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A Brief History of Acupuncture

The name acupuncture comes from two Latin words, one meaning needle (acus) and the other meaning to penetrate (puncture). I always thought that the “acu” part related to the accuracy and precision of needle placement. Hunh, learned something new there myself. And, it’s a REALLY old way of treating illness.

The Greek system, from which a lot of Western, allopathic medicine derives, theorized that “humors” of the body needed to be balanced in order for one to be in good health. The predominance of certain humors gave rise to certain tendencies: melancholic, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic.

A similar, yet different need for balance as the basis of health was established in the Far East. This system, often analogized to waterways, relied upon the balanced flow of “essence” or “qi” for health. The placement of needles might be thought of as opening and closing valves in the waterway analogy. If you are interested in a layperson’s explanation of the philosophy of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) consider reading The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk.

Many historical references suggest what we now call China as the originating location of acupuncture. Certainly, the Chinese developed the written foundation of the medicine in classics such as The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine written around 200 bc and still used as a reference today. Yes, it’s that good and that comprehensive. If you are interested in learning more about the history of TCM consider reading Medicine in China: A History of Ideas by Paul U. Unschuld.

Preserved bodies estimated to be over 5,000 years old have been found with remnants of tattoos corresponding with acupuncture points. These have been found outside China and it is unclear whether this came from Chinese influence, developed in parallel, or was the impetus for the development in China. Either way, in 17th century Europe, Jesuit missionaries (re)introduced acupuncture after travel to China. The Jesuits and traveling physicians helped spread the use of acupuncture in Europe.

In the U.S., acupuncture received attention in 1971 when a New York Times reporter required surgery while traveling to China with President Nixon. He was offered acupuncture to address post-operative symptoms of pain and swelling. He accepted and his documentation of the results is credited with opening the eyes of Americans to the value in this medicine. Thus, while it is an old, long-proven medical modality, in the U.S. it holds the place of a “young upstart.” Nevertheless, it has proved its mettle in a number of areas and is likely useful in more. According to the Mayo Clinic acupuncture can often be successfully used for (

 Neurologic: Migraine and Tension headache

 Musculoskeletal: Osteoarthritis (knee), Fibromyalgia, Back pain, Neck pain, Postoperative

 Gastrointestinal: Nausea and vomiting (including that associated with chemotherapy)

There is some evidence that the following can also be successfully treated, but more research is recommended.

Gynecologic/reproductive: Hot flashes, Infertility, PMS

 Psychiatric/mood: Stress, Anxiety, Depression

 Addiction: Nicotine dependence, Alcohol dependence

 Endocrine: Obesity

 ENT: Allergic rhinitis, Sinusitis

 Respiratory: Asthma, COPD

 Cardiovascular: Hypertension, Angina


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