For additional detail, please also see my page on acupuncture that is associated with my site on reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD).
Like many practices with ancient roots, it is impossible to state with accuracy just when acupuncture began. The most common estimates place its inception around 4000 B.C., meaning that it has been practiced and perfected for around six millenia. The very rudimentary diagram of acupuncture meridians shown to the left has been ascertained via carbon dating to be over 5000 years old. In fact, the development of acupuncture and of Taoism follow very similar historical lines (see Taoism, in this web site).
The first known acupuncture text is the Nei Ching Su Wen and there is, of course, a great deal of controversy about its exact origins. As commonly occurred in those early days, the text is known by several names, including the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, or the Canon of Medicine.
The principle underlying acupuncture is that the body contains a complex, interwoven system of channels that carry chi (qi, 齊), or life energy, to all parts of the body. When a person is ill, in pain, feels anxious, or in any other way does not feel in excellent health, it is the effect of blocked qi flow somewhere in the body. The practitioner diagnoses the problem by locating the blockage in the qi system, which is then relieved by inserting one or usually more short, extremely thin needles into the skin at very precise locations, governed by the ailment and the practitioner's knowledge of qi system anatomy. The needles are so very thin (probably at least 30 gauge), and are inserted so quickly and deftly that the process is almost completely pain-free. The practitioner usually twirls each needle by the widening at its handle; this hastens the therapeutic action. Or, increasingly, a small electric potential is applied across two needles to increase their action.
The exact placement of the needles is of paramount importance. In a famous double-blind, placebo-controlled study about 20 years ago, a cohort of test subjects with tension headaches was divided in half, and each was treated by a professional acupuncturist, who inserted a series of needles in the patients' ears. Half of the acupuncturists intentionally inserted the needles close to, but not into, the exact acupuncture points known to block qi in the area and thus relief headaches. Neither the patients nor the physicians monitoring and recording the test knew which patients received the "real" acupuncture, and which did not. (As an aside, evidently, the researchers tried to discern who got the real treatments by examining the relative pin positions in patients' ears; however, the "real" vs. "sham" needle positions were so close that they could not be differentiated by the physicians.) The results of the study were that 84% of the patients receiving bona fide acupuncture obtained immediate and lasting relief; of those receiving the sham treatments, only 18% reported any relief. (Note: A placebo effect of approximately 20% is normal when there is a significant psychological component of the complaint being treated; these include anxiety, pain, and fatigue.)
Acupuncture has a clearly recorded history of about 2,000 years, but some authorities claim that it has been practiced in China for some 4,000 years. The Chinese believe that the practice of acupuncture began during the Stone Age when stone knives or sharp edged tools, described by the character 'Bian', were used to puncture and drain abscesses. In fact the Chinese character 'Bian' means the 'use of a sharp edged stone to treat disease', and the modern Chinese character 'Bi' (雙), representing a disease of pain, is almost certainly derived from the use of 'Bian stones' for the treatment of painful complaints.
The origin of Chinese medicine is a fascinating story and acupuncture represents only one facet of their medical system. The first recorded attempt at conceptualizing and treating disease dates back to about 1500 BC during the Shang dynasty. Tortoise shells with inscriptions dating from that time have been found, and it is thought that these were used for divination in the art of healing. The philosophical basis of much of the very early Chinese medicine seems to have been to seek harmony between the living and their dead ancestors, and the good and evil spirits that inhabited the earth.
The Development of the Chinese Approach to Medicine and Science
The initial section of the Nei Ching Su Wen involves a discussion between the Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, and his Minister, Ch'i Pai. This discussion lays down the philosophical basis of traditional Chinese medicine, and makes the Nei Ching Su Wen more of a treatise on health and disease rather than a textbook of medicine. Early Greek texts on medicine are mainly of interest to the medical historian rather than the practicing physician. For instance, Hippocrates does make many excellent philosophical and practical observations about disease and the doctor-patient relationship, but for the most part these texts are recipe books for a variety of ill-defined diseases. The Nei Ching Su Wen is timeless and deals almost exclusively with philosophical concepts, many of which seem to be as important today as they were 2,000 years ago.
Professor Joseph Needham, one of the greatest living experts on Chinese scientific philosophy, describes some aspects of the ancient Chinese system of science as mediaeval and retrogressive He feels that many of these concepts have distorted that development and obvious potential of Chinese medicine There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this but there is still a great deal of useful and valuable information within the traditional Chinese approach to medicine.
The Western doctor observes the facts before him and uses the current physiological theories to explain them. Chinese medicine is based on a much wider world view, which is described in the Nei Ching Su Wen, and these ideas are woven into a complete and intact system based on a philosophy different from that of modern Western medicine. The concepts of Yin and Yang, and the number five, are two of the more important ideas that permeate much of traditional Chinese scientific thought.
The number five is also very important to Chinese thought. For example, there are five notes in the basic musical scale, five tastes for food and five elements in the physical world (earth, fire, water, wood and metal). The five elements are not just atomic constituents of matter, they have also been described as the five transitional stages of all physical materials. It is these philosophical ideas that form the basis of much of the discussion in the Nei Ching Su Wen.
The authorship of the Nei Ching Su Wen is attributed to Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, but there is some doubt as to whether Huang Ti actually existed and a great deal more doubt about the claim that he wrote the Nei Ching Su Wen. Genealogies of the Chinese dynasties list him as the third of first five rulers of China, and ascribe the dates 2697-2579 B.C to him. Ssu-Ma Ch'ien, an historian of the second century BC begins the Historical Records with an account of Huang Ti and defines him as the founder of the Chinese civilization, and the first ruler of the Empire. He is one of three legendary Emperors who founded the art of healing; the others are Shen Nung and Hsi.
It is probable that the Nei Ching Su Wen was written by a variety of people and was updated by several important Chinese physicians. Some authorities date the Nei Ching Su Wen from 1000 BC whilst others, probably more correctly, date this text to the Warring States period (475-221 BC). The Ling Shu was almost certainly added during the Warring States period, and the twenty-four chapters that comprise the Nei Ching Su Wen were probably revised and re-written at this time.
The Development of Chinese Philosophy
Confucianism defined the social status of prince and pauper within Chinese society and elected the Emperor a god. It result in a basically feudal and totalitarian system of government that still exists today, in an adapted form. Confucianism impinged on medicine in that it was opposed to the development of anatomy and surgery, one of its main tenets being that the whole body was sacred and should remain complete throughout life and also in death. The Confucians believed that it was important to present oneself to 'the ancestors' whole, and therefore one of the most feared methods of execution in ancient China was decapitation. Acupuncture and related methods were the logical answer to this constraint, as they were able to cure internal disease with external means.
The Tao literally means the 'way' and the philosophy of Taoism is a method of maintaining harmony between man and his world, and between this world and beyond. The Tao, or the 'way', has been linked to a separate creed called Taoism but its basic naturalistic philosophies permeate all Chinese thought and religion, including Buddhism. Yin and Yang are very much part of the Tao, as the Book of Changes states, 'one Yin, one Yang, being called the Tao'. The religion of Taoism became formalized during the Warring States period and a book of poems entitled the Tao attributed to Lao Tsu (c. 500 BC ), describes many of the basic concepts within this philosophy. [Editor's note: Interested readers may wish to peruse the section on Taoism and Early Taoism in this web site, under the major section on Spirituality.]
The Taoist concept of health is to attempt to attain perfect harmony between the opposing forces of the natural world, between Yin and Yang, the belief being that the only way to be healthy is to adjust to the natural forces within the world and become part of their rhythm. It is further realized that the natural forces are completely dependent on each other; earth is dependent on rain and rain is dependent on heaven, which in turn cannot exist without the earth. In the same way Yin cannot exist without Yang, and yet the two are opposites. The concept of a unified, but at the same time polar force, governing natural events, is central to much of Chinese thought.
At first glance these concepts seem to be an irrelevant side-line to the development of a system of medicine, but acupuncture, and its development can only really be understood if the reader grasps the traditional Chinese approach to health and disease In essence, the ideal of health is perfect harmony between the forces of Yin and Yang; this represents the correct 'way' or Tao. Disharmony brings disease and death. Taoism is a passive philosophy, exalting the art of detailed and accurate observations. This was also an essential part of the development of Chinese medical thought and allowed detailed observations on organ structure and function to be made, as discussed in the first chapter.
The main needle now used for acupuncture is the filliform, as most of the others have been replaced by more sophisticated surgical instruments, for instance, the sword-like needle has been replaced by the scalpel.
The 'nine needles' were initially made of either bronze, or gold and silver, and seem to have been first used about 2,000 years ago. The tomb of the Prince of Chungshan, dating from the second century BC, was excavated in 1968 and contained a set of nine needles, four being of gold and five of silver. Some acupuncturists use gold and silver needles but the majority only stainless steel filliform needles.
Now, acupuncture needles are produced on a massive scale, pre-sterilized and disposable, as are needles for hypodermic injections. A variety of lengths and widths are available, and the widths are the narrowest steel needles produced industrially for any purpose. Typical acupuncture needles range from in thickness from about 0.0160" (27 ga.) to about 0.0090" (32 ga.). For comparison, a typical dental needle used to inject local anesthetic is about 30 ga., while a needle for intramuscular injections (such as penicillin or other antibiotics or oil-based mixtures, given high in the gluteus maximus muscle) would be ~18-20 ga.