (Baldry, 2005; Carlsson, 2002; Filshie & Cummings, 1999).





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