What Is a Certified Acupuncturist?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 08, 2022
5 min read

Acupuncture is a treatment based on ancient Chinese medicine and practices. It’s used to treat many different conditions today, both in eastern and western medicine. 

If you want to try acupuncture, though, it’s important to do your homework when researching a practitioner. Here’s what you need to know about certified acupuncturists, including their training, credentials, and how they can help.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice in which tiny needles are placed on specific points under your skin. These needles are used to stimulate certain points of the body. People choose acupuncture both for therapeutic or preventative purposes.

There are two kinds of acupuncturists, professionals who practice acupuncture. A licensed acupuncturist is someone who is a professional who has studied acupuncture and eastern medicine in order to maintain the health of their patients. A certified acupuncturist is a licensed doctor or dentist who has completed a training program equivalent to at least 200 hours and 100 hours of supervised experience. Program and certifications may vary, though, depending on the state that you live in.

Acupuncture is now a popular practice in the western world. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK uses acupuncture in some of its general practices, as well as pain clinics and hospices. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reports that the number of people using acupuncture for pain management is on the rise. About 35 million Americans regularly use acupuncture treatments, so the need for certified acupuncturists is high.

In the US, the minimum education that is generally required to become a certified acupuncture practitioner is completing an accredited acupuncture or Chinese medicine program, along with a master’s degree. New pushes are being made to prioritize doctoral acupuncture training as well.

Studies. As stated before, acupuncture certification may vary depending on the state that you live in and the school that one is applying to. In general, acupuncture training takes about three years in order to get certified.

A professional acupuncture program will most likely consist of:

  • A minimum of 47 semester credits in Oriental medical theory. This includes courses on diagnosing and treating people using acupuncture techniques.
  • 22 semester credits (660 hours) in clinical training
  • 30 semester credits (450 hours) in biomedical science
  • 6 semester credits (90 hours) in counseling, practice management, communication, and ethics

If you are looking at programs for different schools, you might notice that some programs require more than these minimum requirements to become a certified acupuncturist. Whichever school you choose, make sure that it is certified by the Accredited Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Certifications. Most states require a state license to practice acupuncture, and some require a federal license. The federal license is a board certification that is offered by National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). It is the only externally regulated body that can certify acupuncturists at the national level.

In order to sit this exam, candidates must have completed more than 1,900 hours of coursework. This includes completing a three-year master’s program or two years of formal education, plus an apprenticeship. The apprenticeship requires performing 500 different treatments within the past five years or 5,000 in a career. Once an acupuncturist passes the exam, they can add the title Dipl. Ac. after their name to show that they are board-certified.

There are two main types of acupuncture that a certified acupuncturist may practice: traditional Chinese acupuncture or medical acupuncture. Medical acupuncture is also called dry-needling. Traditional Chinese acupuncture, as we know it today, is still quite modified from the most ancient practices. It is based on the concept of qi (pronounced chee), the life force that is believed to flow throughout your body. Traditional acupuncture also includes the ideas of yin and yang, along with the five elements: metal, earth, wood, fire, and water. Practitioners believe that when qi isn’t flowing correctly, it can cause illness, and the way to get it flowing again is through acupuncture.

Medical acupuncture is a little different. The purpose is to improve pain and body function by stimulating certain parts of your body with acupuncture needles. These points may or may not align with the points that are set out by traditional Chinese acupuncture. Medical acupuncture is mostly used to treat musculoskeletal problems. When these points of the musculoskeletal system are stimulated, your body releases natural substances, like endorphins, to help relieve pain. 

Licensed acupuncture practitioners may also use traditional acupuncture methods to treat:

  • Digestive problems
  • Pain
  • Mental health conditions
  • Menopause
  • Diabetes
  • Menstrual problems
  • Cancer
  • Infertility
  • High blood pressure
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Respiratory problems
  • Quitting smoking

Medical acupuncture can be used to help with:

  • Chronic pain
  • Joint pain
  • Dental pain
  • Post-op pain
  • Migraines
  • Chronic tension headaches

It’s important to remember that the effectiveness of acupuncture is controversial, and the technique has mainly been studied in the context of pain relief. Some doctors believe that reported success is mostly due to the placebo effect

You don’t need a doctor’s referral to start acupuncture treatment, but you may want to talk to your doctor if you plan on incorporating acupuncture as a way to manage pain or illness.

Once you’ve chosen a certified acupuncturist, it’s time to meet for your first session. They will ask you about the symptoms that you’re looking to treat and then give you a physical exam. The exam helps your acupuncturist to decide the best course of treatment. This first session usually takes about one hour. Your following sessions will usually take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. Depending on the symptoms that you’re treating, a full acupuncture treatment runs between 6 to 12 sessions. 

During a session, you will sit or lie down, and your acupuncturist may ask you to remove some of your clothing. Next, they will insert very fine, sterilized needles into specific points of your body. These needles are only a few centimeters long and are meant for a single use only. After your acupuncturist has placed the needles, they usually stay there for up to 30 minutes.

Some needles might be inserted close to the surface of the skin while others reach down further into the muscle. You might feel a tingling or aching sensation once the needles are in, but you shouldn’t feel any pain. Let your acupuncturist know right away if you do.