What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is claimed to be an ancient system of healing developed over thousands of years as part of the traditional medicine of China. The aim of the treatment is to restore the balance of the universal energy Qi (pronounced chee) in the body, through the painless application of fine needles into strategic points on the body. Qi consists of Yin and Yang and these two opposite, but complementary, forces need to be in balance otherwise disease or illness occurs in the body. 

Acupuncture needles are used in specific acupuncture points which give access to the meridians in the body through which the Qi flows so that adjustments can be made to balance the Yin and Yang thus restoring harmony and health.

Acupuncture, like allopathic, homeopathy or ayurveda is a complete system of medicine. Like other systems of medicine it has a treatment for almost every disease and like each of these, it is extremely effective in treating some diseases, but not so effective in others.


A brief history of acupuncture

Acupuncture originated in China, although it has also been used in other East Asian countries. Evidence suggests that it was practiced as long as 2,000 years ago, although supporters of it often claim that it has been used for over 5,000 years. It has been intertwined with spiritual and religious practices throughout Chinese history. Acupuncture has a close association with Taoism, taoists being pioneers of the belief in body-mind-spirit consciousness. 

Early accounts of acupuncture written by missionaries describe acupuncture as being quite different to what we're led to believe.


The needles were large, inserted deeply, and used in short duration; '30 respirations' being quoted by missionary Wilhelm Ten Rhijn in 1680. Nor is there any mention of Qi, meridians, or specific acupuncture points. These concepts were actually introduced in the 20th century, notably by Georges Soulié de Morant in his 1939 book L’Acupuncture Chinoise. Before the 20th century, needles were simply inserted at the site of the pain or problem.Surprisingly, acupuncture was not introduced into Europe until the early 18th century when it was embraced by some French physicians. They were accused of "resurrecting an absurd doctrine from well-deserved oblivion" by many prominent doctors however. It was not introduced into England until 1821 when it was used by midwife Edward Joukes.

The popular explanation offered for the discovery of acupuncture is a story of a warrior wounded by an arrow. The arrow was removed and the wounded healed. Then it was observed that his disease in an unrelated part of the body was cured . an arrow in foot relieved headache . the cause and effect relationtionship was worked out by observant physicians, between punctured point and the disease it cured and ultimately series of points were charted. Acupuncture is usually associated with the Chinese. Researchers has revealed the existence of acupuncture treatment in the Indus valley , in India during the stone age,among the banthus of south Africa, among Eskimos and in brazil.


Acupuncture has been practised in India for thousands of years as a part of Ayurveda. It is common to see Indian villagers with earrings placed at specific points in the ear, to treat diseases elsewhere in the body. Many villagers also have scars on the abdomen, as a result of cauterization carried out to treat pain in the abdomen. This is similiar to moxibuxtion or heat treatment, which is used in Chinese medicine. 

There has been a rich exchange of ideas, philosophy and literature between India and China over thousands of years. Travellers and scholars from India went to China to teach and pilgrims from China came to visit Buddhist shrines and universities in India. This gave rise to the belief prevalent in many parts of India and Japan that acupuncture actually originated in India from where it spread to China.


In India, Ayurveda was a highly developed and effective system of medicine and acupuncture was only used for those diseases that did not respond to Ayurveda treatment. As there were thousands of herbs that were effective for different diseases, acupuncture was not as widely practised in India as it was in some parts of China. As explained earlier, in northwest China, very few herbs were available, so here traditional practitioners developed acupuncture into a highly advanced science.

With the onset of British rule and their promotion of the Western system of medicine, the art of acupuncture was largely lost. It was practised only by a few village doctors with a very basic knowledge of certain "effective points" which were passed down from father to son. It is only recently that there has been a resurgence of interest in acupuncture in India, fuelled by the intense worldwide awareness of its efficacy in curing a multitude of ailments.

What is westernised(modern) acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a form of medical treatment which has been practised in China for over two thousand years and which is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Because of its evident effectiveness, it is now utilised by some western medical practitioners such as GPs, physiotherapists and chiropractors; however, most of these practitioners, whilst utilising acupuncture as a technique, discard the traditional Chinese context in which acupuncture has been practised. for example, it would be wrong for someone to conclude that ‘acupuncture doesn’t work’ after a session of acupuncture with a physiotherapist had not produced any improvement in their condition – what the physiotherapist is doing with the needles they use may well be significantly different from what a traditional acupuncturist does with them.  


‘Dry needling’ is usually used as a method of pain relief by chiropractors, physiotherapists, GPs and others; an acupuncture needle is inserted into a tight band of muscle fibre known as a ‘trigger point’, with the aim of releasing the tightness and relaxing the muscle. . ‘Medical acupuncture’ involves an attempt to understand the mechanisms of how acupuncture works using the framework of western medicine, rather than the classical Chinese framework. ‘Medical acupuncturists’ mainly use acupuncture in the treatment of pain, but also use it for a few other conditions such as nausea and menopausal problems.

How Acupuncture Works

Recently science has determined that human beings are complex bioelectric systems. This understanding has been the foundation of acupuncture practice for several thousand years.Energy circulated throughout the body along well defined pathways. Points on the skin along these pathways are energetically connected to specific organs, body structures and systems. If this energy circulation is disrupted, optimum function is affected and this results in pain or illness. Acupuncture points are stimulated to balance the circulation of energy which influences the health of the entire being.


Mechanisms of Action

Several processes have been proposed to explain acupuncture's effects, primarily those on pain. Acupuncture points are believed to stimulate the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain or release other chemicals, such as hormones, that influence the body's self-regulating systems. The biochemical changes may stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and promote physical and emotional well being. There are three main mechanisms:

Conduction of electromagnetic signals: Western scientists have found evidence that acupuncture points are strategic conductors of electromagnetic signals. Stimulating points along these pathways through acupuncture enables electromagnetic signals to be relayed at a greater rate than under normal conditions.


These signals may start the flow of pain-killing biochemicals, such as endorphins, and of immune system cells to specific sites in the body that are injured or vulnerable to disease.

Activation of opioid systems: Research has found that several types ofopioids may be released into the central nervous system during acupuncture treatment, thereby reducing pain.

Changes in brain chemistry, sensation, and involuntary body functions: Studies have shown that acupuncture may alter brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters andneurohormones in a good way. Acupuncture also has been documented to affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes whereby a person's blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature are regulated.