Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years. One fairly common question I hear in my practice is “How did acupuncture start? How did people figure out that putting needles into the body would cause all of these remarkable health changes?” Because acupuncture began before people began to write things down, it is difficult to say how exactly acupuncture began. The first written record of acupuncture was the Huang Di Nei Jing, or Yellow Emperor’s classic of medicine, which dates back to about 200 BC. The earliest archeological evidence of acupuncture was a stone needle found in Inner Mongolia which is estimated at between 4,000 and 10,000 years old. In modern times, we use sterile surgical-grade stainless steel needles, but before this technology was developed, ancient practitioners were using stone, bone, bamboo, bronze, and other materials.
Some believe that acupuncture began as an offshoot of massage techniques – using an instrument to exert pressure on specific points on the body, to produce specific effects. At some point, it may be that the instrument pierced the skin, resulting in more effective therapy, and new tools were developed to pierce the skin. New points were discovered, increasing the breadth of the range of effects of acupuncture. These were written down and passed from generation to generation to the present day.
As acupuncture spread throughout Asia and the world, a vast number of influences changed how it was practiced. The oldest texts left out a lot of specifics on technique, and everyone seemed to have their own interpretation on how to practice. Successful practitioners wrote books with new ideas on how acupuncture should be performed. Translations of these books sometimes put a spin on the original ideas. Sometimes wars and political turmoil resulted in burning of books and information, and acupuncture fell out of favor many times, forcing acupuncturists to practice secretly. Within the last 30 to 40 years, the practice of acupuncture has begun to flourish in many parts of the world.
Acupuncture grows and spreads as people who have had treatment tell others about their successes. Quite a bit of research has been done to understand the effects of acupuncture, which has begun to verify some of the specific effects written about in the ancient literature, from the modern scientific perspective. Researchers are continuing their efforts to understand how acupuncture works physiologically. Even though we don’t have the complete picture yet from a scientific point of view, acupuncture is growing and spreading because people are finding that it works.