Acupuncturist Career Guide

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a system of healing that is thought to have originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. The practice is still a key component of the health care system in China today.

Acupuncture entails using a thin needle to penetrate the skin to treat a variety of health conditions. The needles are inserted to various depths at strategic points along meridians or energy pathways.

In the West, acupuncture treatment is considered a complementary approach that is practiced along with traditional medical treatments for a range of physical disorders.

Acupuncture techniques have become more acceptable as a complementary medical practice in the West since New York Times reporter James Reston, traveling in China with US President Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, wrote about his acupuncture experience during an emergency procedure. The United States National Institute of Health (NIH) has recognized acupuncture as a healing option since 1997.

Although it is not clear exactly how acupuncture works on the body, studies show that the practice is effective for treating such disorders as chronic pain and treatment-induced nausea caused in cancer patients. Traditional Chinese medicine views acupuncture as balancing the flow of energy or chi (qi) through the body.

In Western medicine, acupuncture is thought to stimulate muscles and nerves to increase blood flow. Evidence shows that the pituitary and hypothalamus glands are activated as the result of acupuncture, which boosts natural painkillers that are believed to be related to opium.

What is an Acupuncturist?

An acupuncturist is a health care worker trained in using acupuncture to treat a variety of disorders. Acupuncturists sometimes work with other health care professionals to treat patients with disorders like musculoskeletal problems including neck or back pain, insomnia, nausea and anxiety.

Some acupuncturists hold a medical degree, and many are trained in using Chinese herbs in conjunction with acupuncture techniques.

Acupuncturists often specialize in using a particular type of acupuncture. Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncture (TCM) is the most common acupuncture technique practiced in the United States.

With TCM, acupuncturists adhere to principles of complementary a set of opposites: yin and yang, internal and external, excess and deficiency, and hot and cold.

Acupuncturists with a medical degree might practice French Energetic Acupuncture, which emphasizes meridian patterns, and physical therapists often use Myofascial Acupuncture to locate tender points along meridian lines.

Acupuncturists treat addiction with Auricular Acupuncture. Korean Hand Acupuncturists apply needles to the hands and feet to treat the whole body, and the Japanese style of acupuncture focuses on specific needling techniques and meridians.

What Does an Acupuncturist Do?

An acupuncturist assesses your condition by interviewing you to learn about your symptoms and might take your pulse at various locations on your wrist. An acupuncturist might look at other physical aspects of your body, such as your posture, the texture and color of your skin, and the color and shape of your tongue to learn about your health.

The acupuncturist will instruct a patient to lie on an examination table, face up, face down or on the side, depending on the location of the body where the needles will be inserted. The practitioner uses disposable, single use sterile needles to perform the acupuncture procedure. Thin acupuncture needles are them inserted along the proper paths or meridians to treat the patient’s condition.

The acupuncturist inserts the needles by gently manipulating, rolling or twirling each one as it pierces the skin. Many patients generally do not feel the insertion or the needles, and they may feel a brief twinge that quickly dissipates. Some patients feel an aching sensation when the needles are inserted to the proper depth. The patient remains on the examination table once all the needles are in place for up to an hour. During this treatment, many patients experience a relaxed sensation, and some become sleepy and sleep through the procedure.

For some conditions, the acupuncturist will heat the needles or stimulate them with electricity after they are inserted for a greater effect. The heating technique is referred to as moxibustion, whereby the acupuncturist ignites the herb mugwort and holds it above the needles. The patient will notice a pleasant aroma similar to incense.

For electrical acupuncture, the acupuncturist hooks the needles to electrical wires and initiates a weak current. The patient may feel a slight tingling sensation, or no sensation at all. After the acupuncture session, the acupuncturist will remove the needles quickly and painlessly.

The number of treatments required can range from one treatment to several treatments over a period of months for a chronic condition.

Where Do Acupuncturists Work?

Studies show support for acupuncture to treat a broad range of illnesses, to alleviate pain and to treat a variety of health conditions. Patients seek acupuncturists for disorders including migraine, osteoarthritis, allergies, cancer treatment related side effects, menopause symptoms and asthma.

Acupuncturists may work in private practice or as a member of a team at a health and wellness facility. Acupuncturists also work at acupuncture and Chinese herb clinics or in hospitals. Some medical doctors are trained in acupuncture, as are some chiropractors.

There is a growing field of chiropractic acupuncture that combines the two disciplines to focus on the body’s energy meridians in relation to the nervous and spinal systems. The NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health supports research training in acupuncture. Acupuncturists can find research opportunities in compliance with the NIH goal of improving the capacity of the field to carry out rigorous research.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become an Acupuncturist?

An aspiring acupuncturist must have formal training, although specific requirements vary from state to state. In most states, the practice of acupuncture is regulated and the practitioner is required to have a minimum of an associate degree or the equivalent.

Typically, the minimum requirement for an acupuncturist is to complete a three or four year program in acupuncture, and pass an examination from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to receive a license.

The Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM) recommends a master’s degree as the entry level standard, and almost half of the acupuncturists in the United States meet that standard.

The CCAOM also recommends that aspiring acupuncturists choose a school that is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) to ensure that the program meets prescribed educational standards.

Graduation from an accredited educational institution is a prerequisite to taking the national certification examinations. Passing these certification exams is required for the practice of acupuncture in most states. Be aware that there are a few states where acupuncture is not legal.

Students will need a minimum of two years or 60 credit hours of an undergraduate education to be admitted to an acupuncturist program, but most require a four-year bachelor’s degree for admission. In some cases, this educational requirement can be waived in the case of a licensed registered nurse or a physician’s assistant.

The degree may be in any subject area, but students are advised that classes in anatomy, psychology, biology and physiology are helpful for a successful career as an acupuncturist. Ideally, students obtain a bachelor’s degree in alternative medicine or health care. The requirements vary by program and by state, so applicants are advised to check.

There are around 50 acupuncture colleges accredited b the ACAOM, and they are listed on the ACAOM website. Coursework will cover acupuncture methodology, Chinese herbal medicine, anatomy and pathology. These master’s degree programs generally take three to four years to complete, and they offer certification in Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (AOM), also known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The next step to become certified is to pass the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine exam, a requirement for licensing in most states. Upon passing, the applicant is board certified and recognized as an L.Ac, a licensed acupuncturist. Another designation for certified acupuncturists is Dipl Ac, and practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine who pass a qualifying exam are referred to as Dipl CH.

What is a Licensed Acupuncturist?

A licensed acupuncturist has passed the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine exam. To be eligible to take the exam, the applicant must have completed a three or four year acupuncture program from a certified educational institution. Requirements for acupuncture programs vary by state.

How Much Does an Acupuncturist Make?

As of October 2022, according to ZipRecruiter, acupuncturists in the United States earn an average of $75,691 yearly. The lowest income earners take home $29,000, while those at the top of the pay range take home $125,000 per year. Experience and geographic area impact the pay for acupuncturists, with geographic area having the greatest effect.

What Skills are Required to Be an Acupuncturist?

  • Communication: Acupuncturists must be skilled in listening actively by giving their full attention to what people are saying about their problems in order to understand their physical issues. They must be able to convey information and give instructions when speaking to their clients.
  • Problem solving: Acupuncturists must be skilled in solving complex problems. Skills in order enable the practitioner to review pertinent information and evaluate various options for effective solutions.
  • Teamwork: Acupuncturists often work with doctors and other health care workers as part of a team to improve the health of their clients. Teamwork skills benefit clients who seek acupuncture as a part of their complementary or alternative treatment program, which may also involve chiropractic care and herbal remedies.
  • Instructing: Acupuncturists use their teaching skills to instruct client’s about ways that they may avoid problems in the future. This may involve recommendations like maintaining good posture and bending correctly when picking up an object.
  • Persuasion: Acupuncturists use their skills in persuasion to convince clients to implement a lifestyle change and use a different technique for physical actions to avoid injuries.

What Qualities Make a Good Acupuncturist?

  • Empathy: Acupuncturists use empathy to identify with the problems of their clients. In return, clients will be more apt to reveal pertinent information that can aid in their treatment because of the bond formed with the acupuncturist.
  • Good eye-hand coordination: Acupuncturists need good eye-hand coordination to execute acupuncture needling techniques effectively. Only individuals with good eye-hand coordination can expect t be successful at acupuncture.
  • Social perceptiveness: Acupuncturists use their social perceptiveness to become aware of reactions in others and to understand why they react as they do.
  • Service oriented: Acupuncturists should be service oriented and supportive. They should receive personal satisfaction from actively seeking ways to help people.
  • Good judgment: Acupuncturists should be able to exercise good judgment in making decisions about a patient’s treatment, especially in regard to costs and benefits.
  • Critical thinking: Acupuncturists use reasoning and logic to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of alternative approaches to a client’s problems.

What are the Opportunities for Advancement for an Acupuncturist?

According to the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, acupuncture is one of the most sought out treatments in the area of complementary and alternative medicine. The technique is a key modality in integrative medical settings, largely due to cost-effectiveness, safety and treatment effectiveness.

Acupuncturists have career opportunities in multidisciplinary clinics as part of a team, in hospitals and in private practice. They may go on to teaching, research, herbal medicine or publishing. Acupuncturists may also take their skills to an acupuncture supply company.

What Careers are Similar to Acupuncture?

Chiropractor: A chiropractor is a trained health professional who uses non-surgical treatments, including spinal manipulation and mobilization, to reduce pain and improve functionality in patients.

Chiropractic Acupuncturist: The expanding field of chiropractic acupuncture combines the two disciplines. Practitioners focus on the body’s energy meridians in relation to the nervous and spinal systems to treat patients.

Naturopathic Doctor (ND): A naturopathic doctor practices a form of alternative medicine with an array of noninvasive treatments, including homeopathy, herbalism and acupuncture.

Physician: A physician practices medicine to promote, restore or maintain the health of individuals. They diagnose and treat disorders due to injury, disease and physical impairments.

Veterinarian: A veterinary physician or veterinarian is a doctor who specializes in the treatment of animals. Veterinarians typically have a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, which takes four years to complete.

Associate Veterinarian: An associate veterinarian is a veterinarian employed at a veterinary practice owned by another veterinarian. Like other veterinarians, they complete four years of undergraduate studies and four years of graduate studies at a school of veterinary medicine.

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