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History of Acupuncture

historical acupuncture text
acupuncture and Chinese medicine has an interesting and long history

So, you are thinking about trying acupuncture to help improve and maintain your health? Or, perhaps you are a long-time devotee of the approach to balancing your energy and improving your well-being? No?  Maybe you are a skeptic?

No matter what your relationship with or thoughts about acupuncture are, I think you may agree that its origins and history are fascinating. I’m often asked by my patients, friends and colleagues and collaborators in the “Western medicine” field about the history of acupuncture. Here is a brief overview.

Most researchers and historians agree that Chinese medicine and acupuncture predate recorded history. In fact, sharpened stones and bones that date from about 6000 BCE have been interpreted as instruments for acupuncture treatment and the philosophy that shapes and drives current acupuncture theory is at least 2,000 years old.

The pivotal texts that reframe and reshape Chinese medicine and acupuncture from a supernatural medicine to cohesive somatic preventative practice were compiled during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) and the early Han period (206 BCE–220 CE). These are known as the “Huang Di Nei Jing” or “The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine.” They have a very conversational style and are written as a series of questions that are posed by the Yellow Emperor to a learned physician named Qi-Bo. They emphasize Daoist philosophy, including yin-yang theory and nature’s five element doctrine. The first book is commonly known as the “Su Wen,” or “Fundamental Questions” and covers the theoretical foundation of Chinese Medicine and its diagnostic methods. The second book is named “Ling Shu,” or “Spiritual Axis/Pivot” and is essentially a detailed acupuncture manual. These texts were revolutionary for the time due to their systemized content. The “Huang Di Nei Jing” departs from the commonly held societal shamanistic beliefs that disease was caused by demonic influences. These “conversations” between the Yellow Emperor and Qi-Bo revolutionized Chinese medicine and laid the foundation of a complete holistic medical system, emphasizing the premise that disease develops due to natural causes of diet, lifestyle, emotions, environment, and age.

Throughout the history of China, acupuncture and herbal medicine continued to advance and develop into a nuanced medicine. The Tai Ping, Imperial Academy, was very instrumental to this process. The Imperial physicians were often the “cream of the crop” physicians and scholars in Chinese medicine. They created criteria for excellence in medicine by developing detailed models for disease transmission, treatment and prognosis. Depending on the historical period, often societal and social constructs made their way into the medicine. Confucianism and moves back to renewed interest in mysticism often show up in the recorded medicine of the time.

Chinese medicine and acupuncture in the modern era was again morphing in the 1950’s. Chairman Mao declared that Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine would be united and acupuncture became widely available in all hospitals. “Barefoot Doctors’ were also trained in a very elementary manner to employ the use of Chinese medicine and acupuncture so that some form of healthcare could be deployed to meet the challenges of the rural populations. At this point in history, only 2% of China’s population lived in cities.

Acupuncture made its way to the U.S. in the early 1970s. In 1971, New York Times reporter James Reston was treated with acupuncture during a visit to Beijing and wrote an article about how it helped treat post-operative pain. The following year, the first legal acupuncture center in the U.S. opened in Washington, D.C. and in 1973, the IRS allowed taxpayers to take acupuncture treatments as a medical expense deduction.

Now, nearly 40 years later, acupuncture has become more mainstream and is rapidly growing in use and acceptance. Building on its thousands of years of history and practice, acupuncture is continuing to impact patients’ health and overall well being.

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