Acupuncture is a complete medical system used to diagnose, prevent and treat illness, and improve well-being. It is effective for physical, psychological and emotional problems. Acupuncture originated in China more than 3,000 years ago and, due to its proven effectiveness, has now been embraced throughout the world.

Chinese historical medical chart, illustrating meridians
Historical acupuncture chart illustrating the meridians.
In ancient Chinese philosophy, the human body is described as “energy” rather than “matter”. This is the basis for understanding acupuncture. The Chinese system of medicine utilised what is known as “chi”, or the electrical properties of the body. Chi is present in every living organism and flows along very specific pathways called “meridians”. While energy flows naturally along these pathways, health is sustained, However, when this energy flow is obstructed for any reason, the system of energy is disrupted and this results in pain or illness. When specific points along these energy pathways are stimulated with acupuncture the blocked energy is released, thus enabling health to be restored.

The earliest written record of acupuncture is the Chinese text Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), with elaboration of its history in the second century BCE medical text Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon). The first European text on acupuncture was written by Willen ten Rhijne, a Dutch physician who studied the practice for two years in Japan.

Western Discovery
In the 1970s, acupuncture became better known in the United States after an article appeared in The New York Times by James Reston, who was treated for post-operative pain following an emergency appendectomy in China. In the United States, the National Acupuncture Association (NAA) was formed as the first national assocation in that country, and introduced acupuncture to the West through a series of seminars and research presentations.

The UCLA Acupuncture Pain Clinic was formed in 1972, created and staffed by the NAA in conjunction with the University of California at Los Angeles. This was the first legal clinic in a medical school setting in the US. The Internal Revenue Service allowed acupuncture to be deducted as a medical expense, beginning in 1973.

The acupuncturist decides which points to treat by examining, observing and questioning the patient in order to make a diagnosis. In classical Chinese acupuncture, palpation of the muscles and the hara (abdomen) are central to diagnosis.

Patients have a chance to tell the practitioner about their problem, give their history, and have their questions answered. The acupuncturist may ask additional questions, use diagnostic techniques of traditional Chinese medicine or western medicine to arrive at a diagnosis.

The practitioner will then make recommendations to you about treatment. A typical treatment may include any combination of acupuncture, moxibustion or Chinese medical massage, as well as education on diet & self-care.

Clinical Practice
Most modern acupuncturists use sterilized, disposable stainless steel needles of fine diameter from 0.007 to 0.020 inch (0.18 to 0.51 mm). These needles are far smaller in diameter (and therefore less painful) than hypodermic injection needles, since they do not have to be hollow for purposes of injection.

The upper third of these needles is wound with a thicker bronze wire, to stiffen the needle and provide fingertip grip for the acupuncturist. The needle is effectively a fine instrument, and when manipulated by an experienced practitioner creates only a minimal "tingle" sensation.

Warming an acupuncture point, typically by moxibustion (the burning of a combination of herbs, primarily mugwort) is a different treatment than acupuncture itself and is often, but not exclusively, used as a supplemental treatment.

Duration of Treatment
Traditional Chinese medicine holds that an individual’s lifestyle, is largely responsible for one’s state of health. Because of this, your acupuncturist will ask you to take an active role in your treatment.

Acupuncture will generally provide benefits, but a number of factors influence whether you will get better and how long it will take. It depends on your current state of health. In general, elderly patients and patients who have chronic conditions will take longer to improve. Your recovery will also depend on how often you receive treatment and how actively you participate in your self-care.