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What does an acupuncturist do?
Acupuncture is part of the overall science of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which has been studied and practiced for more than 5,000 years in Asian cultures. When you visit an acupuncturist, he or she will assess your health using one or all of these techniques:
• Asking specific questions about your physical and emotional health
• Checking your pulse for strength and rhythm
• Examining your tongue for color and coating
• Touching or pressing areas of the body to detect your skin temperature and where you experience tenderness.
Once the acupuncturist has taken stock of your situation, he or she will insert fine, sterile needles into specific points along the body in order to bring about internal, energetic healing. The needle insertion is quick and feels like a small pinprick. While the needle is in the body, there’s little or no pain and the process in nearly always bloodless. The acupuncturist may leave the needles in for 15 to 20 minutes while you relax.
Several other forms of treatment are routinely a part of an acupuncturist’s practice:
• Moxibustion: The practitioner burns a tiny amount of the moxa herb on an acu-point to stimulate that area.
• Cupping: The acupuncturist may create a vacuum in a glass cup by burning cotton in it and placing it on the skin to stimulate the area to heal.
• Electro-acupuncture: The practitioner inserts the needles as usual, then connects wires carrying a low-intensity electric current to two of the needles.
• Herbal medicine: An acupuncturist will often prescribe Chinese herbs as an adjunct method of healing.
Key Principles of Acupuncture
The most important concept in acupuncture is that the body contains qi or chi (pronounced “chee”) — an invisible life force. Chi flows throughout the body and organs, following pathways called meridians. Points along these meridians are the sites for acupuncture. By inserting needles, performing moxabustion or cupping along points on the meridians, the practitioner induces the chi to move along that path.
Much of Chinese medicine involves determining and influencing the amount, quality and balance of chi in the body. Chi may be hot or cold, dry or wet, stagnant or deficient. The combined use of food therapy, medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and therapeutic exercise such as qigong or tai chi help balance chi.
Which types of conditions are best treated by acupuncture?
Acupuncture is safe way for the body to heal itself, and it can easily be combined with other healing modalities. The Chinese rely upon acupuncture for nearly every physical or emotional problem, but in the West, acupuncture is best known for alleviating pain and reducing stress. It’s also a good, drug-free way to balance hormones — making it especially good for women who are pregnant or have PMS or other menstrual problems.
Acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular among athletes for treating musculoskeletal problems, including arthritis. Also, some substance abuse programs throughout the country now use acupuncture to help people overcome addictions.
Other common uses for acupuncture include:
• hay fever
• depression and anxiety
• headaches and migraines
• high blood pressure
• digestive disorders
To become a registered acupuncturist, students must complete at least two years of study in a recognized acupuncture program. They also need to pass the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) exam. Acupuncturists are usually licensed (L.Ac.), registered (R.Ac.) or certified (C.Ac.); however, these designations mean different things in different states. Contact the American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM) at www.aaom.org to check specific regulations for your state.
There are also three- to four-year acupuncture programs in Chinese medicine in schools around the United States. The training in these programs is intense and offer students plenty of clinical practice.
What to look for when choosing an acupuncturist
As with any practitioner, holistic or allopathic, you want to establish a good relationship and communications with the person you will be working with. Find someone you’re comfortable talking to, someone who listens to your needs — after all, in Chinese medicine, it’s the acupuncturist’s job to ask the right questions and weigh your answers in order to treat you correctly.
Some medical doctors practice acupuncture. If you go this route, inquire as to whether the doctor is licensed in acupuncture and how many hours of schooling he or she has received.
Questions to ask an acupuncturist
• What type of training do you have?
• How long have you been practicing acupuncture?
• Do you have experience treating my condition?
• Do you use disposable needles?
• Do you also prescribe Chinese herbal formulas?
• How much does a session cost?
• About how many follow-up treatments do you anticipate I’ll need for my particular symptoms?
• Is this treatment covered by medical insurance?