What Is Acupuncture: A History

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Oct 11th, 2012)

Acupuncture HistoryDespite coming into an alternative health care clinic a lot of people will give me a funny look when I mention acupuncture. Many people either don’t know much about acupuncture or only know what main stream media has said about it, which isn’t much and is a little biased. So, let’s explore where acupuncture comes from and the different inputs it has had over the years. Next week, we will discuss the difficulty of performing controlled research in acupuncture and what the current body of literature says about this ancient treatment.

Acupuncture can be traced back over 2000 years with the ancient text, “Nei Ching Su Wen” or the “Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” or the “Yellow Emperors Inner Canon” (~200 BCE). Some scholars even claim that acupuncture dates back to between 4000 and 5000 years ago. It originated in Eastern Asia, most historians agree it was most likely China, but it spread throughout the region along trade routes and made it all the way to Southern Europe, most notably France (more on that later). In Chinese history, acupuncture is portrayed as a fairly ubiquitous form of life. There were professional acupuncturists but every mother and wife was expected to know some acupuncture for day-to-day use within the family. This was passed down from mother to daughter in a tradition similar to that seen around the world.

This became even more prominent when acupuncture fell out of style at the end of the Song Dynasty and began to be associated with the lower classes. In the 1820’s the Emperor banned the teaching of acupuncture from the Imperial Academy of Medicine. The Chinese Communist Party treated acupuncture much the same way until Chairman Mao Zedong reversed this attitude when he came to power and reintroduced acupuncture to the Chinese medical system.

After World War Two many areas of the world were devastated but none quite like Japan. The pictures of the devastation are quite famous now including the massive scarring on survivors at the outer edges of the blast radius. Acupuncture was used prominently in the treatment of these survivors to resolve scars and heal tissues. The success of this is not as well known but is just as well documented.

In France acupuncture picked up steam and got quite a foothold. In the 1950s French acupuncturists started to combine the traditional acupuncture style with newer technology. This was the birth of Electroacupuncture which uses low intensity electricity to stimulate the qi. This has become a prominent form of acupuncture in the Western world.

In 1972, President Nixon made his famous trip to China, opening up communication between the United States and most of Asia. As with most presidential trips, he was trailed by copious numbers of journalists and reporters. One reporter, James Reston of the New York Times, had the ill fate of coming down with appendicitis during the trip. He had to get an emergency appendectomy and, as was the practice in China, acupuncture was used to relieve the post-surgical pain. Mr. Reston was so amazed by the effectiveness of this treatment that he wrote a piece praising acupuncture when he returned to the States. This was the dramatic introduction of acupuncture’s power to North America.

In North America, acupuncture has had a difficult time finding its place. Because the basis of acupuncture is grounded in a completely different philosophy and world view than is common in Western culture, many people have a very difficult time accepting the practice and the claims its practitioners make. Currently, acupuncture is still not well understood but it is not waning in popularity. In fact, it is cropping up more and more in integrated care facilities for chronic pain, addiction centres, and even the United States military, which is using it for both pain control and treatment of PTSD in their troops. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the States, the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have all endorsed acupuncture as a therapy for specific conditions but the list is still growing.

In Asia, it is still practiced alongside modern medicine in both the traditional form and as electroacupuncture. It is used as a treatment for many difference conditions as an alternative and in conjunction with medical interventions.

So that is a brief overview of the history of acupuncture and where it is today. I hope this gives you a broader view of this powerful therapy. Come back next week when we will explore the research behind this technique.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

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