ANCIENT HEALING A Brief History of Acupuncture


by Christanne Spell

Modern-day practitioners of acupuncture are occasionally asked, “Does it work?” It’s a fair question for people who have only been exposed to Western medical practices that are prominent in our conventional U.S. medical system. Many Americans have never experienced acupuncture, so many put it in a category of hocus-pocus remedies.

Acupuncture enjoys a rich history that stretches back some 2,500 years, much longer than conventional forms of medical care and treatment.Ancient acupuncture and moxibustion hieroglyphs inscribed on bones and tortoise shells date back more than 2,500 years.

A number of skilled and well-known Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors lived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and many of them documented and categorized their findings. During this period, Traditional Chinese Medicine practices gained popularity and respect throughout China.

During the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1840), China experienced periods of upheaval and war, which increased the demand for emergency medical treatment. Both acupuncture and moxibustion became more widely known due to their ability to relieve pain and discomfort and support healing.

Here are some additional historical milestones in the 19th and 20th centuries:

1822 – Authorities of the Qing Dynasty declared an order to permanently abolish the acupuncture department from the Imperial Medical College because it was not suitable to be applied to the emperor. During this period, the herbal remedies associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine became more popular.

1840-1860 – The Opium Wars between the United Kingdom and China were in many ways conflicts between traditional Chinese cultural values and the introduction of Western values and practices, including Western medical practices. During this period, Traditional Chinese Medicine was depreciated and even defamed; some used the phrase “medical torture” when referring to acupuncture.

1915 – An order was issued by Chinese authorities demanding that medical, pharmacy and veterinary students meet qualifications established by Western nations.

1950s – The Cultural Revolution in China brought efforts to restore and preserve many aspects of traditional Chinese culture that had been suppressed. Many also promoted the integration of Eastern and Western medical practices. During this period, acupuncture was first used as a method of anesthesia and analgesia during and following surgery.

1971 – James Reston, a reporter for the New York Times, traveled to China to report Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China. While in China, Reston suffered an attack of acute appendicitis and was admitted for emergency surgery. While recovering, he was treated with acupuncture instead of painkillers. When Reston returned to the United States, he wrote an article, “Now, About My Operation in Peking,” which put acupuncture in national news for the first time.

When Kissinger heard about Reston’s acupuncture experience, he shared the story with then-President Richard Nixon. The president was so impressed by what he heard, he decided to start an exchange program that allowed Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors to share medical knowledge with U.S. doctors.

In the decades since the 1970s, the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine has been gaining popularity around the world, especially in the United States. With more and more Americans trying acupuncture and experiencing the benefits, acupuncturists are more likely to hear the question, “How does it work?” instead of “Does it work?”

Resources: Cheng, Xinnong, and Liangyue Deng. Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Rev. ed. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1999. Reston, James. (1971, July 26). “Now, About My Operation in Peking.” The New York Times. Page 1.

Christanne Spell is a graduate of THSU’s Masters of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine program and a licensed acupuncturist practicing at Hands N Harmony Wellness Center at 2041 Universal City Blvd. (www.handsnharmony.massagetherapy. com). She is also the administrator and admissions officer at the San Antonio Branch Campus of Texas Health and Science University. To learn more about degrees and programs available at THSU, visit

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