Acupuncture: Did you know…?

Ian Appleyard, Research & Policy Manager, has been putting pen to paper to share some of his favourite, mostly historical, facts about acupuncture which has a history that stretches back thousands of years.

1. According to Chinese legend, acupuncture and herbal medicine was taught to the Chinese people by Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) and Shennong (the Divine Farmer). These legendary figures are said to have ruled China almost 5,000 years ago.

2. There are mythical or semi mythical figures from the 6th to 5th century who were considered learned physicians. For example, the mysterious Bian Que who was sometimes depicted as a bird with a human’s head. Bian Que biography was described in The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (145-90 B.C.E.), China’s most famous historian. Bian Que is said to have learnt his skills from a mysterious stranger he met in an inn.

3. Medical writings during the Han dynasty were gradually compiled to form the classic text of Chinese medicine, the Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经), commonly translated as the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. However, “thearch” is a better translation of 帝di. The book is presented as a dialogue between the Yellow Thearch and his advisors, most famously Qi Bo (岐伯). Interestingly, for a divine figure, the Yellow Thearch doesn’t know very much, and Qi Bo needs to do a lot of explaining. Perhaps a way for ancient Chinese scholars to hint that the Emperor should listen to them!

4. Most acupuncture points are sited on one of 14 meridians that run vertically over the body. Many people will be familiar with the charts of these meridians. However, the system is more complicated and includes smaller meridians that form a network over the entire body. This is a little bit like the relationship between arteries and capillaries. The Chinese word for meridian is jingluo (经络) – jing refers to the line and luo means ‘net like’.

5. The number of acupuncture points in the medical literature has gradually increased over the centuries. There are traditionally 365, one for each day of the year. However, there are now a number of additional non-meridian points that are commonly used in practice.

6. Formal examinations on medicine had been conducted in China since the 2nd century B.C.E, by the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) – the formal education was very well established. This included an Imperial Medical Office with professors of pharmacy, acupuncture, massage and physical therapy. There were hundreds of students as well as regional academies. For comparison, Cambridge University was founded in 1209.

7. Acupuncture first came to the attention of Europeans in the 17th century. Jacob de Bondt (1598-1631) wrote to the surgeon general for the Dutch East India Company:

The results [with acupuncture] in Japan which I will relate surpass even miracles. For chronic pains of the head, for obstructions of the liver and spleen and also for pleurisy, they bore through [the flesh] with a stylus made of silver or bronze and not much thicker than the strings of a lyre.

8. Nixon’s visit to China sparked a renewed interest in acupuncture in the early 1970s. However, at that time in many Western countries, it was prohibited to use acupuncture unless you were a doctor of medicine. There is a remarkable story surrounding how acupuncture first became legalised in the United States, in the state of Nevada. Arthur Steinberg had experienced the benefits of acupuncture in Hong Kong and wanted to bring it to the USA. He hired part of a casino, brought over Dr Yee Kung Lok from Hong Kong, invited all the members of the state legislator to come for free treatment, then produced a film. They managed to get acupuncture legalised despite opposition from the medical profession in 1973.

9. Acupuncture has now been well researched for chronic pain conditions such as headache, osteoarthritis and back pain. The best available evidence to date shows the acupuncture is useful for these conditions, it is not a placebo, and the benefits last for at least a year.

10. Modern science is beginning to uncover how acupuncture may work. For example, imaging of the brain shows that different parts of the brain are stimulated when different points are needled.

World Acupuncture Awareness Day 2022