Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy that involves inserting needles into the skin at specific points of the body. The word ‘acupuncture’ originated from a Dutch physician, William Ten Rhyne, who had been living in Japan during the latter part of the 17th century and it was he who introduced it to Europe. The term means literally ‘prick with a needle’. The earliest textbook on acupuncture, dating from approximately 400 BC, was called Nei Ching Su Wen, which means ‘Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’. Also recorded at about the same time was the successful saving of a patient’s life by acupuncture, the person having been expected to die whilst in a coma.
Legend has it that acupuncture was developed when it was realized that soldiers who recovered from arrow wounds were sometimes also healed of other diseases from which they were suffering. Acupuncture was very popular with British doctors in the early 1800s for pain relief and to treat fever. There was also a specific article on the successful treatment of rheumatism that appeared in The Lancet. Until the end of the Ching dynasty in China in 1911, acupuncture was slowly developed and improved, but then medicine from the West increased in popularity. However, more recently there has been a revival interest and it is again widely practiced throughout China. Also, nowadays the use of laser beams and electrical currents are found to give an increased stimulative effect when using acupuncture needles.
The specific points of the body into which acupuncture needles are inserted are located along ‘meridians’. These are the pathways or energy channels and are believed to be related to the internal organs of the body. This energy is known as qi and the needles are used to decrease or increase the flow of energy, or to unblock it if it is impeded. Traditional Chinese medicine sees the body as being comprised of two natural forces known as the yin and yang. These two forces are complementary to each other but also opposing, the yin being the female force and calm and passive and also representing the dark, cold, swelling and moisture. The yang force is the male and is stimulating and aggressive, representing the heat and light, contraction and dryness. It is believed that the cause of aliments and diseases is due to an imbalance of these forces in the body, e.g. if a person is suffering from a headache or hypertension then this is because of an excess of yang. If, however, there is an excess of yin, this might result in tiredness, feeling, cold and fluid retention.
The aim of acupuncture is to establish whether there is an imbalance of yin and yang and to rectify it by using the needles at certain points on the body. Traditionally there were 365 points but more have been found in the intervening period and nowadays there can be as many as 2,000. There are 14 meridians, called after the organs they represent, e.g. the lung, kidney, heart and stomach as well as two organs unknown in orthodox medicine – the triple heater or warmer, which relates to the activity of the endocrine glands and the control of temperature. In addition, the pericardium is concerned with seasonal activity and also regulates the circulation of the blood. Of the 14 meridians, there are two, known as the du or governor, and the ren, or conception, which both run straight up the body’s middling, although the du is much shorter, extending from the head down to the mouth, while the ren starts at the chin and extends to the base of the trunk.
There are several factors that can change the flow of qi (also known as shi or ch’i), and they can be of an emotional, physical or environmental nature. The flow may be changed to become too slow or fast, or it can be diverted or blocked so that the incorrect organ is involved and the acupuncturist has to ensure that the flow returns to normal. There are many painful afflictions for which acupuncture can be used. In the west, it has been used primarily for rheumatism, back pain and arthritis, but it has also been used to alleviate other disorders such as stress, allergy, colitis, digestive troubles, insomnia, asthma, etc. It has been claimed that withdrawal symptoms (experienced by people stopping smoking and easing other forms of addiction) have been helped as well.
Qualified acupuncturists complete a training course of three years duration and also need qualifications in the related disciplines of anatomy, pathology, physiology and diagnosis before they can belong to a professional association. It is very important that a fully qualified acupuncturist, who is a member of the relevant professional body, a consulted because at the present time, any unqualified person can use the title ‘acupuncturist’.