How Old IS Acupuncture? (September 30, 2014)
I've said before that healing traditions that have been around for thousands of years not only shouldn’t be dismissed lightly but that they could be resorted to for maybe no other reason except for the reason that they HAVE been around for so long. This is not because there is something so great in itself about tradition. After all, cannibalism, slavery and foot binding are all traditional activities. But if a healing tradition has been in use for a good long while by many people, it probably works at least some of the time. So, in the case of acupuncture, just how long is that?
It’s customary to date things from the earliest evidence we have of them. For acupuncture that would be drawings of the meridians (the pathways that many acupuncture points are found on) found in a Chinese tomb dated around 1000 B.C.E.
But it’s actually far older than that. You may remember "Otzi the Iceman", the Bronze Age mummy that was discovered in the Austrian mountains some years ago. Well, Otzi was loaded with tattoos over a number of acupuncture points which related to physical problems he was struggling with. Now, many acupuncture points are sort of intuitive – Otzi had the ones on the lower back on both sides for because of pain from degeneration in his lower back and around the ankles for pain from damage there as well. But there is an acupuncture point on the thigh near the knee that is specifically for parasitic infections. Otzi had a tattoo there. He was also carrying antimicrobial fungi in his backpack. And he had an intestinal parasite. Spooky!
The actual origins of acupuncture are completely unknown, but generally it’s speculated that its roots, like the roots of herbal medicine, are fairly ordinary – someone who’s been constipated gets access to some apples and lo and behold finds his problem is solved, so apples enter the lists of folk medicine as a solution to constipation. (And it’s a good one. For acid reflux as well.) You can extend that same reasoning to acupuncture points on the back for back pain, or on the abdomen for abdominal pain, etc. But one on the leg for parasitic infections? And one on the little toe to turn a breech baby? How long would it take to just "stumble" on THOSE points?
Does it matter just how old acupuncture is? Maybe not. What DOES matter is what kind of tools are out there for you to use when you have a health problem. If you have an issue for which drugs and surgery do not work or are not appropriate (which is true for most of the problems out there, including conditions that drugs and/or surgery are routinely used for anyway), you’re in the field of alternative medicine and the evidence basis for most alternative techniques is at present very, very limited. In that case, something that’s been in common usage by a large population for untold centuries is liable to be a very good bet.
--dr. diane holmes
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