The origin of acupuncture is shrouded in antiquity. Legend has it, that thousands of years ago a Chinese soldier developed a stiff and painful shoulder, what we would now call a frozen shoulder. He went to his doctor who despite his best efforts could not help him. So the soldier gradually accepted the idea of living with the pain. One day, during a battle, a miracle occurred. He was wounded in he leg and suddenly his shoulder which had been stiff and painful for many years, could move freely again without pain.
When the soldier returned to his village, he told his doctor how his frozen shoulder had been miraculously cured. The doctor carefully examined his leg but could not understand how an arrow in the leg could cure a frozen shoulder. Another patient with a frozen shoulder was waiting to see the doctor. He overheard this story and said "Doctor please try this treatment on me". The doctor thought it was a rather silly idea, but since he had been treating this patient for many months without success, he decided to try it He took an arrow and, cautiously jabbed it into the patient's leg, at approximately the same spot where the soldier had been wounded. Wonders of wonders, the pain in the shoulder disappeared! In a few minutes the patient was able to move his shoulder freely and painlessly.
Since this cure seemed rather promising. The next time a patient came to the doctor with a frozen shoulder, he poked him in the leg with an arrow. Soon his fame as a specialist in curing frozen shoulders grew and spread throughout the country. As his practice grew, the doctor wondered whether he could apply the same principle to treat other ailments. So he asked his other patients if any of them had experienced similar miraculous cures. Gradually he discovered that injuries in certain areas had beneficial effects on ailments in other parts of the body. While this treatment was very effective, many patients were afraid to visit a doctor who poked his patients with arrows!
Over the years other methods were found to stimulate acupuncture points using needles instead of arrows. This initial accident was thus refined into the art of acupuncture. Today laserpuncture painlessly achieves the same effect as its ancestor the arrow, using a beam of pure light.
The oldest known book on Chinese medicine is the "Neiching", also known as "The Yellow Emperor's classic of internal medicine". It is written in the form of a dialogue between the Yellow Emperor "Huang Ti" and "Chi Po" a Taoist teacher and physician. It is believed that the Yellow Emperor lived around 2700 B.C. The book indicates that acupuncture was widely practiced in China much before the time it was written.
During archaeological excavations in China, various types of gold and silver acupuncture needles were found in the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng who died around 200 B.C. This confirms that these different types of needles were in use over two thousand years ago.
Acupuncture originated in the cold north-west parts of China where herbs and other medical remedies were scarce. Acupuncture spread from there to other parts of the world through travelling physicians, scholars and pilgrims.
One of these was a famous Chinese physician called Pien Chueh who lived around 400 B.C. While visiting the province of Quo with some of his students, he arrived at a town there the people seemed very sad since their beloved prince had suddenly become unconscious. His doctors had been unable to revive him and it seemed that he was going to die.
Hearing that Pien Chueh was a great physician, the people asked him if there was anything he could do to help their prince. Pien Chueh agreed to examine the prince. Arrangements were made and he was received by the king, who willingly allowed him to examine the unconscious prince.
Pein Chueh made a thorough examination of the prince and arrived at a diagnosis. He treated the prince with acupuncture who soon regained consciousness. Pein Chueh continued to treat the prince with acupuncture, heat treatment (moxibuxtion) and various herbs till the prince recovered completely. It is said that the king rewarded him richly and directed the physicians in his Court to learn acupuncture and thus the practice of acupuncture spread.
The first state sponsored acupuncture school in China was founded in 443 A.D. Unfortunately it was closed within ten years. Student physicians then reverted to the traditional method of learning, which was by apprenticeship to an experienced physician. In 581 A.D. an imperial Medical Academy for teaching Acupuncture was again established, but it was only many years later that the Academy flourished.
The imperial Medical Academy taught acupuncture from standard textbooks. The time taken to train as a physician was longer than that taken by a modern physician today. Before a student could specialise, he had to undertake a general basic course in medicine. An important part of this basic training was pulse examination, which is a fundamental part of traditional acupuncture. After this, he was allowed to specialise in a subject of his choice. Internal medicine took another seven years of study, while surgery and paediatrics (children's diseases) took five years each. Less time was required to study limited subjects like diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat.
Over the years, many physicians who served the Emperors of China tried to improve the teaching methods of acupuncture. In the year 1034 A.D. during the rule of the Emperor Jen-Tsung, his Court physician Wang Wei-I made two hollow life size male statues of bronze. These bronze statues were used to test the knowledge of students appearing for examinations held at the Imperial Medical Academy. The surfaces of each of these figures had holes, which were accurately placed over the acupuncture points. Before the examination the models were covered with wax so that the holes could not be seen. The interior of the model was then filled with warm water. The student taking the examination was questioned about a case and asked how he would treat it with acupuncture. He was then asked to locate the points on the model and insert a needle into each point, through the wax. If he located the acupuncture points correctly, water would flow out from the holes when the needles were removed.
In 1822 following a great plague in China in which millions of people died, the practice of acupuncture was prohibited by the Ching dynasty Emperor Tao-Quang. The subject was removed from the syllabus at the Imperial Medical Academy and the practice of acupuncture gradually declined. In 1912, the Imperial dynasty was overthrown and replaced by the radical Kuomingtang party who ruled China till the end of the Second World War. They too were not in favour of acupuncture and encouraged Western medicine at the expense of acupuncture
When the Communist Party took over in 1949, they were aware that acupuncture was still the preferred form of treatment among millions of people so they removed the prohibition on it's teaching and practice. However Acupuncture really regained its popularity in China only after the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Colleges were set up and research institutes were founded, but in the intervening period of a hundred and fifty years, the practice of acupuncture in China had largely fallen into disuse.
A lot of research has been undertaken in China for the last few years leading to the development of two new specialities, acupuncture anaesthesia and scalp acupunture.
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.
Over the years, Acupuncture and Chinese medicine spread beyond the borders of China, to Japan and Korea, where it soon became the accepted form of medicine. Acupuncture was first introduced to these countries around two hundred years before Christ. It only became popular there after the arrival of Buddhism, which reached China about the middle of the first century A.D. Buddhism developed and spread from China to Korea and Japan between 400 A.D. and 800 A.D. Chinese medicine remained popular in Japan till the 16th Century, after which it was gradually overshadowed by influences from the West. Over the next 300 years, Western medicine overshadowed acupuncture in Japan.
In 1884, an attempt was made to wipe out acupuncture from Japan by issuing an edict prohibiting the teaching of acupuncture. This coincided with the inauguration of the medical faculty at Tokyo University. Fortunately this did not stop people from practising acupuncture, which is still practised in Japan along with Western medicine.
One of the first Western countries to show an interest in acupuncture was France. The earliest European books on acupuncture were written in the early years of the 18th century. The two most important were entitled" "The Secrets of Chinese Medicine" and the "Perfect Knowledge of the Pulse". These were written by a respected Frenchman who had lived and studied in China, but who withheld his name for fear of ridicule. Acupuncture has been practised sporadically in France over the last 200 years and is now well established.
There were also missionaries from Austria and Germany who went to China in the l7th and 18th centuries and learnt the art of acupuncture. They returned to their own countries and started schools and institutes for acupuncture, some of which flourish to this day.
However, acupuncture did not become popular in the West till the second half of the 2Oth century. Acupuncture received the attention of the world after President Nixon went to China in 1971 and the journalists accompanying him publicised the practice and efficacy of acupuncture in various American magazines.
Acupuncture is now rapidly gaining popularity and is being practised all over the world. The introduction of modern scientific instruments like lasers and ultrasound and their use by acupuncturists have led to the integration of modem technology with ancient Chinese methods to give us a science that is effective and up to date.
Acupuncture, like allopathy, 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. Subsequent chapters describe some ailments that respond better to acupuncture than to any other system of medicine.