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Acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years; the Chinese believe that acupuncture began during the Stone Age when early people used sharp stone tools to puncture and drain boils. As time passed, primitive needles made of stone or pottery replaced the earlier tools. They, in turn, were replaced by metal needles, which evolved into the very thin needles acupuncturists use today.

Early metal needles had nine different shapes and were used for various purposes. However, there were no specific points on the body where they were applied. Through centuries of experience and observation, the Chinese learned that using needles on very specific points on the skin was effective in treating particular ailments. They later grouped specific acupuncture points into a system of channels, or meridians.

Acupuncturists think that these channels run over and through the body, much like rivers and streams run over and through the earth. They teach that a type of vital energy called qi or chi (pronounced "chee") flows through the body. The acupuncture points along the channels are thought to influence the flow of vital energy.

Acupuncture developed virtually uninterrupted over thousands of years until the Portuguese landed in China in 1504. Once China was opened to the rest of the world, Western medical concepts gradually began to influence the practice of medicine there. Over centuries, the practice of acupuncture declined, and in 1929, it was outlawed in China. Even so, it remained a part of folk medicine. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949, there were almost no medical services. The communists encouraged traditional Chinese remedies, and acupuncture again began to grow.

Just as Western medicine filtered into China, the concept of acupuncture gradually traveled back to the West. It was known and used in Europe as early as the 17th century. The first recorded use was in 1810 at the Paris Medical School, where Dr. Louis Berlioz used it to treat abdominal pain. Acupuncture was also used in England in the early 1800s. Ear acupuncture, one of the newer forms, was primarily developed outside of China. In the early 1950s, Dr. Paul Nogier of France developed the detailed map of the ear that most acupuncturists now use.

After President Nixon visited China in 1972, public awareness and use of acupuncture began to grow in North America. Today, acupuncture is increasingly used in Europe, North America, and Russia. Over one-third of the world's population relies on acupuncture and Oriental medicine practitioners for the prevention and treatment of disease, as well as for the enhancement of health. In the West, acupuncture is best known for pain relief, but a growing body of research shows that it is effective in health maintenance as well as the treatment of many diseases. In 1979, the World Health Organization, the medical branch of the United Nations, issued a list of more than 40 diseases and other health conditions that acupuncture helped alleviate.

During the last decade of the 20th century, major developments in the perception of health care in this country and worldwide brought acupuncture and Oriental medicine to the forefront of health care. In 1992, the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) was established within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enable the study and evaluation of complementary medical practices and the publication of results. In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration reclassified acupuncture needles from "investigational" to "safe and effective" medical devices. This opened the door for acupuncture to be recognized and covered under insurance programs. A 1997 report sponsored by the National Institutes of Health concluded that acupuncture should be integrated into standard medical practice and included in Medicare. In 2014, the OAM was renamed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to reflect the integrative health care practice: a combination of complementary and conventional treatment, prevention, and health promotion. These milestones have paved the way toward greater acceptance of acupuncture by the medical community and the American public.