What is an Acupuncturist?


Acupuncture is one of the treatments that are grouped under the term Traditional Chinese Medicine. Acupuncturists focus on a theory that states that energy (Chee) flows through your body in certain paths. When a person becomes sick, there is an unbalance or block in this energy flow.  


In order to treat this unbalance, very thin needles are inserted into the skin at specific points and at specific depths. The needles may be aided by temperature control, herbs, pressure, or electric current. The goal is to encourage the energy to return to the correct path. [i] In Western medicinal terms, acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system. This stimulation results in the release of chemicals, such as hormones, that achieve the desired effect. [ii]


Acupuncturists are taught, like most medical professionals, to treat the individual rather than the illness. Taking in a patient’s mental and emotional state as well as the physical allows practitioners to assist the patient in creating a more balanced lifestyle.


Acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of conditions. Conditions in which chronic pain is present are among these conditions. Patients suffering from chronic back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have reported relief with the use of acupuncture. Benefits are not limited to pain management, however. Acupuncture has also been used to treat those suffering from withdraw symptoms, anxiety, depression, asthma and fibromyalgia.


Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is strongly based in spirituality and the Daoist belief in the interconnectedness of everything. It promotes good health through diet and exercise. Illness that occurs is treated with Qigong, herbs, or acupuncture. Because Traditional Chinese Medicine is such a holistic method and aims to treat the patient, not the disease, there are several concepts that need to be understood by practitioners.


Yin and Yang

Everything can be categorized as yin or yang. Yin and yang are symbolized by a circle that is divided into black and white by a curved line. This is symbolic of the fact that they are not opposites, but complimentary and flow into one another. In harmonious flow, summer turns to fall and day flows into night. Within each side of the circle, there is a smaller circle of the opposite color. This is indicative of the fact that nothing is completely yin and that within yang there exists some yin.


Vital Substances

Vital substances are those things within us that work together to make us complete. They form our mind and body. Among these are qi, body fluids, blood, Shen, and Jing.

  • Qi, pronounced Chee, is the life energy source that flows through each of us. In order for us to maintain good health, our qi must be in balance. Unbalance results in illness. The Chinese believe that when qi gathers, a body is formed and when qi disperses, a body dies.
  • Bodily Fluids are another vital substance. Also known as Jin Ye, these fluids are necessary to nourish, lubricate and moisten our bodies. They are derived from what we eat and drink. Jin fluids are things such as sweat and tears that moisten the skin and exterior of our body. Ye fluids are thicker and lubricate our muscles and joints. Illness occurs with a deficiency or overabundance of these bodily fluids.
  • In Western medicine, it is believed that blood carries nourishment to all parts of the body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that blood not only carries nourishment, but also vitality to the body. Blood is the material form of qi and is the basis for the formation of bones, muscles, skin, and organs. Illness can result when blood is stagnant, deficient or there is heat in the blood.
  • Shen is representative of the mind or spirit. A balanced Shen is necessary for healthy mental and cognitive functions. An unbalanced Shen may cause illnesses such as insomnia.
  • Jing is the body’s source of vitality and health. If a person has a strong Jing, then they tend to be hearty and healthy. Those with a weak Jing tend to have a weaker constitution and therefore experience more illness. Jing is also responsible for growth and development, so any developmental problems are due to weak Jing.



Everything in our body is organized in a network of pathways called meridians. There are twelve regular meridians running vertically through the body with branches. Each meridian is associated with a vital organ. In addition, acupuncture points are points in which the Qi is accessed along the meridians.


Internal Organs

Ancient Chinese organized the world around them into the elements of Earth, fire, wood, metal and water. Similarly, the internal organs have been categorized into Organ Networks. Hollow organs are known as Zang and solid organs are Fu. Zang Fu organs are associated with body tissues and emotions. Practitioners need to understand these relationships in order to successfully diagnose and treat illnesses.


The Zang organs include:

  • The lung is responsible for respiration as well as the extraction of Qi from the air breathed.
  • The spleen transforms and transports nutrients to the body.
  • The heart is where Shen resides. It is also responsible for the flow of blood throughout the body.
  • Kidneys store Jing as well as metabolize fluids in the body.
  • The liver stores blood and maintains the free flow of Qi through the body.
  • The pericardium protects the heart.


The Fu organs include:

  • The stomach initiates the metabolizing of food and drink.
  • The large intestine and bladder excrete feces and urine.
  • The gallbladder stores and governs the secretion of bile.
  • The small intestines metabolize water and assist in the flow of fluids through the body.


There are organs that are not considered to be Zang Fu organs. These Extraordinary organs that are considered less important include:

  • The uterus is the organ that regulates menstruation, conception and pregnancy.
  • The brain plays a role in a person’s intelligence, memory, and sensory functions.
  • Bones are what provide the body with structure.
  • Bone marrow is what is contained in the brain and bones.
  • Blood vessels are responsible for circulating the blood through the body. [iii]


History of Acupuncture

The actual beginnings of acupuncture treatment have been reduced to folklore. According to legend, thousands of years ago, a Chinese soldier was wounded in battle. He was unable to move his shoulder without pain. After seeing doctors and being told there was nothing to be done, he was convinced that he would merely have to live with the pain.


In a later battle, something miraculous happened. The soldier was wounded in the leg. This new injury caused the pain and stiffness in his shoulder to disappear. Baffled by this, the soldier returned to his doctor who was unable to explain why this happened.


Waiting while the soldier talked with the doctor was another man who was afflicted with the same shoulder injury. He begged the doctor to pierce his leg in an attempt to cure his shoulder. While the doctor thought this silly, he had tried everything else. He pierced the man’s leg in the approximate spot where the soldier had been injured. To the doctor’s surprise and the delight of the patient, the treatment worked.


The doctor then began to treat anyone that came to see him with a “frozen shoulder” in the same manner with great success. However, even though the treatment was a success, there were many who feared going to the doctor and allowing him to pierce their leg with an arrow.[iv]


While the origins are rooted in folklore, there is actual evidence that acupuncture has been used in China for over 2,500 years. Mention of its use appears in the Nei Jing, or the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. This book has been dated back to around 300 B.C. and contains a list of illnesses during that time period as well as descriptions of acupuncture points.


            Acupuncture came to the forefront again around 260 B.C. when Huang-Fu Mi wrote a twelve volume set of manuals about acupuncture. These volumes held detailed descriptions of the approximate 349 acupuncture points as well as guides on how deeply to insert the needles. Throughout the years, as more was learned about the human body, the ancient texts were revised and the number of known acupuncture points grew to over 2,000. [v]


Acupuncture became known to Western medicine in the early 19th century. However, it was not widely practiced and was in some places illegal. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it gained notoriety in the United States. In 1972, Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State) travelled to China with journalist, James Reston. While there, Reston had fallen ill and required surgery. Doctor’s use of acupuncture to relieve his pain intrigued the journalist. He wrote an article for The New York Times documenting his experience. This caused interest in acupuncture to increase and to begin to resemble what we know today. [vi]


Dr. Miriam Lee

Dr. Miriam Lee was trained as a midwife, nurse, and acupuncturist in China. She immigrated to the United State in 1966 in search of a better life. However, she entered the United States during a time when acupuncture was illegal. In order to survive, she took a job in a factory.


While working in the factory she offered to use acupuncture to help a friend’s son. Word of her assistance spread, and soon there was a line of patients lined up at her door. This led to her arrest in 1975 for practicing medicine without a license. A courtroom full of patients there to testify convinced the courts to reach a compromise. Lee would be allowed to continue to see patients and acupuncture was classified as an experimental treatment.


            After acupuncture was legalized and recognized as a valid medical treatment, Lee went on to found the Acupuncture Association of America. It is through this avenue that Lee has worked to create licensing requirements and to have acupuncture recognized by insurance companies.4


Dr. Yao Wu Lee

Dr. Yao Wu Lee was one of three doctors who together founded the Acupuncture Center of Washington. This center was one of the first founded in the United States and contributed greatly to the popularization of acupuncture in the U. S.  At one point during the life of the center, they were seeing up to one thousand patients daily. It was also at the request of this center that acupuncturist become a recognized profession that allowed immigration to the United States. [vii]


Dr. Leon Hammer

Dr. Hammer began his study of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the early 1970s. He studied for over 27 years with Dr. J.F. Shen. After he retired from being a practicing acupuncturist, Hammer dived into writing and teaching. Hammer has written numerous articles and several books that are still widely regarded in the field of TCM today. He also helped to found the Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine in 2001. [viii]


Dr. John H. F. Shen

Dr. Shen is descended from a lineage of physicians that were famous in Shanghai in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shen was known for his use of a detailed pulse diagnosis system, facial diagnosis system, and prescribing herbs. Shen recognized that there were patients that did not necessarily fit into the Zang-Fu system of diagnosing illness. In response, he created “system diagnosis” to help these patients. Patients could be diagnosed as having a circulatory system disease, a nervous system disease, or a digestive system disease. Shen’s work influenced other Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners such as Dr. Leon Hammer.


Dr. Jing Nuan Wu

Dr. Jing Nuan Wu was an interesting mix of an artist and acupuncturist. Wu’s art was influenced by the Taoist principles of Wu Xing. This is a theory that focuses on the balancing colors and imagery in a yin and yang balance.


In traditional Chinese medicine there are theories that support the use of external stimuli to promote healing energy. Dr. Wu used his art as a compliment to his practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine. [ix]


Dr. Ralph Coan


Dr. Ralph Coan was one of the few advocates of acupuncture that never actually practiced any form of traditional Chinese medicine. Coan was by profession, a medical doctor. He was the founder and president of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, as well as founder of the Acupuncture Association of Washington Metropolitan. He is also notably one of the pioneers of acupuncture research. He completed clinical trials of the effects of acupuncture on lower back pain and neck pain. This work is still cited by professionals today. Dr. Coan also conducted research on rheumatoid arthritis with positive results for a number of the patients. [x]



            Throughout ancient times, the only way to learn the art of treating illness with acupuncture was to apprentice with a master. This practice is still somewhat in place as a candidate goes through the steps to becoming an acupuncture practitioner.


Undergraduate Coursework

Accredited schools for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine often require students to complete 60 hours of undergraduate coursework. Half of these course hours must be in general education classes. General education courses consist of classes such as English, history, art, and sociology. For the other half of the undergraduate credits, it is suggested that students gain a good understanding of the medical area. Suggested courses would include sciences such as anatomy, physiology, and biology.


Acupuncture Program

Once a candidate has completed the required undergraduate coursework, he or she can begin studying acupuncture. Average time to complete necessary training is three to four years. During those three years, students will focus on several different areas. Some of these areas include advanced anatomy, diagnosis and evaluation, clinical acupuncture, needle placement, sterilization, and stimulation techniques. After completion of the acupuncture program, students are normally awarded a Master of Science in Acupuncture. Some schools offer post-graduate programs in which a candidate may earn a doctorate degree in acupuncture.



In order to become a licensed acupuncturist, candidates must pass a state examination after their coursework is complete. Some states may require that applicants for licensure pass the national examination. This examination may consist of four sections with up to one hundred items in each section. Sections included in the national examination include: Foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbology, Acupuncture, and Biomedicine.


A guide to assist you in finding your state’s requirements for licensure can be found at http://www.naturalhealers.com/acupuncture/acupuncture-licensure/.


Heath Professionals

It is possible for those already in the medical profession to become licensed in the use of acupuncture. This may be especially helpful to those individuals working with conditions such as arthritis, muscular problems and even dental problems.


In order for a candidate to become licensed in acupuncture there are requirements that must be met. The individual must hold a valid license to practice medicine, complete 300 hours of training in clinical acupuncture, and earn two years’ experience in use of medical acupuncture. Once these requirements are met, the physician is considered to board eligible. They then have two years to complete an examination in order to become a certified acupuncturist. [xi]



While it is not necessary for a candidate to complete a doctoral program to become a certified acupuncturist, it is suggested that education does not end after licensure. As with any profession, it is essential for practitioners to remain educated on current trends and new information. In fact, many states require that acupuncturists complete a required number of education hours in order to retain their certification.


Careers in Acupuncture

            As an acupuncturist, there are a few options open to you. The first is of course, private practice. Private practitioners meet with patients to assess, diagnose, and treat. It will also be up to the acupuncturist to perform administrative duties, such as maintaining patient records and billing. As with any medical profession, acupuncturists must also be sure to maintain a sterile work environment and sterile equipment.


If an acupuncturist has decided to earn a degree that includes additional certifications, the practice can also offer additional services. Some additional certifications that are commonly paired with acupuncture include: massage, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the use of herbs.


Private practice is not the only career option. With traditional medicinal methods becoming more popular, there may be opportunities to work in institutions such as hospitals or clinics. Those that have opted to earn a doctorate degree have even more options open to them. There are opportunities available to teach, write, research and work as a Chinese translator.



Those working as an acupuncturist can reasonably expect to earn a median salary of approximately $73,000 annually. This is of course dependent on variables such as geographic location. Comparing the median acupuncturist salary to other alternative health professionals reveals that acupuncture is one of the higher paid careers. Massage therapists earn a mean of approximately $37,000 and chiropractors earn a median of approximately $68,000.


Professional Organizations

American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine


            The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine was founded in 1981. The goal of the organization is to support acupuncturists and oriental medicine practitioners through education, resources and legislative advocacy.


Society for Acupuncture Research

The Society for Acupuncture Research was formed to increase the quality as well as promote awareness of research in the areas of acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicines. They offer access to several journals and databases devoted to this research.


[i] Healthwise Staff. (2014, Nov.). Acupuncture. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/tc/acupuncture-topic-overview#1

[ii] Swierzewski, S. (2015). Acupuncturist Overview. Retrieved from http://www.healthcommunities.com/traditional-chinese-medicine/alternative-medicine/what-is-an-acupuncturist.shtml.

[iii]Swierzewski, S. (2015).Traditional Chinese Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.healthcommunities.com/traditional-chinese-medicine/alternative-medicine/overview-of-tcm.shtml.

[iv]Hiranandani, M. (2017). Origin & History of Acupuncture. Retrieved from http://drmanik.com/chap1.htm

[v]Watson, S. Acupuncture Overview .(2007, June).Retrieved from http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/alternative/acupuncture.htm


[vi] Hanfileti, L. (2017). The History of Acupuncture in the U.S. Begins with Miriam Lee. Retrieved from http://www.insights-for-acupuncturists.com/history-of-acupuncture.html


[vii] Fan, A. (2012).Dr.Yao Wu Lee established the first acupuncture center in United States in 1972, with Dr.Arnold Benson, Mr.Charles Newmark. Retrieved from http://www.insights-for-acupuncturists.com/dryao-wu-lee-established-the-first-acupuncture-center-in-united-states-in-1972-with-drarnold-benson-mrcharles-newmark.html.

[viii] Stickley, B. (2017). Dr. Leon Hammer. Retrieved from http://www.insights-for-acupuncturists.com/dr-leon-hammer-md.html.

[ix] Bentley, S. (2014). The Art of Jing Nuan WU at AOMA Campus and Clinics. Retrieved from http://blog.aoma.edu/blog/bid/377458/The-Art-of-Jing-Nuan-Wu-at-AOMA-Campus-and-Clinics.

[x] Fan, A. (2013). Dr. Ralph Coan: a hero in establishing acupuncture as a profession. Retrieved in http://www.jcimjournal.com/jim/FullText2.aspx?articleID=jintegrmed2013007.

[xi]Swierzewski, S. (2015). Education and Training for Acupuncturists. Retrieved from http://www.healthcommunities.com/traditional-chinese-medicine/alternative-medicine/acupuncturist-education-training.shtml.

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