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Acupuncture: An Overview


Acupuncture is one of the oldest therapies in the world. It has been estimated to have been practiced in China for approximately 2,000-4,000 years.  Citizens of the United States of America were first introduced to this healing method in the 1970’s, by New York Times reporter James Reston, who in 1971 wrote about his postoperative experience in China. Doctors successfully utilized acupuncture to alleviate his pain, after he underwent an emergency appendectomy.  


Acupuncture is a healing technique utilizing insertion of needles in key sites to stimulate specific points in the body.  Traditional Chinese theory differs greatly from Western theories as to the resulting affect of acupuncture treatment. 

According to Traditional Chinese culture acupuncture’s main goal is maintenance of balance of yin and yang – the concept of polar opposites that are complementary in any phenomena in the universe. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners believe that the body's vital energy, or qi, flows between the skin surface and the internal organs along invisible channels called meridians; blockages cause pain and disease.  By improving the circulation of qi in corresponding yin and yang organs and body systems, balance and healing is achieved. 

Western medical researchers have come up with their own theories.  Two main theories have evolved from studies conducted on the effectiveness of acupuncture for pain. The Gate Control Theory which was introduced by Melzack and Wall in early 1960’s posits that pain is perceived by the brain in accordance with signals it receives through nerve gates in the spinal cord. Acupuncture is believed to block the transmission of those signals to the brain.  The other theory - Endorphin Theory speculates that acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins which are pain inhibiting chemicals in the brain. 

Other scientific research has indicated that acupuncture improves different systems in the body including the immune system, the circulatory system and muscular flexibility.  In fact the National Institute of Health convened a health panel in 1997 which found that in clinical studies acupuncture was shown to be effective in alleviation of many ailments including: post chemo and postoperative nausea, different types of pain, addictions, asthma as well as aiding in after stroke rehabilitation. The World Health Organization lists over 40 conditions that can be helped by acupuncture treatment. 

Currently in the United States there are about 6500 licensed acupuncturists, and approximately 3000 medical doctors who have incorporated acupuncture as part of their medical practice.  Each individual state in the United States differs in its regulations and requirements for acquiring an acupuncture license, (with some having no set rules) about forty (40) states have established a set standard for training in acupuncture. The educational requirements for those states requiring licensure as well as the acupuncture board are as follows:  

  • An Associate Degree in general education is a prerequisite to admission to an acupuncture program.
  • Completion of a 4 year acupuncture program at a nationally/state approved institution.
  • Successfully passing the individual state’s licensing test in both theory and practice of acupuncture.  Many states accept the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) exam as a prerequisite for licensing.

In addition, a graduate of an accredited acupuncture school must be at least 21 years of age to acquire his/her licensure. 

Medical doctors who add acupuncture to their medical practice must successfully complete course work in both theory and practice of acupuncture. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the needles used for the practice of acupuncture.  The strict requirements include use of sterile, nontoxic needles that are labeled for single use. In addition, acupuncture needles can only be used by qualified and licensed practitioners. 

In other countries licensing criteria vary. In Canada, each individual province has different regulations. Currently British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have licensing requirements for acupuncture. Variation by state also exists in Australia, while the governments of the United Kingdom and Israel do not regulate the practice. Japan requires completion of a 4 year program in an accredited university program and the successful passing of a licensing exam.