Acupuncturists are trained in a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) called acupuncture. The goals of acupuncture are to relieve pain, promote healing, and improve physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being through stimulation of specific points on the body (acupuncture points).
In TCM, acupuncture points correspond with energy channels called meridians, which are considered pathways through which a life energy force substance called Qi flows. In Western medicine, the effects of acupuncture are thought to be related to stimulation of the nervous system, resulting in the release of certain chemicals (e.g., hormones) that produce a desired effect, such as pain relief.
Acupuncture, also sometimes called needling therapy, has been used in many areas of the world for thousands of years. In the United States, the treatment has been widely used for about 40 years and is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Types of practitioners that may perform acupuncture include the following:
- Certified acupuncturist (C.Ac.)
- Doctor of Oriental Medicine (D.O.M.)
- Licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.)
- Naturopathic physician (N.D.)
Medical acupuncturists are physicians (e.g., medical doctors, osteopaths [osteopathic physicians], dentists) who have completed additional training in acupuncture.
Acupuncturists treat a variety of medical conditions, symptoms, and side effects, including chronic pain (e.g., headache, back pain, arthritis), nausea and vomiting (e.g., after surgery or chemotherapy), and substance withdrawal. Acupuncture often is used in combination with other therapies, such as herbal medicine, dietary supplements, exercise therapy, and massage therapy. In the United States, patients usually receive acupuncture treatments about once per week; however, some conditions require more frequent sessions.
Acupuncturists use sterile needles or other methods (e.g., pressure) to stimulate specific points on the body. The most common technique involves inserting thin metal needles into the skin. Acupuncturists can use different needling methods and vary the depth of the needles to produce different effects and results. In some cases, the acupuncturist applies a tiny electric current to the needle (called electrical stimulation) or burns a specific herb over the needle to heat it before insertion (called moxibustion).
Acupuncture standards are created by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Word Federation of Acupuncture and Moxibustion Societies, and other organizations (e.g., the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine [NCCAOM]). In the United States, acupuncture is highly regulated and licensed. Needles used by acupuncturists are sterile, nontoxic, and disposable, and are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As long as it is performed by a qualified practitioner, acupuncture is a safe, painless procedure that carries very few risks.