Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world. Archeological discoveries of stone needles several thousand years old have placed the origins of acupuncture in the Neolithic era (8,000-2,000 BC) – the New Stone Age. Scholars speculate that early man found relief by placing pressure on local areas of pain. After finding simple pressure to be inadequate, experimentation with heavier, jagged objects followed. Eventually, rocks were refined into stone instruments, and through trial and error the existence of specific points which brought about greater relief were discovered. Although excavations from the Shang dynasty unearthed bronze needles, it was not until the Chinese Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC) that gold and silver needles eventually replaced stone.
Acupuncture treatment is only one component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is based on ancient theories of the flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”), through pathways called meridians that span the body. Qi is the vital force, or energy, responsible for controlling the workings of the body and mind. There are 12 primary energetic pathways that correspond to organ systems. Imbalances or obstruction to the flow of Qi cause pain or illness. Acupuncture points are used to access the meridians and restore balance and the proper flow of energy within the patient.
Acupuncture needles are sterilized and very thin, typically between 32-40 gauge – much smaller than hypodermic needles used to give injections. People experience acupuncture differently, but most feel no or minimal pain when the needles are inserted. Once the needles are in place the patient usually feels very relaxed. For answers to more specific questions about the practice of acupuncture or an acupuncture treatment, please go to Frequently Asked Questions.
There are a number of different styles of acupuncture:
- TCM is the style most licensed acupuncturists are trained in, and what is primarily practiced in China today.
- Japanese acupuncture is a style which requires additional training beyond general TCM theory and practice. Techniques are aimed at using the least amount of stimulation to create the greatest effect, typically using thinner needles and less acupuncture points than TCM-style. In Japanese acupuncture, practitioners may use palpation of the abdomen as a diagnostic tool.
- Tan-style acupuncture was developed by Richard Tan and is based on clinical experience and the use of microsystems within the body. This style often uses alternate areas of the body to treat other areas which may be too painful or tender.
- Auricular acupuncture is a specific microsystem which uses the ear as a representation of the entire body. Small needles placed in the ears can treat conditions anywhere in the body, including psychological issues. Auricular acupuncture is used extensively in drug and alcohol detox centers where the NADA protocol is used to help people deal with addictions.
- Additionally, there are Korean and Five-Element styles of acupuncture
While widely practiced around the world, especially in Asia and Europe, the United States did not take notice of acupuncture until the 1970’s when President Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China. NY Times reporter, James Reston, wrote from Beijing of his experience with acupuncture and moxibustion for post-operative pain following an emergency appendectomy. Popularity and respect for the medical modality have steadily risen. In 2002 an estimated 8.2 million U.S. adults had used acupuncture, including 2.1 million in the previous year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that acupuncture is safe and proven effective for many conditions. In the late 1970’s the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the ability of acupuncture to treat nearly four dozen common ailments. In America today, acupuncture treatment is increasingly being covered by medical insurance.
The individualized nature of TCM treatment, including acupuncture, makes it more difficult to research than western medical treatment - which is standardized to treat specific conditions in the same manner, rather than on an individual basis. However, scientific studies continue to support the efficacy of acupuncture for a wide variety of conditions. In fact, modern research has confirmed the specificity of the actions of acupuncture points using functional MRI scans. Stimulation of an acupuncture point on the little toe produced similar activation of occipital lobes as direct stimulation of the eye with light… confirming what acupuncturists have known for thousands of years – that a particular acupuncture point on the little toe is associated with eyesight! (Proc Natl Acad Sci 95:2670-2673, Cho ZH et al 1998)
Many western medical-trained doctors (MD’s) and chiropractors are beginning to incorporate acupuncture into their practices. However, please be aware that because they are already trained in the use of needles, and/or received a limited amount of training within their education, they are only required to undergo minimal training in TCM theory and practical application – often as little as 200 hours – compared to the over 3,500 hours of classroom and clinical work necessary to obtain a Masters degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MAcOM) and become a licensed acupuncturist (LAc). Due to the complex and holistic nature of TCM, treatment from a practitioner with minimal training may result in less effective treatment.
Ancient Chinese Medicine for Modern American Health