tattoos and acupuncture_fullBy Tom Williams

As an acupuncturist, I get asked a lot about tattoos. Are they good? Are they bad? What happens if you get tattooed on an acupuncture point?

The relationship between acupuncture and tattooing is a curious one.

There are some interesting similarities. Acupuncture and tattooing both involve needles and have been used by humans for thousands of years, and both have recently moved from marginal to (almost) mainstream.

There are also many differences. Acupuncture is a medical system that originated in China. Licensure requires years of post-graduate study and is regulated by oversight boards. Tattooing is a largely unregulated decorative art with origins from various cultures throughout the world.

Yet despite the apparent differences between acupuncture and tattooing, I’ve long suspected some shared DNA.

For instance, many women with severe menstrual irregularities have tattoos on an acupuncture point that is commonly used for gynecological problems (Spleen 6, located on the lower leg). At least some patients seem to intuitively select therapeutic locations for tattoos.

New attitudes about tattoos, same relationship to acupuncture

I first took notice of tattooing and its relationship to acupuncture in the mid-1980s, while practicing in sobering stations. The police and medics would bring in intoxicated people, and my main responsibility was to administer a series of acupuncture needles in the outer ear that help eliminate toxins. (Further reading: NADA protocol for smoking cessation.)

In addition, because street addicts often suffer from a number of associated health problems—depression, pain, indigestion and insomnia, to name just a few—I’d also needle points on the arms and legs. Again and again, I would roll up a sleeve or pant leg and find a tattoo exactly where I intended to place a needle.

This, of course, raises a question: Is it possible that tattoos on acupuncture points are actually the cause of what’s ailing a person rather than an unconscious attempt at treatment?

When I’ve asked patients about this, they almost always say the health problems came first, and the tattoos followed.

Twenty-five years ago, tattoos, while frequently seen at the sobering station, rarely appeared on the more affluent, educated patients in my private practice. Today they are common, especially among young people.

No matter the demographic or condition, I’ve continued to notice correlations between the locations of tattoos and acupuncture points.

Acupuncture and tattooing may have a common ancestor

These clinical observations about the relationship between acupuncture and tattoos are confirmed by an unlikely source, Ötzi the Ice Man.

Ötzi was discovered in 1991, after lying frozen in the Austrian Alps for over 5,000 years, carrying a pouch for medicinal plants. Scientific investigations revealed details about the medicine man’s condition when he died in 3,300 BC, around age 40. He had osteoarthritis of the lower back, and—lo and behold—he had tattoos on acupuncture points that are used to treat low back pain!

When I first came across media reports of this discovery, I was skeptical. After all, Ötzi was Northern European, and acupuncture originated in China. (Didn’t it?) Also, the body in question was very old. There are some pretty fine distinctions concerning the precise location of acupuncture points, so it seemed unlikely that they could be deciphered after all that time.

But when I saw photographs and read more detailed descriptions of the tattoo locations, my skepticism turned to astonishment.

Sure enough, Ötzi’s tattoos were on textbook acupuncture point locations. These are the same points that are used thousands of times a day to treat low back pain in modern acupuncture clinics around the world.

In addition to its better-known decorative purpose, tattooing has been practiced with a therapeutic intention for many thousands of years. With the benefit of written language and relatively stable cultural traditions, the ancient Chinese were able to refine and codify a pre-historic medical system that we now call traditional Chinese medicine.

In modern times, the practices of decorative tattooing and therapeutic needling have diverged into very different tribes. But they might claim a common ancestor—a wandering medicine man known as Ötzi.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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