Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific acupoints along the skin of the body involving various methods such as the application of heat, pressure, or laser or penetration of thin needles. It is a form of complementary and alternative medicine and a key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). According to TCM, stimulating specific acupuncture points corrects imbalances in the flow of qi through channels known as meridians. Acupuncture aims to treat a range of conditions, though is most commonly used for pain relief.
Acupuncture has been the subject of active scientific research both in regard to its basis and therapeutic effectiveness since the late 20th century. Any evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture is variable and inconsistent for all conditions. An overview of high-quality Cochrane reviews suggested that acupuncture is effective for some but not all kinds of pain. An overview of systematic reviews found little evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for reducing pain. It is generally safe when administered using Clean Needle Technique (CNT) but there is a low risk of adverse effects, which can be serious, including death in rare cases. An editorial in Nature found TCM to be largely pseudoscience, with no valid mechanism of action for the majority of its treatments. Although minimally invasive, the puncturing of the skin with acupuncture needles poses problems when designing trials that adequately control for placebo effects. Publication bias is listed as a concern in the reviews of randomized controlled trials of acupuncture. Since most trials found “sham” acupuncture may be as efficacious as “real” acupuncture, the validity of traditional acupuncture theories including acupuncture point locations has been questioned. Some research results are encouraging but others suggest acupuncture’s effects are mainly due to placebo. It remains unclear whether acupuncture reduces pain independent of a psychological impact of the needling ritual.
Scientific investigation has not found any histological or physiological correlates for traditional Chinese concepts such as qi, meridians, and acupuncture points, and some contemporary practitioners use acupuncture without following the traditional Chinese approach and have abandoned the concepts of qi and meridians as pseudoscientific.
Acupuncture is currently used widely throughout China and many other countries, including the U.S. It is uncertain exactly when acupuncture was generally thought to have originated in ancient China and how it evolved. Traditional Chinese religion attributes the introduction of acupuncture to the god Shennong. Hieroglyphs and pictographs have been found dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1100 BCE) which suggests that acupuncture was practiced along with moxibustion. However, the tattoo marks identified on the Ice Man who died around 3300 BCE suggested that a form of stimulatory treatment resembling acupuncture developed independent of China.