A brief History:
Acupuncture is generally held to have originated in China, being first mentioned in documents dating from a few hundred years leading up to the Common Era. Sharpened stones and bones that date from about 6000 BCE have been interpreted as instruments for acupuncture treatment but they may simply have been used as surgical instruments for drawing blood or lancing abscesses. Documents discovered in the Ma-Wang-Dui tomb in China, which was sealed in 198 BCE, contain no reference to acupuncture as such, but do refer to a system of meridians, albeit very different from the model that was accepted later. Speculation surrounds the tattoo marks seen on the ‘Ice Man’ who died in about 3300 BCE and whose body was revealed when an Alpine glacier melted. These tattoos might indicate that a form of stimulatory treatment similar to acupuncture developed quite independently of China. Source
Chinese medicine wants you to believe that there exists energy highways in the body called “meridians” that transport Chi/Qi to all parts of the body. However, this is different from what we now understand and call the circulatory system. The belief seems to be that diseases and distresses are caused when there is a blockage in the meridians.
The first documentation of acupuncture that described it as an organized system of diagnosis and treatment is in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which dates back to 100 BCE. Source.
And now… Over the past 40 years acupuncture has found its way into modern science-based western medicine. Chinese doctors educated in western medicine were the first to incorporate it into their practice with stunning results. It is even covered by prominent insure providers in the US.
Entering the mainstream?
20 years ago you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a Chinese healer in your neighborhood. But now they have moved out of malls and have established practices complete with a white coat and whatnot.
Acupuncture has turned out to be more effective in treating low-back pain than conventional medicine and physical therapy. Source. This is one study that needs to be replicated numerous times all around the world for it to be taken seriously.
Webmd.com has numerous articles about the topic that make it seem like a normal, everyday science-backed method. But then again WebMD is not what it used to be. From its early days of providing factual medical data it has turned into a clickbaity site a la buzzfeed.com to lure visitors and ad revenue.
Numerous studies have been conducted to research how inserting needles into pressure points can manipulate the brain into releasing hormones like endorphins or causing the nervous system to “heal” itself.
Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects.
Verum and sham acupuncture exert distinct cerebral activation in pain processing areas: a crossover fMRI investigation in healthy volunteers.
…are just a few examples.
Another interesting paper on the topic is : Is Placebo Acupuncture What It Is Intended to Be?
Is it a case of Confirmation Bias? Could be. People who are healed with accuputure (placebo or not) are more likely to talk about it. They are more likely to recommend to friends and colleagues and go online and rave about it. The ones who were not healed might be embarrased to reveal that they wasted money on alternative medicine. It all depends on what you search for. If you look for “accupuncture + success” you will find glowing articles about it. One the other hand if you search “accupuncture + scam”, you may rethink your well-meaning friend’s advice.
The evidence that we have so far seems to be mostly anecdotal and the papers written on the topic simply have not gone throuhg the same amount of rigour as other papers published in the field of medicine.
What we need right now is a meta analysis of the studies to review and validate their methodologies. Proponents of Chinese medicine say that the day is not far when acupuncture and acupressure will cross over into mainstream medicine and drop the “alternative” tag altogether.
Wishful thinking? I’m not so sure. Especially given the current scientific climate with the anti-vaxx movement and the growing climate change deniers. Somehow, the demographic involved in these activities seem to be overlapping. Of course, that is just a guess based on personal experience and not found on any actual survey. But it sure is good survey for a graduate student.