How to Choose an Acupuncturist

Seven Things You Should Know

Before Choosing an Acupuncturist

You may be reading this report because you are thinking about trying acupuncture and don’t quite know where to start.  For most people, acupuncture may feel risky because they don’t know much about it, and finding a practitioner might feel a little like gambling.  Our goal in this report is to answer some of your questions about acupuncture and provide some guidelines to help you choose the right practitioner for you.

Acupuncture is part of a system of healing that originated in China thousands of years ago, and is still used in many parts of the world today.  Many people think that acupuncture is the only kind of treatment involved in Chinese medicine.  However, Chinese medicine actually encompasses several modalities, or systems of healing, including herbal medicine, a kind of bodywork called Tui Na, dietary therapy, lifestyle habits, a system of movement called Qi Gong, and Feng Shui—the energetics of your surroundings.  However, the part of Chinese medicine that we are most familiar with in the United States is acupuncture.

For about two thousand years, Traditional Chinese Medicine was the only medicine of China. It was used not only for pain relief, but also as internal medicine, treating everything from digestive problems to anxiety.  Western medicine’s influence in China is only decades old.

Today, more and more western institutions are recognizing the effectiveness of acupuncture and Chinese herbs for a countless number of conditions.  The World Health Organization has listed dozens of conditions that acupuncture can treat effectively.  Many hospitals in the United States are adding acupuncture to their list of services.  Acupuncture has been featured in all corners of the media from the Mayo Clinic women’s newsletter, to the Oprah Winfrey show, and Dr. Andrew Weil’s books.

One of the cornerstones of Chinese medicine is the practice of acupuncture, which is the insertion of fine needles into points on the body to stimulate self-healing.  Acupuncture is an energetic form of healing, which makes it hard for some people to accept.  However, remember from 7th grade biology that the mitochondria in our cells manufacture energy, and we know that energy is a power even at the molecular level.  The theory behind acupuncture is that this energy moves in pathways in the body.  Pain, illness, or uncomfortable symptoms arise when this energy is either blocked or depleted.

An example of blocked energy is when someone is having a heart attack, with the additional symptom of pain radiating down the left arm.  While the blockage is in the heart, the pain that is radiating down the arm is in the Heart pathway in Chinese medicine.  Another example of blocked energy is the stiff neck and shoulders that many people experience when they are stressed out.  The stress causes tightness which inhibits the flow of blood and energy, creating the pain and stiffness, which can also travel and cause headaches or chronic back pain.

The energy moving throughout your body pools or rises to the surface at various points, called acupoints.  An acupuncturist can access this energy by inserting needles into various acupoints to either unblock or help build up depleted energy.  In addition, while the pathways rise to the surface of your body, they also run deep to the internal organs.  As a result, an acupuncturist can access your internal organs through the acupoints on your body’s surface.

It’s important to be clear that your acupuncturist isn’t using needles like “medicine”.  Rather, by inserting needles into appropriate points, your acupuncturist is stimulating your body to heal itself.  Think of your acupuncturist as a facilitator, but remember, you’re doing the work of healing.

Finding the Right Acupuncturist.

Choosing an acupuncturist can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never had acupuncture before.  It’s important to ask some questions before you book an appointment for an acupuncture treatment to make sure you’re getting the right practitioner for your particular needs.  The following are some important points to consider and ask a practitioner before you book your first appointment, to help you choose the right one.

1.  Education counts—know your practitioner’s education and licensure

This is an important first question to ask anyone before they perform acupuncture on you!  All too frequently consumers are led to believe that any practitioner who is trained or certified to practice acupuncture is highly qualified in the art of diagnosis and treatment using the principles of Chinese Medicine.  Don’t hesitate to ask a prospective practitioner about their credentials and training.

Physicians performing acupuncture are required to have 100-200 hours of training in the technical use of acupuncture prior to using it as a treatment.  This is considered medical acupuncture.  If you are considering medical acupuncture, look for a doctor who is a member of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, which requires a minimum of 200 hours of training in acupuncture for membership.

Many chiropractors advertise that they offer acupuncture.  It is important to know, however, that depending on which state you live in, they may only be required to have 100 to 150 hours of unspecified training in acupuncture.  They typically take a test sponsored by their local Chiropractic Board and pay a fee to become “certified”.  Chiropractors who perform acupuncture call themselves Board Certified Acupuncturists.  In addition, they are usually legally limited only to performing acupuncture treatments that augment chiropractic adjustments.

Licensed Acupuncturists (LAc) are required to have a minimum of 1,800 to 2,400 hours or more of education and clinical training, depending on individual state requirements.  In most states they must also be certified with the NCCAOM, a national regulatory agency governing Oriental Medical education and credentials.  Licensed Acupuncturists are also licensed by their state’s Board of Medical Practice.

Licensed Acupuncturists practice internal Chinese medicine, which focuses on the underlying source of the problem, rather than just treating symptoms.  As a result, their treatments go beyond simple pain relief offered by most chiropractors and medical acupuncturists.

Most Licensed Acupuncturists must also have a Masters degree in either Acupuncture of Oriental Medicine.  The distinction between the two is that a practitioner with a Masters in Acupuncture is trained primarily in acupuncture.  A practitioner with a Masters in Oriental Medicine is trained both in acupuncture and diagnosis and treatment using traditional Chinese herbs.

2.  Can they help you?  Find out your practitioner’s area of specialty and experience with your condition.

Some acupuncturists treat any and all conditions.  However, many specialize in treating certain conditions, such as muscle and joint pain, stress and anxiety, infertility, or women’s conditions.  It is important to ask whether a prospective practitioner has had some experience in treating your condition.  It is also important to ask what kind of results a practitioner has had with your particular condition.

3.  It’s all about style—ask about the kind of acupuncture being practiced.

Most people don’t know that there are many different kinds of acupuncture, such as Traditional Chinese acupuncture, Ear acupuncture, Japanese style, Korean Hand acupuncture, cosmetic acupuncture, and scalp acupuncture.  Some of these different kinds of acupuncture are more effective for specific conditions.  For example, Ear acupuncture is especially successful for addictions, such as quitting smoking and weight loss, and scalp acupuncture might be more valuable for conditions affecting the nervous system.  Be sure to ask what conditions are best helped by your practitioner’s kind of acupuncture.

4.  How many and how often?  Find out about the number and frequency of treatments.

No practitioner should tell you how many acupuncture treatments you will need on the phone before they have seen you, taken your health history and made a diagnosis.  In fact, everyone heals at a different pace.  Your condition may be resolved in one or two treatments, or it may take many more, especially if it is a long-term chronic condition.

Acupuncturists may vary in their frequency of treatments.  Some prefer to treat you weekly, and others may prefer to see you more than once a week.  In general, acute conditions may require more frequent treatments, and chronic, long-standing conditions may be treated less frequently.

5.  Check out what treatments other than acupuncture are offered.

Beyond acupuncture, there are a number of other kinds of treatments that come under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, and it’s important to ask what, if any, other kinds of treatments a practitioner offers.  Many Licensed Acupuncturists are also credentialed herbalists, and can prescribe herbal formulas to address your particular condition.  The herbs may come in the form of small pills, capsules, teas, powders, and raw herbs that must be cooked.  Herbal medicine is a good way to augment your acupuncture treatment, and can be tailored to your specific needs.

Many acupuncturists provide help in the form of food therapy.  They can help you incorporate foods into your diet that are most beneficial to your particular conditions.  In addition to food therapy, some practitioners incorporate lifestyle counseling into their treatments.

Other treatments that may be offered include bodywork, heat therapy, and cupping, which involves creating a vacuum in a glass cup on your skin to aid in pain relief and other conditions.

6.  Are you covered?  Find out if your health insurance pays for acupuncture treatments

Many health care plans currently don’t pay for acupuncture treatments.  As a result, many acupuncturists are fee for service providers.  If you think your health insurance plan may cover acupuncture, check with them to be sure.  Make sure the acupuncturist you ultimately choose will accept your insurance as payment or provide you with a receipt so you can be reimbursed by your health plan.

If you have a health savings plan, acupuncture qualifies for reimbursement.  In addition, acupuncture qualifies under most Flexible Spending Plans.  Be sure to ask your acupuncturist for a detailed receipt after your visit.

7.  Money is important—don’t be afraid to ask about cost.

The price of an acupuncture treatment will vary based on the experience of a practitioner, their style of acupuncture, and the city in which you are located.  For example, acupuncturists in larger cities tend to charge more than those in smaller towns.  Be sure to ask a practitioner what they charge, both for initial treatments and for follow-up visits.

© 2008 Acupuncture in the Park, by Lynn Jaffee