Sometimes my patients ask me how acupuncture was invented, how it works, who thought it up and other questions about the history of acupuncture. And who the heck was the first person to agree to have an acupuncture treatment! While there is no single or simple answer, we have a lot of clues as to how this ancient system of healing came about.
When I was in school, I studied translations of ancient texts from centuries ago (classical Chinese medicine) that discuss some of the early theories behind acupuncture, but there is no written history about the dawn of acupuncture. It’s widely believed that acupuncture came from the practice of draining infections and opening and bleeding areas of pain and inflammation. For “needles”, the ancient Chinese used sharp rocks, bones and other tools to penetrate the skin, until metallurgy ushered in the practice of using sharp, but very crude instruments that evolved into the fine-gauged acupuncture needles we use today.
Historians theorize that something called ashi points also contributed to the earliest acupuncture treatments. If you’ve ever had a knot in your upper back that felt better when you poked or pushed on it, you’re dealing with an ashi point. Ashi literally means, “That’s it!” as in that’s the spot that hurts. I usually call those the juicy spots! These points are the bedrock of modern-day trigger point acupuncture, in which these painful ashi points are needled in order to release the tension and pain in the muscles and fascia underneath.
The acupuncture points that we use today are usually in specific anatomical areas, such as holes in bones where nerves pass through (called foramen), places where nerves branch off, bony protrusions, areas where muscles separate, and in nerve bundles, such as trigger points.
Disovery of the Acupuncture Points
How these various points became aligned with the meridians (also called pathways or channels) is the subject of discussion and various theories. One theory, called the Patient First Theory suggests that by observing what areas were tender or painful on a patient’s body during the course of an illness led to the discovery of the acupuncture points. Those points were grouped with others that had similar characteristics or actions to create the meridians. These groupings were further validated when pressure, massage or heat was applied effectively along these grouped points as a way to reduce symptoms.
Another hypothesis, called the Channels First Theory is believed to have originated during body therapies, such as massage, cupping or gua sha, in which referred pain or sensation was felt in a location other than the site of stimulation. This led practitioners to imagine pathways along the body. For example, people who are experiencing a heart attack often feel pain radiating down their left arm, along what is the heart meridian; and gallbladder pain is often felt in the upper right shoulder, along the path of the gallbladder meridian. The tendinomuscular pathways also support this theory, in which groupings of tendons, muscles and nerves are interconnected throughout the entirety of a meridian. For example, the bladder meridian incorporates the anatomy from the top of your skull, through the back of your neck, down your back, through the back of your legs and into your feet—all of which are interrelated. Your acupuncturist may use the bladder meridian for a wide variety of conditions including headache, back pain, digestive issues, reproductive conditions and musculoskeletal problems.
Regardless of how the meridians were discovered, we know today that they work to move Qi (energy) and blood throughout your body and to integrate your body’s organs, tissues and functions. Modern scientists have validated that the meridians act as biomedical signaling pathways, which use your body’s chemicals to transmit signals and regulate tissue and organ systems. In addition, researchers have discovered that the meridians act as inflammation-regulating pathways throughout your body.
Going back to those early acupuncture treatments, in which a practitioner may have lanced an infection. From that simple act, they learned a lot about the workings of Chinese medical theory. They learned that the area became less red (it cleared heat), the swelling and infection went away (it reduced excess) and it restored normal function and circulation to the area (it moved Qi and Blood).
From the dawn of acupuncture to today, the practice of acupuncture and Chinese medicine is constantly growing and changing. In this respect, Chinese and Western medicine are similar in that new discoveries are incorporated into practice to make the medicine more clinically effective. Essentially, what is useful is incorporated into the medicine and what is not is left behind. In Chinese medicine, this generated the organ systems, Five Phase theory, the back Shu points, the front Mu points, auricular acupuncture and a host of other methods and theories. And even more current is the use of cold laser therapy, far infrared heat, electric stimulation of acupuncture points and shock wave therapy as a way to enhance the effectiveness of acupuncture treatments.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this incredible system of healing came from such humble beginnings. However, as it has grown and developed, science has been able to document not only its effectiveness for a wide variety of health conditions but to also track the physiological changes that occur in your body during an acupuncture treatment. But it’s true, and it’s here to stay. If you’d like to know more about how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help you, please don’t hesitate to give our clinic a call.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.