Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of complementary medicine


BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 09 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:973
  1. Andrew Vickers,
  2. Catherine Zollman

    Acupuncture is the stimulation of special points on the body, usually by the insertion of fine needles. Originating in the Far East about 2000 years ago, it has made various appearances in the history of European and north American medicine. William Osler, for example, used acupuncture therapeutically in the 19th century. Acupuncture's recent popularity in the West dates from the 1970s, when President Nixon visited China.

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    Acupuncture meridians run superficially and longitudinally. Both traditional and Western acupuncturists identify acupuncture points by their location on the meridians—for example, gall bladder 30 or large intestine 4


    In its original form acupuncture was based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. According to these, the workings of the human body are controlled by a vital force or energy called “Qi” (pronounced “chee”), which circulates between the organs along channels called meridians.

    There are 12 main meridians, and these correspond to 12 major functions or “organs” of the body. Although they have the same names (such as liver, kidney, heart, etc), Chinese and Western concepts of the organs correlate only very loosely. Qi energy must flow in the correct strength and quality through each of these meridians and organs for health to be maintained. The acupuncture points are located along the meridians and provide one means of altering the flow of Qi.

    Although the details of practice may differ between individual schools, all traditional acupuncture theory is based in the Daoist concept of yin and yang. Illness is seen in terms of excesses or deficiencies in various exogenous and endogenous pathogenic factors, and treatment is aimed at restoring balance. Traditional diagnoses are esoteric, such as “kidney-yang deficiency, water overflowing” or “damp heat in the bladder.”

    Many of the conventional health professionals who practise acupuncture have dispensed with such concepts. Acupuncture points are seen to …

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