What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the stimulation of certain acupuncture “points” located throughout the body. Stimulation is often by the insertion of fine metallic needles into the skin and deeper tissues at these points. Acupuncture points can also be stimulated by hand, often called acupressure, laser light, and heat.

Acupuncture is widely practiced in the US with an estimated 3.1 million Americans receiving treatments from acupuncture providers.

What education does an acupuncturist receive?
Acupuncture training traditionally was handed down from masters to students. Some early acupuncturists in the U.S. were trained in this fashion. Beginning in the 1980’s acupuncture training programs began to institution-based and to be accredited in the same way that other health professional education programs have been in the U.S. Today the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is recognized by the U.S. 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 a bachelor’s or higher degree. The educational program is four academic years. Course work is a combination of traditional acupuncture theory and practice in which the philosophical and energetic concepts of acupuncture along with coursework in biomedicine as conceptualized and taught in most medical schools. 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?
Once a student graduates, they are eligible to sit for national board examinations overseen by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). National board certification in acupuncture has been the mark of excellence in acupuncture since the inception of the Commission in 1982. In order to maintain NCCAOM certification providers must perform continuing educational activities. Course work must be in specific areas of competency including core skills in acupuncture, CPR, ethics, and other courses approved by the Commission.

In addition to national certifications, a practitioner must obtain and maintain a license in the jurisdiction where they practice. State laws generally govern the licensing of acupuncture providers. The profession is overseen by a board comprised of providers and public members. In some states the profession is licensed by the state medical board. Currently, 43 states plus the District of Columbia require the passage of the 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 practitioner.

What can I expect at my first visit?
At your first appointment, an acupuncturist will begin by asking 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. They may 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; 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.

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. 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. The acupuncturist may twirl the needles or apply heat or a weak electrical current to enhance the effects of the therapy. Sensations of pressure or tingling are common. In general the sensation of an acupuncture treatment is quite pleasant as endorphins are released and circulate throughout the body during a treatment session.

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

What conditions do acupuncturists treat?
Acupuncture is often used to treat pain from many different causes and conditions. The scopes of practice for licensed acupuncturists vary by state, but here are some conditions that respond well to acupuncture:

  • Addictions
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • TMJ Pain/Disorder
  • Back Pain
  • Musculoskeletal Problems
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Post-operative Recovery
  • Men’s Health
  • Women’s Health

Discuss any current healthcare concerns with your provider before beginning treatment.