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The History of Acupuncture in the West

© George T. Lewith MA, MRCGP, MRCP
 (Excerpted from Acupuncture-Its Place in Western Medical Science, Thorsons Publishing Group)

Painful Points
Within the context of Western medicine, the development of acupuncture points on the body demonstrates an interesting story of re-discovery. Over the last fifty years many Western physicians have discovered independently that pressing, stimulating or injecting various superficial body points can help to relieve pain. This is particularly true of muscular or rheumatic-like pains. These points are not necessarily at the site of pain, but often over distant areas. For instance, neck pain is frequently referred to the shoulder or arm and can present to the doctor as shoulder or arm pain. On close examination of the patient it is quite easy to define the origin of the pain, and to show that the neck is the cause of the problem. Injection, or stimulation of the painful points around the shoulder or arm, will often relieve the pain and free the movement of the neck.

These points have a variety of names, such as trigger points (for pain), or motor points. In 1977 Dr. Melzack, who has been awarded the Nobel prize for his work in the field of pain, correlated these trigger points with acupuncture points, and found that most of the trigger points were already well known as acupuncture points. There are a number of explanations for the existence of trigger points but, as yet, there is no clear answer to this phenomenon. It is interesting to note that the Chinese realized this fact at least some three thousand years ago, and the Ling Shu summarises this approach when it says 'In pain, puncture the tender point'.

The Future
Acupuncture is now quite widely used in Europe and North America, both as a method of therapy and, in a few centers, as a method of anesthesia. Operations with acupuncture as the main anesthetic have been carried out in France and Austria, and the results have been comparable with those of the Chinese. Since its intimate contact with the Chinese in the 1950's, the USSR has also been using and researching into acupuncture, although the relationship between Russia and China could not be described as good. In 1972 a Russian researcher published work suggesting that acupuncture points were points of low electrical resistance on the body. He also found a network of low resistance points in both animals and plants. The use of acupuncture in the USSR steadily increased during the 1970's and in 1972 acupuncture clinics were planned for all the major medical centers in the Soviet Union. The Russians claim they are using acupuncture for a wide variety of conditions such as asthma, stomach ulcers, raised blood pressure and angina, as well as for pain. In the West, acupuncture has been used mainly for pain relief. This is primarily because acupuncture for pain is easy to learn, and does not require a knowledge of traditional Chinese concepts in order to obtain results. The concepts of traditional Chinese medicine can seem alien and unacceptable to Western doctors and they are therefore rejected in favor of a simpler and probably less efficient method of treatment, in spite of the value of many of the traditional concepts. Some doctors practicing acupuncture in the West are simply puncturing tender points as this seems a rational and logical approach.

Acupuncture has become very popular in North America since President Nixon reopened relationships with the Chinese. There are many research clinics evaluating the effectiveness of acupuncture, and also investigating the basic physiological mechanisms involved. The research output from North America is prolific and some excellent work has been done much of which re-emphasizes that acupuncture is an effective form of therapy for many conditions, especially pain, although it is not a guaranteed cure. Over the last twenty years the West has developed a great deal of technological hardware which is now being applied in the field of acupuncture. The chapter on modern acupuncture techniques describes briefly the use of a variety of electrical machines and sources of stimulation, such as lasers and electroacupuncture. Many of these techniques are still in their infancy and some will be rejected whilst others may prove to be important.

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About The Author
George Lewith attended Trinity College, Cambridge and Westminster Hospital Medical School. He has worked as a Senior House Officer and Registrar within the Westminster and University College Hospital Teaching Groups in London. After training as a GP, he practised medicine in Australia before returning to England. He continues to lecture at Southampton University’s Department of......more
 
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