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The History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient form of therapy, practiced in China as far back as 8,000 years ago according to some sources. Researchers have been unable to find the exact origins of acupuncture in China. Some sources indicate arrow wounds received in battle may have actually resulted in healing of chronic ailments for some soldiers, perhaps being the driving force behind the development of acupuncture as a medicinal practice.

The formal practice of acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into particular points within the body. These insertion points are believed to be placed along meridians within the body, or lines through which vital energy flows through the body and all its systems.

Acupuncture as a medical treatment is known to predate written history. While the first written reference to the practice does not appear until around 300 BCE, archaeological records contain evidence of the practice dating back to at least the Stone Age, if not the Neolithic period.

The ancient Chinese used sharpened stones and needles made of bone to perform acupuncture treatments. It was not until the 2nd century BCE that metal needles were employed. Acupuncture became a popular medical practice throughout Asia during the 1st century, with more than 90 medical volumes being published on the practice. The treatment spread from China to other Asian nations, including Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

In China, the practice began to lose favor around the year 1200. It began to be known as a less reputable and prestigious practice, often associated with superstition. Though it was generally not well regarded by the upper classes, it did not cease to be practiced by the lower classes in China during this time. It had additionally made its way to many other parts of the Asian world, in which it remained a highly regarded medicinal practice even when in disrepute in the country of its origin.

The first European reports of the practice are believed to have been carried by Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s. It was nearly two centuries later, in 1683, that the first European medical text described the practice.

Acupuncture continued to decline in China and in 1822, the Emperor banned the teaching and practice of the ancient art within the Imperial Academy of Medicine. It was still practiced by the Chinese lower classes and in other parts of the world, including Europe, though not with any real frequency. It was often considered with skepticism by the established Western medical community.

The Chinese Revolution brought further shame to traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, as some of the early Communist Party leaders dismissed these practices as superstition-driven activities performed only by the uneducated and backward members of the lower class. It was the counter position of Party Chairman Mao Zedong that can be credited with some of the resurgence of Chinese traditional medicine. Zedong believed that Chinese medicine was valuable and required additional study and refinement in order to bring it into the modern era.

Acupuncture was introduced into the larger American community following the visit of President Richard Nixon to China in 1972. Nixon and the American delegation witnessed acupuncture in use during the visit, even if under some less-than-honest circumstances. A patient who was supposedly fully awake and un-medicated had surgery while receiving only acupuncture treatment for pain. Though it was later discovered that the patient had received other pain and anesthesia treatment, the practice of acupuncture had peaked the interest of many in the American medical and general populations.

The practice was further promoted in the United States as a result of reporter James Reston receiving treatment and later recounting his experience. Reston, who worked for the New York Times and followed Nixon’s party during the Chinese visit, received acupuncture treatment for pain after an emergency appendectomy while in China.

Reston’s New York Times article sparked the curiosity and imagination of the American public. By as early as 1973, acupuncture was an accepted medical practice, at least as far as the U.S. Department of Revenue was concerned since it was listed as a deductible medical expense for tax purposes that year.

Although acupuncture is still not a reputable medical practice in many peoples’ minds, it is now understood that many of the needle insertion points and their corresponding meridians are actually located along neural or circulatory pathways. This explains in modern scientific terms the reason for documented effects of acupuncture treatment on pain and illness as well as anxiety, depression and some forms of infertility. Though the practice and its effects are still not entirely understood, it is now better received the world over than it once was.

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