Acupuncture is an external therapy originated from ancient China. The feature of the therapy is using needles based on the theory of the meridian system. The points on the meridian system are then called acupuncture points or acupoints. In the 20th century, auriculotherapy, which was invented by Dr. Paul Nogier based on reflexology, and dry needling therapy, which is based on the the research of Janet G. Travell et al. about trigger points, expand the definition of acupuncture.
Table of contents:
1) Origin of acupuncture
2) Golden needles and silver needles
3) Chinese-style needles and Korean-style needles
4) How to make a high-quality acupuncture needle
Origin of acupuncture
Traditional Chinese Medicine has been an open system since its birth. Huang Di Nei Jing, the most important theoretical work of the medical system, describes the origin of acupuncture as “Bian stones were from the east” and “Nine types of needles were from the south”. Bian stones are not from a specific mineral, but mean any stone tool that can be used for an external therapy.
The Commentary of Zuo, a reliable historical work that records Chinese history from the 8th century BC to the 5th century BC, does not mention acupuncture, but mentions stones as a kind of important tool for treating illness. At that time, the technology of processing herbs was in its early stages, so people preferred to use an external therapy for avoiding toxic and side effects of herbs. Stone needles were the direct ancestor of acupuncture needles.
With the development of medicine, stone needles were replaced by metal needles, and acupuncture therapy separated from the therapy of Bian stones. The therapy of Bian stones eventually became Gua Sha therapy.
The earliest extant acupuncture needles were unearthed from a noble tomb built in 113 BC. They are four needles made of gold and five needles made of silver. The golden needles are kept very well. The lengths of the four golden needles are from 6.5 cm to 6.9 cm. They have a rectangle handle and their body is like an awl.
Golden needles and silver needles
In Chinese language, gold is called Jin. But Jin is not equal to gold. In ancient Chinese language, Jin was a precious metal in a narrow definition, but it could mean any metal in the broad sense. Modern Chinese language also describes metal as the category that gold belongs to. In ancient times, needles made of silver, iron or copper also can be called Jin needles, which cannot be translated to gold needles.
Gold is a kind of hypoallergenic metal, while silver is naturally bactericidal. As copper, gold and silver are better conductors of heat and electricity than stainless steel, but their strength and toughness are inferior to stainless steel. This is why stainless steel needles are so popular in modern times. A needles made of stainless steel and fully plated with gold or silver is a good solution for utilizing the advantages of different metals.
There is a view that needles made of gold can strengthen Qi and needles made of silver can reduce excess. The view is from some modern Chinese acupuncturists. If you want to prove the effects, you may use needles fully plated with gold or silver, but not needles just with a gold-plated or silver-plated handle.
A needle made of silver once had a special use. Ancient Chinese used a silver needle to detect a kind of poison named arsenic trioxide. In ancient times this chemical compound always contained sulfide, so a silver needle could become black after touching it.
Chinese-style needles and Korean-style needles
Huang Di Nei Jing mentions nine kinds of needles for different uses. Some kinds are for surgery, bleeding or acupressure. The filiform kind has been most used in acupuncture practice, so it is the synonym of acupuncture needles now.
In modern China, acupuncture needles have four types according to different handles. The first type, named loop-handle needle, has a handle with a loop. The second type, named flower-handle needle, has a handle twined around by two metal wires. The third type, named flat-handle needle, has a handle without a loop. The fourth type, named tube-handle needle, has a metal handle that looks like a tube.
Chinese acupuncture was introduced to Korea and Japan in the sixth century AD, and the therapy has already been an important part of the two nations’ traditional medicine. In Europe, flat-handle needles are called Korean-style needles and commonly used as loop-handle needles which are called Chinese-style needles.
In the 17th century, Sugiyama Waichi, a Japanese acupuncturist, invented the use of a guide tube in acupuncture practice. In 1980, SEIRIN, a Japanese company, released the first single use disposable acupuncture needle in the world. During the past decades, disposable needles completely took the place of traditional needles which were repeatedly used. Guide tubes have been an important tool for acupuncturists in order to locate an acupoint faster and reduce the pain of a patient. Plastic-handle needles also became the favorite of many therapists, especially for facial acupuncture, ear acupuncture and Su Jok therapy, because plastic-handle needles are very light.
How to make a high-quality acupuncture needle
Zhen Jiu Da Cheng, a Chinese acupuncture work published in 1601, records how to produce needles with an iron body and a copper handle. Ancient needles were made based on the theory of five elements, and a lot of traditional Chinese medicinal materials were involved into the production process. Nowadays with modern technology, needles are not only firmer and thinner, but also sterile and stainless.
For a high-quality acupuncture needle, its point is straight without any hook. The point is sharp smoothly. The sharp point of an acupuncture needle is actually spherical but not blunt. It is like a pine needle.
The part between a needle’s handle and its point is the body of the needle. The body is straight and flexible without any rust or spot.
On the handle of the needle, a metal wire tightly twines around the needle. The spiral of the wire should be even and compact. The wire has no crack.
Between the body and the handle, it is the root of the needle. Based on the position a therapist can observe the inserting depth of a needle. The root of a needle should be firm and smooth without any hook.
The end of a handle is the tail of a needle. For a Chinese-style needle, the tail is a loop. It is a style brought by the twining technique of a metal wire. And in ancient times it was also a convenient way to collect needles by a thread, like the hole of the unearthed golden needles that were made more than two thousand years ago.
1. Liang, F., et al., 2016. Science of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. 4th ed. Beijing: China Press of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
2. Wang, F., et al., 2016. Manipulations of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. 4th ed. Beijing: China Press of Traditional Chinese Medicine.