Acupuncture has a long history, and although it remains a highly controversial therapy in modern medicine, more evidence has recently been unearthed to show how it was used in the ancient Alps. The mummified remains of a man, sometimes known as Otzi but also referred to as the Iceman, has been scanned using specific photographic imaging which has allowed researchers to see more of his skin, and to reveal previously unseen tattoos. These are now being analysed by the South Tyrol Museum in Italy, but initial evidence suggests that these tattoos strengthen previous ideas that they were being used as a form of acupuncture.
The tattoos on an ancient body
Since Otzi was discovered nearly 25 years ago on the Otzal Alps, the coloured tattoos which are visible on his body have caused discussion about reasons for them, and whether they were linked to acupuncture or were purely a decoration for the skin. The discovery of invisible tattoos has lead the total ink count on his body to 61, and the majority of them – over 80% – are found in areas where acupuncture treatments are still commonly cited.
The tattoos are made by creating small cuts in the skin, which are then coloured with charcoal and allowed to heal. As might be expected for such a simple method, the majority of the tattoos form lines or crosses. For a 5,000-year-old technique, this may have been a primitive form of acupuncture designed to relieve problems with back pain or stomach trouble.
The World Health Organisation now recommends the use of acupuncture for the treatment of symptoms associated with neurological, muscoskeletal and psychological disorders. The increased use of acupuncture as an analgesic in pain management has produced mounting evidence that the effects may also be due to physiological action in addition to the important psychological component.
Research into the physiological and biochemical mechanisms underlying acupuncture analgesia have contributed to our evolving knowledge of the neurological processes behind it. Acupuncture points have denser sensory innervation and connective tissue, and a richer content of TRPV1 receptors, all of which are important players in pain mechanisms. The insertion of a needle into these points acts as a mechanical stimulus that activates the mechanoreceptors and sends signals to the pain processing centres of the central nervous system. Neurochemical processes of pain modulation are consequently activated, inducing acupuncture analgesia.