What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the stimulation of certain points, called acupoints, located throughout the body. Stimulation is usually by the insertion of fine metallic needles into the skin. Acupoints can also be stimulated by hand (acupressure), laser light, and heat.

Acupuncture is a type of treatment used in healing techniques that originated in China thousands of years ago. Today, acupuncture is widely practiced in the US with an estimated 3.1 million Americans receiving acupuncture treatments annually.

What education does an acupuncturist receive?
Before starting an acupuncture program, a candidate must have completed three years of college with special emphasis on biology, chemistry and psychology. Most entrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher. The educational program is four academic years. Course work is a combination of traditional acupuncture theory and practice and coursework in biomedicine, much like that in conventional medical schools.

Acupuncture training traditionally was handed down from master to student. Beginning in the 1980’s acupuncture training programs became institution-based and accredited in the same way that other health professional education programs have been in the US. Today the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is recognized by the US Department of Education for accrediting Masters and Doctoral-level educational programs.

Prerequisites for admission to an acupuncture program include three years of college credits with special emphasis on biology, chemistry and psychology. Most entrants have at least a bachelor’s degree. The educational program lasts four academic years and course work is made up of a combination of traditional acupuncture theory and practice in which the philosophical and energetic concepts of acupuncture and Oriental medicine are taught. Coursework in biomedicine as conceptualized and taught in most medical schools is also included. The blending of traditions thousands of years old with contemporary understanding of anatomy, physiology, health, diet and nutrition provides unique training in a set of tools to enhance human health.

What kind of license does an acupuncturist have and what do they have to do to maintain it?
An acupuncturist must obtain and maintain licensure in the jurisdiction in which they practice. State laws generally govern the licensing and discipline of acupuncturists. The profession is overseen by a board comprised of providers and public members. In some states (Oregon, for example) the profession is licensed by the state medical board. Currently, 43 states plus the District of Columbia require acupuncturists to pass the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) examinations or NCCAOM certification as a prerequisite for licensure. All but four states require licensure in order to practice legally. State licensure is a baseline assurance of quality and safety of the provider.

What can I expect at my first visit?
At your first appointment, your acupuncturist will begin by talking with you about your health and ask you a series of questions about your current health care needs, your current and past medications, your habits and lifestyle, personal health history and physical symptoms. This is similar to an intake performed by all health care providers.

Acupuncturists also gather information about your health by observing various physical characteristics. Your acupuncturist may examine the color, shape, and coating of your tongue; feel the speed, quality, and strength of your pulse; and/or palpate areas of your body where you are experiencing pain and discomfort. This information will help them determine the most appropriate treatment for you according to Chinese medical diagnosis.

Once they have formulated a treatment plan for you, the acupuncturist will place extremely fine, flexible, sterile, single-use needles at specific acupuncture points on your body. When the needles are inserted, you may experience a sensation of tingling or warmth.

Does acupuncture hurt?
In traditional acupuncture, needles are inserted at specific locations called acupoints in order to restore balance and healthy energy flow to the body. Needles are usually put in just deep enough into the skin to keep them from falling out and are usually left in place for several minutes. Acupuncture needles are much smaller than a hypodermic needle and the point is rounded, not sharp. They are so thin that several acupuncture needles can go into the middle of a hypodermic needle.

There is little sensitivity to the insertion of acupuncture needles. Skilled acupuncturists cause virtually no pain. In general, the sensation of an acupuncture treatment is quite pleasant as endorphins are released and circulate throughout the body during a treatment session.

Acupuncturists usually ask their patients about unexpected pain with needling. It is important for the patient to let their acupuncturist know of any unusual pain or discomfort so that the provider can adjust or remove any painful needle application.

What conditions do acupuncturists treat?
Acupuncture is most often used to treat pain from many different conditions. The list of conditions successfully treated by acupuncture is extensive. For questions about whether your condition could be helped by an acupuncturists, please contact your provider.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report in 2003 entitled, Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials. In this report, the WHO listed the following as examples of symptoms, illnesses, and conditions that acupuncture has been shown to treat effectively in controlled trials:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Sciatica
  • Tennis elbow
  • Knee pain
  • Periarthritis of the shoulder
  • Sprains
  • Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
  • Headache
  • Dental pain
  • Tempromandibular (TMJ) dysfunction
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Induction of labor
  • Correction of malposition of fetus (breech presentation)
  • Morning sickness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Postoperative pain
  • Stroke
  • Essential hypertension
  • Primary hypotension
  • Renal colic
  • Leucopenia
  • Adverse reactions to radiation or chemotherapy
  • Allergic rhinitis, including hay fever
  • Biliary colic
  • Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
  • Acute bacillary dysentery
  • Primary dysmenorrhea
  • Acute epigastralgia
  • Peptic ulcer
  • Acute and chronic gastritis

In addition to this list of situations where treatment has been proven effective, the WHO report also describes many conditions for which acupuncture may be useful, or at least worth trying, although research on effectiveness is inconclusive. The entire WHO report is available at http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Js4926e/

Where can I learn more about acupuncture?
We've included links to useful information below:

www.aaaomonline.org - American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
nccam.nih.gov - National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health