What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a complementary medical practice that has been cultivated and refined for thousands of years and entails stimulating certain points on the body with a needle in order to alleviate pain or help treat various health conditions.

Acupuncturists study the human body through this system and assist patients by applying specific treatments.

One of the main systems that is studied in acupuncture is the meridian system, which is a theory as to how exactly Qi ("vital life energy force") flows through the human body. It is theorized that certain health conditions and ailments are a result of an improper Qi flow and the way to adjust this flow is by treating the meridian points, which are like Qi channels. When the meridian points are properly treated and Qi flows more correctly, the patient's ailment begins to alleviate. 

The History of Acupuncture

The Beginning

While it is disputed that acupuncture appeared in China as early as 6000 bce, the first document that unequivocally described an organized system of diagnosis and treatment which is recognized as acupuncture is The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which dates from about 100 bce.

In this text, the acupuncture concepts of meridians and Qi are well established, although the precise anatomical locations of acupuncture points developed later.

Acupuncture continued to be developed and codified in texts over the subsequent centuries and gradually became one of the standard therapies used in China, alongside herbs, massage, diet and moxibustion. 

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion was published, which forms the basis of modern acupuncture. In it are clear descriptions of the full set of 365 points that represent openings to the channels through which needles could be inserted to modify the flow of Qi energy.

Early Spread of Acupuncture

The spread of acupuncture to other countries occurred at various times and by different routes.

Korea and Japan both absorbed Chinese acupuncture and herbs into their medical systems in the sixth century. To this day, the two countries still retain these therapies, mostly in parallel with Western medicine. When commercial routes opened up between the eighth and tenth century, Vietnam became exposed to acupuncture and adopted it not long after. And in the West, the French were the earliest European adopters of the medical system. 


Over its history, acupuncture at times fell out of mainstream favor and was sometimes even outlawed.

In 1822 the Emperor even made an official order to exclude acupuncture from the Imperial Medical Institute, the official Chinese institution for medicine. The knowledge and skill of acupuncture were nevertheless retained.

As China continued to adapt Western medical practices into its society, acupuncture continued to slip in favor. In 1929 it was officially outlawed along with other forms of traditional medicine.

The Return

After the installation of the Communist government in 1949, traditional forms of medicine including acupuncture were reinstated. 

There was a push by China to legitimize acupuncture through the Western lens, and so scientific studies were conducted on acupuncture’s release of neurotransmitters, particularly opioid peptides. This led to further evidence of this ancient practice's real-time impact on healing.

Modern Times

In 1971, a member of the US press corps was given acupuncture during an emergency appendectomy in China, while he was visiting in preparation for President Nixon’s visit. He described the experience in the New York Times and, subsequently, teams of US physicians made fact-finding tours of China to assess acupuncture, particularly its use for surgical analgesia.

Acupuncture finally reached its present level of acceptability in the USA when an NIH consensus conference reported that there was positive evidence for its effectiveness.