Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?
This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. Each acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.
Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.
Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.
There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.
No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.
Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:
…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.
Accounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.
The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”
Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.
So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?