A short history of acupuncture

Thousands of years ago, probably during the Stone Age (4000 BC), people in the Far East used sharp objects or crude needles to drain abscesses and relieve pain.

Over many hundreds of years, people observed what happened when different points on the body were stimulated, and a rational system of using specific points to alleviate specific problems began to develop.

These healing mechanisms became entwined with the predominant philosophical and religious beliefs in China, specifically Taoism (around 455 BC). The earliest text on the philosophical theories and uses of acupuncture is “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” which dates back to around the first century BC.

So the principles on which traditional Chinese medicine is based are quite different to those of western medicine. They have developed from thousands of years of observational evidence, and draw on the philosophical theories of ancient China to form a sophisticated and effective system of medicine.


Although traditional medicine became less popular in China during the early 20th century as modern Western medical techniques and drugs were introduced, both are now practised side by side in China’s hospitals. Clinical trials done in both China and around the world are confirming the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine.

The principles of traditional Chinese medicine – simplified!

TCM theory is based to a large extent on the theory of QI, pronounced “chee”.

Qi can be loosely described as energy, and is present everywhere. It is made up of Yin and Yang energies. These are opposing yet interdependent energies which are in constant flux with each other.
In our bodies, qi mainly flows through channels (sometimes called meridians) that have defined pathways superficially and internally (connecting to our organ systems).

There are 12 major channels that, apart from one, are named after the internal organ system they connect with. Acupuncture points are the points on the channel at which the qi is most easily accessed. Since the channels flow both internally and externally on the body, you can use acupuncture points to treat what we would term as external problems (e.g. a painful shoulder) or internal problems (e.g. irritable bowel syndrome).

In TCM we name the organs similarly to modern medicine, for instance we talk about the heart, the kidneys, the small intestine etc. However the function of the organs may be quite different. Apart from having specific functions, in TCM theory each major organ has emotional and spiritual aspects and is associated with a particular season, time of day etc.

When we are healthy, the qi is our bodies is perfectly balanced and flows smoothly throughout the system of channels. Ill health appears when the equilibrium or flow of the qi is disturbed in some way. This may be caused by an external influence e.g. an injury, infection, poor nutrition, alcohol, drugs etc.; or the qi may be disturbed internally by emotions such as anger, fear, worry, grief or excitement. Hereditary factors also play a part in the quality of our qi.

As well as qi, there are other internal substances that are important in TCM – blood, damp, phlegm, body fluids and jing (roughly equivalent to our inherited genetic material). We also use concepts such as heat, cold, dryness and wind.

To formulate a TCM diagnosis we use 3 main techniques:

  • Questions

    We get a lot of information by asking a wide range of questions about your general health and bodily processes, as well as your personal circumstances, lifestyle, medical history etc.

  • Pulses

    We feel the pulses on both your wrists at three different positions. This provides information about what is happening in each of the organ systems and how they are functioning.

  • Tongue

    Different areas of the tongue represent different organs systems in TCM. By looking at the colour, coating, shape, and any distinguishing features, we can gather more information about the internal processes of the body.

Once we have gathered all this information we can see which organ systems are not functioning as well as they should, causing symptoms of ill health. We are interested in finding out what the initial cause of any imbalances are, and how imbalances in different organ systems may be linked. Once we have all the information we can formulate a diagnosis and decide how best to proceed with treatment.