Where does acupuncture come from?

Acupuncture is a practice surrounded by many different opinions as to its effectiveness and usefulness.  In this article we look at the origins of acupuncture and how the practice made its way from the Far East into Europe and healthcare across the world.

 A brief history of acupuncture

Acupuncture as we know it dates back to ancient China, and has its roots within Chinese philosophies about the body’s workings. The basis of Chinese acupuncture is the belief in Qi, a life force that travels through the body via its own specialist circulatory system made up of vessels called ‘meridians’. According to these beliefs, the disruption of Qi’s flow through meridians is responsible for disease, and by that logic, clearing up any obstructions in the flow of Qi can restore health. Acupuncture’s careful insertion of fine needles is designed to achieve this, repairing the body’s supply of Qi to remedy disease and pain.

Over 2000 years of practice and refinement of acupuncture in Chine led to the development of a detailed model of meridians in the body. This model was used as the basis for acupuncture treatment and an understanding of the body based on the theory of Qi flow.

Since the 19th century, the practice of acupuncture has declined sharply in China, giving way to more modern concepts of healthcare brought in through increasing contact with Europeans and other travellers. Interestingly despite this decline in China, the spread of acupuncture into Western cultures has been more pronounced in recent years.

Acupuncture’s first expansion was into neighbouring countries like Korea and Japan, where the practice of applying needles to the body was readily integrated into medical practice. In Europe France was one of the first countries to accept acupuncture as the practice was brought back by missionaries in the 16th century.

Acupuncture’s presence in Western medicine has only escalated very recently, and in the past 50 or 60 years many investigations into the effectiveness and legitimacy of the practice have been performed. Part of the process of its transition into Western culture and medicine has been a revision of the theories underlying acupuncture, and from a healthcare perspective acupuncture is thought to achieve its therapeutic effects through the manipulation of nerves and muscles in the body. Proof of these mechanisms remains unclear however.

Thus far evidence of the usefulness of acupuncture through scientific research has proven limited, and in most cases controversial. That being said, some aspects of acupuncture have proven beneficial, and here in the UK there is enough evidence supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating back pain that it is a NICE recommended course of therapy for lower back pain.

Acupuncture’s movement from East to West has brought an interesting practice into modern healthcare, and despite the controversy surrounding many aspects of acupuncture, particularly its theoretical basis, it has proven to be a useful method of managing pain, nausea, and other uncomfortable and distressing symptoms.

How does acupuncture work? »