The Essential History of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient healing system that predates recorded history. It treats various conditions by triggering specific points on the skin using fine needles. Despite its outward appearance, it’s actually a minimally invasive method that stimulates nerve-rich areas and influences glands, tissues, organs, and a variety of other bodily functions.

Today, acupuncture is used to treat problems such as hypertension, insomnia, sprains, morning sickness, allergies, osteoarthritis, depression, anxiety, chronic muscle pain, migraine, menstrual pains, and more. Some studies even suggest that it can help treat cancer and multiple sclerosis, although the jury is still out on those. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the history of acupuncture and explain how it changed through the ages. If you’re looking for detailed information about how acupuncture works and whether it can be used to treat a specific condition, click here

When was acupuncture first invented?

Acupuncture is generally thought to have originated in ancient China. This is because the first official record of acupuncture is in a Chinese medical text called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (original name: Huang Di Nei Jing). 

However, acupuncture has been around for much longer than that, and has likely appeared in various areas worldwide. It first began during the Stone Age, as many as 6000 years before the common era, when our ancestors used sharp-edged stones and primitive tools to puncture abscesses and drain them. 

Whatever its exact origins may be, acupuncture has been a widely accepted Chinese method of treatment ever since. 

Did acupuncturists always use needles?

The tools used by early acupuncturists were called the bian stones. These stones were refined into thin needles and used in the healing process. Bian stones were excavated from Chinese ruins dating back as far as the New Stone Age.

Hieroglyphs from the time of the Shang Dynasty (approximately 1000 years BC) show evidence of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Bian stones were still the main acupuncturist tool at the time, but they were slowly being replaced by bronze needles.

It wasn’t until the Warring States Era (421-221 BC) that bian stones were finally replaced by metal needles. Many of these needles were made out of precious metals, with four silver and five gold needles being excavated from a tomb dating back to 113 BC. 

When was acupuncture properly classified?

Celebrated physician Huang Fu Mi wrote Systematic Classics of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, a twelve-volume work that describes 349 acupuncture points, between the years 260 and 265 AD. This sparked a period of great development for acupuncture that would go on for centuries.   

The next crucial acupuncture document is The Illustrated Manual on Points of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, penned by another famous physician, Wang Weiyi. This tome expanded the list of known acupuncture points to 657. Weiyi also casted a pair of bronze statues on which acupuncture points and meridians were engraved for teaching purposes.

Acupuncture would see further advancements during the Ming Dynasty, including:

  • The classic texts were revised.
  • The techniques and manipulations were refined.
  • Indirect treatment became possible with the invention of Moxa sticks.

When did acupuncture appear in the West?

Acupuncture was generally unknown in the west until 1971, when President Nixon visited China and learned about this ancient healing technique. A member of the US press corps received acupuncture treatment while recovering from an appendectomy, and wrote about it later in the New York Times.

This brought acupuncture awareness to the west and led to FDA classifying acupuncture needles as medical instruments in 1995. Acupuncture was acknowledged as an effective healing system by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. 

Today, people throughout the western world regularly turn to licensed acupuncturists for medical help. With over 40 accredited acupuncture schools operating in the United States alone, it’s clear that this ancient healing art is here to stay.