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What You Need to Know About a Career in Acupuncture

With a career in acupuncture, you can use time-tested healing techniques and modalities to help patients regain their health.

person demonstrating points on hands to two clients
person demonstrating points on hands to two clients

Acupuncture is an ancient practice that promotes healing by inserting needles into the human body to improve the flow of energy, called qi. From its roots in ancient China, acupuncture has become a trusted, healing remedy used all around the world.

Acupuncturists can be found in a variety of settings, from independent clinics to large medical centers. Their expertise is backed by an increasing wealth of scientific research demonstrating the positive effects of acupuncture.

Patients see an acupuncturist for a range of health problems, including pain, infertility, and respiratory disorders. Some are seeking an alternative to Western medical practices, while for others, acupuncture is used to complement existing treatments.

Roles and Responsibilities

The primary treatment provided by acupuncturists involves placing specialized needles in a patient’s meridians, or energy pathways. Acupuncture needles are sterile and about as thick as a strand of hair. You might use these needles warmed or at room temperature, depending on the patient and treatment.

But your first step in treating a patient is to get a complete medical history and learn about any symptoms they’re currently experiencing. This is important because the placement of acupuncture needles needs to be incredibly exact and tailored to the individual person.

You’ll also do a medical exam of each patient. You’ll check some of the standard vital signs that Western healthcare professionals check, such as pulse, blood pressure, and respiration, but you’ll also take care to examine the patient’s tongue. Your education as an acupuncturist will teach you what to look for in a tongue exam, and how certain indicators such as its shape, color, and texture can dictate the treatment you’ll provide.

Many people are surprised by how meticulous and thorough acupuncture exams are.

“While acupuncture could be considered a form of energy medicine, acupuncturists are trained in basic medical sciences,” says Jennifer Bennett, ND, LAc, a holistic practitioner and acupuncturist in Seattle, “and many acupuncturists will go through thorough physical exams and review of systems during appointments, just like other medical practitioners.”

Tools of the Trade

Needles aren’t the only tool an acupuncturist has. You might also apply heat, pressure, friction, or even electromagnetic pulses along a patient’s meridians to achieve healing. And depending on your training and experience, there are a variety of additional methods you can use to treat patients.

Other techniques that are commonly used include:

Moxibustion:

The burning of moxa, a cone-like stick made of mugwort leaves, on acupuncture points

Cupping:

The act of using glass cups to create a vacuum on the skin to help move blood and break up connective tissue

Gua sha:

The act of scraping or applying friction on the skin to help move blood and release heat

Electroacupuncture:

The application of electricity to needles to help move qi and contract muscles

Ion pumping:

The use of one-way, electron-moving cables to help balance out osmotic concentrations in the tissues

Tui na:

A form of Chinese massage that helps to disperse qi and break up muscle tension

What You’ll Treat

Acupuncturists can treat a wide range of ailments. The effects of acupuncture on many conditions are still being studied. Currently, studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) show that acupuncture can provide relief for:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Headaches
  • Knee pain caused by osteoarthritis

Acupuncture’s effects on other conditions need to be studied further, but many practitioners and patients have seen positive effects on numerous other conditions.

“Acupuncture is best known for treating pain, so many people seek acupuncture for pain relief,” explains Bennett, “but acupuncture is also very good at treating (other) kinds of concerns, from cardiovascular complaints to infertility.”

In her own practice, Bennett often uses acupuncture to help regulate immune system function in those with autoimmune diseases.

“Since acupuncture has the ability to affect all organ systems, it can affect all conditions in the body in one way or another,” she says.

In addition to treating pain, acupuncturists also often address:

  • Nervous system issues—numbness, tingling, pinched nerves
  • Fertility or aiding in conception
  • Migraines
  • Balance or dizziness
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Skin issues such as rashes or acne

Typical Career Paths and Workplaces

Many acupuncturists see patients in private clinics, but that’s not your only option. Places acupuncturists can be found include:

Where You’ll Work

What You’ll Do

Private clinic

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique
  • Develop care plans
  • Prescribe complementary therapies
  • Keep patient records
  • Handle marketing and other financial concerns

Wellness center or spa

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique
  • Advise patients about other therapies that might help them

Integrative medical center

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique
  • Meet with other healthcare providers about each patient’s overall care plan

Holistic health center

  • Diagnose and treat patients using acupuncture theory and technique
  • Advise patients about other therapies that might help them
  • Chart treatment and results in the patient record

Do Acupuncturists Work with Other Providers?

It’s not unusual for acupuncturists to have their own clinics, but many acupuncturists work alongside other healthcare professionals, where they bring their healing skills to a wider care plan. In some cases, a team might be composed of other holistic health providers. If you work at an integrative medical center, most team members might be Western healthcare practitioners.

Either way, a team approach can you help get an even deeper understanding of a patient’s needs. Working with other professionals, you can help patients heal and achieve their health goals.

“Acupuncturists are a great part of a health team as a complementary approach,” Bennett says. “(It) can often help add additional benefits to other conventional and alternative treatments.”

What Degree Do I Need?

You’ll need at least a master’s degree to practice acupuncture. You can also earn a doctoral degree. Either way, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree or higher before you can pursue your education in acupuncture. Some programs will let you earn a bachelor’s alongside your master’s.

The program you attend will teach the philosophy behind acupuncture and help you master acupuncture techniques. Depending on your program, you might also study Chinese herbs and medicine. There are a few program types available, but as rule, you can choose from:

  • Master of Acupuncture
  • Master of Oriental Medicine
  • Master of Acupuncture with Chinese Herbology Specialty
  • Doctor of Acupuncture

No matter what you choose, you’ll need to make sure your program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM). You’ll need to have attended an ACAOM-accredited school to earn certification and licensure in most states.

Do I Need a License to Practice?

You’ll need a license to practice in most states. Licensure is currently not required in:

  • Alabama
  • Oklahoma
  • South Dakota

All other states require some sort of licensure, although requirements vary. Generally, you’ll need to have earned a degree from an accredited school and have passed exams. Even if your state doesn’t require licensure, it still might be a good idea to earn national certification. This can both increase your credibility and allow you to accept some kinds of insurance for payment.

What About Certification?

Like licensure, certification is generally—but not always—required. When certification is required, you’ll need to pass an exam given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). To qualify for the exam, you’ll need a degree from an ACAOM-accredited school and to pass a Clean Needle Technique (CNT) course.

Several states require you to be licensed, but not certified. In these states, you’ll still need to take exams from NCCAOM, but you won’t need to earn and maintain NCCAOM certification. There is one exception: In California, you’ll need to be licensed, but you won’t take the NCCAOM exams. California has its own exams and license process.

How Much Can I Earn?

Your acupuncture salary depends on several factors, including your experience, whether you’re licensed, and where you work. If you run your own clinic, your salary might depend on your clinic’s success. The number of patients you see, your ability to take insurance payments, and the recommendations you get based on your reputation in the local community can all make a huge difference in the amount of money your clinic brings in.

Career Outlook

Acupuncture is a growing field. Recent research has backed its use as a treatment for several conditions. Additionally, acupuncture is increasingly reimbursed by insurance companies and used as part of complementary or integrative medical approaches. This increasing respect from Western medicine is driving job growth for acupuncture practitioners.

“As people in the U.S. become more aware of the uses of acupuncture for things other than just pain, the demand for acupuncture is growing,” says Bennett. “Acupuncturists are often booked out for many weeks. And there is an increasing demand for acupuncturists in small towns and rural areas where acupuncture is difficult to get.”

The Many Facets of Acupuncture

back of acupuncture model with meridians labeled and needles

Your job as an acupuncturist can take many forms, depending on the type of degree you hold, the specialties you offer, and whether you own your own practice or work for someone else.  For example, if you augment a basic needling focus with a certification in Chinese herbs and run your own clinic, you may spend a fair amount of your time prescribing herbal treatments to help address your patients’ ailments.

“This can include applying herbs or topical formulations directly to the skin,” says Bennett, “or it could be using herbal formulas to help aid the effect of the acupuncture treatment.”

More Than Just Treatment

If you run your own clinic, administrative duties will likely take up a big part of your day. You’ll need to ensure you take time to update patient records and schedule appointments. You’ll also need to make sure you’re keeping on top of billings and minding other business essentials like ordering supplies and marketing your practice.

Conversely, if you work at a large integrative medical center, you’ll have different responsibilities. In addition to seeing clients, you might also attend meetings to collaborate with other healthcare providers on patient care and treatments.

Do I Have What it Takes?

All acupuncturists provide healing to their patients and, as with any healthcare provider, you’ll need to be compassionate and have a genuine desire to help your patients feel better. Other qualities that might make you great for this role include:

Patience

You’ll likely work with patients who have been dealing with years of chronic pain or have tried other therapies without seeing results.

Great listening skills

A successful acupuncturist will spend a good amount of time exploring the source of their patients’ pain from a number of angles. You’ll be asking a lot of questions—and getting a lot of information from your patients.

Attention to detail

Acupuncture is a practice that requires you to know exactly what you’re doing, and to do it right, every time.

Business sense

Since many acupuncturists own clinics, it helps to have some skills in areas like marketing and budgeting.


stephanie behring

Written and Reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

jennifer bennett

With professional insight from:
Jennifer Bennett, ND, LAc
Naturopath and Professor, Bastyr University