Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of medical treatment and can be traced back thousands of years. Archaeologists have even found bronze acupuncture needles which, they claim, suggest that acupuncture was practised during the Bronze Age – two or three thousand years BC.
There are a number of theories about just how acupuncture started. One of the most colourful is that primitive warriors, injured by enemy arrows, discovered that although the wounds they received were painful their chronic muscle and bone pains disappeared in the weeks after injury. They decided that there was a link between their injuries and the disappearance of their chronic pains and, so the story goes, learned to prick themselves with sharp arrow heads in order to get rid of disabling pains.
Whatever the truth may be about the origins of acupuncture there is very little doubt that it was in China where acupuncture was first used widely.
The traditional Chinese believed that human life is activated by an internal energy force which they called ‘chi’ and that as long as this internal energy force is allowed to flow freely around the body then diseases will be kept at bay.
The theory upon which acupuncture is founded is that the human body contains twelve main meridians or channels along which this vital internal energy can flow. When one or more of these meridians is blocked in some way then the flow of energy is impeded and the individual will become ill.
The practice of acupuncture is built upon the claim that there are a number of specific points on the human body which can be regarded as entrances or exits for this internal energy force. As long ago as the fourteenth century Chinese doctors had identified 657 acupuncture points. Today over a thousand acupuncture points have been identified.
Before attempting to free the flow of energy the acupuncturist must first decide what is wrong with his patient. Only by making an accurate diagnosis can the acupuncturist decide precisely where the blockage is – and where the needles must be inserted.
The skilled acupuncturist will make his diagnosis in a number of ways. He will look at his patient, study his skin tone, breathing rate and other signs; he will listen to the tone and timbre of his voice and he will perform a careful, painstaking physical examination. One of the most important parts of the physical examination is the taking of the pulse. Unlike Western doctors, practitioners of Chinese medicine recognise twelve different pulses, all palpable on the wrists of the patient’s hands, but providing a good deal of information about the condition of the internal organs.
Once the diagnosis has been made the acupuncturist can then try to clear the blocked meridians – and restore the flow of energy – by inserting needles into the skin at special predetermined acupuncture points.
In ancient China acupuncture needles were made of gold, silver, wood, bamboo or bone. These days they are usually made of stainless steel or copper. The needles vary in length from a fraction of an inch to 7 in. Their diameter is usually 1/17,000 in or 1/18,000 in. Obviously, it is important that non-disposable needles be properly sterilised between the treatment of each patient.
Although choosing the correct acupuncture point is vitally important it isn’t just the site of insertion that determines the type of treatment that is given. The angle at which the needle is inserted, the way it is moved around by twirling, pushing or pulling and the time it is left in position will all affect the final results. Some modern acupuncturists use electrical stimulation to activate the acupuncture needles. Using electrical stimulation enables the acupuncturist to control the type of treatment he gives without constantly touching and twirling the needles.
Occasionally, as an alternative to using needles, acupuncturists will use a technique known as moxibustion. This involves drying and shredding leaves of the Chinese wormwood plant and then burning the shredded leaves (known as moxa wool) directly over an acupuncture point. Moxibustion, a type of localised hot poultice remedy which applies heat to a specific point on the body, can be used either alone or together with traditional needle acupuncture. Moxibustion is said to ‘tone’ and ‘supplement’ the body’s vital energy flow and acupuncturists recommend it for chronic ailments such as arthritis.
There is one other form of treatment used occasionally by some modern acupuncturists, and that is ‘ear acupuncture’. Those who practise this type of acupuncture believe that by puncturing specific parts of the ear they can treat disorders affecting any part of the body. The ear, they claim, is a miniature body map. Ear acupuncture is particularly popular among acupuncturists who treat patients wanting to lose weight or give up smoking. Sometimes a small staple will be left in the ear and the patient will be encouraged to touch it (and stimulate it) when he feels the desire to eat or smoke.
Just how acupuncture works is something of a mystery. Western scientists have argued that it may work by blocking channels which normally transmit pain impulses or by stimulating the body to produce endorphins – its own, natural, internal painkilling hormones. Traditional acupuncturists dismiss these theories as too simplistic and simply argue that it isn’t necessary to understand how acupuncture works in order to benefit from it.
Despite claims to the contrary, problems can occur when acupuncture is performed. For example, an outbreak of hepatitis has been traced back to an acupuncturist who had been using dirty needles. And it has been, reported that a patient who was having treatment for back pain died of respiratory failure after a needle had punctured a lung.
In a television interview for a series I was presenting, one world renowned acupuncturist told me that he knew of patients who had needed to be admitted to mental hospitals after having had thoughtlessly administered acupuncture.
But although there undoubtedly are dangers with acupuncture it is important not to over-emphasize them. When acupuncture is done carefully, in hygienic surroundings, by properly trained acupuncturists, and when the contra-indications are not ignored (it is said that acupuncture should not be done when a patient is exhausted, has heart trouble, has just eaten, or is bleeding) then the risks are minimal. A study of over 3,000 patients (who had between them received 500,000 ‘needlings’) did not show a single case of damage or infection.
According to many experts the dangers that do exist would disappear if the orthodox medical profession would accept acupuncture as a proper medical speciality. The World Heath Organization has claimed that it is because doctors have remained sceptical about acupuncture that the practice of this medical speciality has been infiltrated by unscrupulous and ill-informed practitioners who have preyed on patients who are anxious for help but who don’t know how to obtain useful, safe and effective treatment.
Acupuncture works best in long-term conditions and in conditions that are reversible. It is not a good treatment for major infections or cancer.
In 1979 the World Health Organization listed a number of diseases that could be helped by acupuncture.
The important word is ‘could’ – not every patient with a disease on this list will be cured by acupuncture treatment.
The list includes the following disorders:
Upper Respiratory Tract