Acupuncture Education, Schools, and Career Overview
The practice of acupuncture has been used for millennia to address issues related to pain, sickness, behavior disorders, and even infertility. It involves the delicate needling and manipulation of a series of points throughout the body, which correlate directly with the various organs and body systems. This process serves to stimulate the circulatory system so as to increase blood flow in affected areas and thereby promote healing and reduce inflammation. It can also contribute to the release of endorphins that act as a natural means by which to relieve pain. The philosophical component of this healing art seeks to encourage the body to achieve a healthy and natural state of homeostasis -- something that can be offset by environmental, dietary, emotional, and stress factors.
There are a number of methods by which to approach acupuncture. Here are some of the more common ones that may be covered in acupuncture training programs:
- System of Five-Phase Correspondence: This is the most popular form of acupuncture as it is most closely related to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. This approach seeks to find a relationship between an illness or malady being suffered by a particular organ and an imbalance in its elemental and esoteric counterpart that exists in nature.
- Japanese Acupuncture and Hara Diagnosis: This more subtle form of acupuncture is characterized by a greater attention to diagnosis through palpation, and in particular palpation of the Hara, or abdomen. Japanese acupuncture employs a more gentle approach that involves lighter needling such that needles do not penetrate as deeply.
- Auricular Acupuncture: This approach is based on the concept that certain points in the ear can be directly correlated to certain parts of the body and when charted in comparison, the ear appears as a homunculus, or miniature person. This approach was pioneered in the West and is frequently used as a drug-free form of withdrawal therapy to treat chemical addiction.
- Korean Hand Acupuncture: This method focuses on the hand as a microcosmic representation of the entire body. In this way the entire body is represented in various points throughout the hand allowing the acupuncturist to limit needling to the hand only. Very small needles are used and may be left in place for a number of hours depending on the nature and severity of the condition being treated.
- Electro-acupuncture: This more contemporary method uses electrical current through the inserted needle to mimic manual manipulation, but in a more regular and predictable pattern of stimulation. Electro-acupuncture has been embraced for its ability to better control the frequency and amount of stimulation given to an acupuncture point.
How to Become an Acupuncturist
Acupuncture jobs provide many opportunities for developing meaningful interpersonal relationships with clients, as well as a truly dynamic variation in the type of client being treated.
Typical steps to become an acupuncturist:
- Undergo acupuncture therapy yourself. This is the obvious means by which to become intimately familiar with the process, doctor/patient dynamic, and effectiveness of this healing art.
- Research the licensing requirements for the state in which you live. These differ quite a bit in terms of formal training and educational expectations, so this may influence the educational path you pursue. Most states require a master's degree as the final step to practicing acupuncture independently.
- Pursue an Associate of Science or Bachelor of Science degree as a precursor to formal acupuncture education at the master's level. Bachelor' programs aren't very common; however, aspiring acupuncturists have the option of pursuing three-year Master of Science programs after completing a two-year Associate of Science degree.
- Consider acupuncture certification on a national level through the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission on Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine). Although this is elective in some states, it is more often than not a requirement for state licensure.
- Begin practicing acupuncture! You may want to consider employment opportunities in an established acupuncture specialty clinic or a practice with bodywork professionals, physicians, chiropractors, or naturopaths. You might also choose to open an office of your own.
Various education options are available to those interested in pursuing acupuncture jobs or those who wish to broaden their conventional or natural medical practices by making acupuncture available to their clients. These range from 200-hour certificate programs to 3000-hour formal training programs at the postgraduate level.
Students can expect acupuncture programs to cover physiology, oriental medicine, an introduction to acupuncture therapy, needle sterilization, massage and palpation. Coursework is likely to differ in terms of depth and scope of the instruction depending upon the degree level. Acupuncture courses for advanced degrees usually introduce students to Chinese medical theory and philosophy, anatomy, Western pathology, as well as Chinese herbology and general botanical medicine.
Subject Spotlight: Acupuncture Meridians
Acupuncture meridians are the conduits or channels through which the vital energy, known as Qi (pronounced and commonly spelled as "Chi."), flows through the body. They also represent the lines on which the 365 acupuncture points are located. Students who study this topic can learn about the acupuncture points that can be targeted in various combinations to deal with localized pain as well as any number of illnesses.
These are the twelve main meridians:
- Lung Meridian: Eleven points fall on this meridian known as Tai Yin.
- Kidney Meridian: Twenty-seven points fall on this meridian known as Shao Yin.
- Gallbladder Meridian: There are forty-four points on this meridian called Shao Yang.
- Stomach Meridian: Forty-Five points are located on the Yang Ming meridian.
- Spleen Meridian: Twenty-one points fall on this meridian called Tai Yin.
- Heart Meridian: Nine acupuncture points are located on the Shao Yin meridian.
- Small Intestine Meridian: There are nineteen acupuncture points on this meridian known as Tai Yang.
- Large Intestine Meridian: Twenty acupuncture points fall on this meridian called Yang Ming.
- Urinary Bladder Meridian: This meridian has sixty-seven acupuncture points and is knows as Tai Yang.
- Triple Warmer/San Jiao Meridian: This meridian has twenty-three points and is called San Jiao or Shao Yang.
- Pericardium Meridian: There are nine points located on this meridian called Jue Yin.
- Liver Meridian: Fourteen points are found on this meridian called Jue Yin.
Subject Spotlight: Client Assessment
Students can expect to learn how to conduct thorough client assessments. Based on key indicators, an experienced practitioner is often able to diagnose the ailment so as to know how to best approach treatment.
Oral assessments typically include gathering and evaluating information about the following:
- The nature, severity, and even the cause of the condition being treated
- A client's general medical history, including any predisposition for adverse reaction to treatment
- The client's level of appetite, current diet, and history of food allergy or sensitivity
- A client's lifestyle, regularity of exercise, sleep patterns, habitual behaviors, menstrual cycles and the level of stress
Physical assessments most often involve:
- Examining a patient's complexion for pallor, or discoloration that may be caused by illness or emotional distress
- Looking at the tongue for discoloration or coating.
- Listening to the tenor of a patient's voice as it can offer some indication of the nature and severity of their condition
- A pulse diagnosis to look at the qualities of the pulse, such as whether it is fast or slow, whether the surrounding area is hard or yielding, and whether the pulse can be felt as forceful or weak.
What degree options are available through acupuncture schools?
Acupuncture certification programs are often pursued by practicing MDs, as well as chiropractors, naturopaths, and osteopathic physicians. MDs, DCs, DOs, and NDs often take certification courses to get the formal instruction necessary to begin introducing acupuncture into their practice. Certification courses can usually be completed in about a year's time with between 200 and 300 hours of acupuncture training.
Although licensed medical practitioners frequently pursue certificate programs, they are also available to individuals without formal medical training who are interested in pursing a career in acupuncture and Chinese medicine. However, the licensing requirements set by most states actually mandate more formal training than these programs provide in order to receive licensure for independent practice.
Bachelor’s degree programs in acupuncture can be an excellent option for those who intend to practice in states where the state licensing body doesn’t require practitioners to hold a minimum of a master of science. These bachelor programs are also one way to prepare for enrolling in a master’s program.
Master’s degree programs are the standard for acupuncturists who wish to operate independent of physician oversight, open and operate an independent practice of their own, and make a career out of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. The Master of Science in Acupuncture degree takes between two and three years to complete after having completed a bachelor’s program. The bachelor’s degree must be related to medical science, but does not need to be specific to acupuncture. It is worth noting that within this specialized field of medicine three- and four-year master’s programs are quite common and are available to individuals who hold a two-year Associate of Science degree.
At the master’s level, practitioners frequently carry the M.S.O.M (Master of Science in Oriental Medicine), M.A.O.M (Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine), or M.T.O.M (Master of Traditional Oriental Medicine) credentials. However, the L.Ac. (Licensed Acupuncturist) is far and away the most common master’s level designation, and in fact, the one most commonly used in the field of acupuncture overall.
Doctoral degree programs can be pursued by ambitious students who wish to explore the full breadth and scope of Chinese medicine. The A.P. (Acupuncture Physician), D.O.M. (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), D.A or D.Ac. (Doctor of Acupuncture), and D.T.C.M. (Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine) are the credentials used to describe Ph.D.-level education for acupuncturists.
Certification and Licensure
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) exists as the most well-established professional organization for acupuncturists. This organization works on the behalf of acupuncturists as well as the general public, by working to maintain the highest level of excellence in training and practice for professional acupuncturists.
To become certified through NCCAOM, students must graduate from acupuncture programs that are ACAOM accredited (Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine), and upon graduation must pass the NCCAOM exam. This exam is comprised of both written and practical components, and tests for knowledge, competency, and understanding of safety standards in practice, most notable of these is the clean needle technique knows as CNT.
The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) is an independent body that accredits acupuncture training programs that meet stringent criteria for comprehensively training would-be practitioners with a focus on public safety.
Most states govern the practice of acupuncture and include it among the forms of therapy that require state licensure. Virtually all states have also established some continuing education requirements that must be fulfilled annually or biannually in order to maintain licensure. In most cases, acupuncturists are expected to renew their license with the state every other year.
A number of states do not have their own regulatory boards to establish specific requirements, but rather rely on the NCCAOM to provide national certification to those who qualify. These states set NCCAOM certification as the only criteria that must be met in order to attain and retain state licensure.
Other states have their own continuing education requirements for license renewal. The hours of continuing education may vary from state to state. Opportunities for satisfying continuing education requirements may be available through online channels, seminars and clinics, or even through classes offered by the same acupuncture schools offering advanced acupuncture degrees.
Some states only allow MDs, osteopaths, and chiropractors to practice acupuncture. Others have strong restrictions, but aren’t quite so prohibitive in that they allow acupuncturists to practice while being supervised by a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathy.
It's best to check with your state of residence to determine what licensure and continuing education may be needed to work an acupuncturist.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
Graduates of qualified education programs can look for acupuncture jobs in a variety of places, including established acupuncture clinics or partnered practices with other professionals such as chiropractors, or naturopaths. Other practitioners may choose to open an independent practice of their own.