By Elie Goldschmidt, L.Ac., TCM Directory
Are licensed acupuncturists (L.Ac,’s) more adept when it comes to the ancient healing practice than any other practitioner performing acupuncture? Based on the training and education needed for licensure, the answer is yes. There are vast differences in the qualifications among “acupuncturists,” which is why it’s essential to seek treatment from a licensed practitioner.
To meet the acupuncture demand in the West, more and more individuals have jumped on the traditional Chinese medicine bandwagon. It can be confusing to determine who is fully trained and qualified when you’re combing through Google results to find an acupuncturist near you. Potential patients should be wary of those who perform acupuncture with a certification, as opposed to a license. Let’s take a look at how different classifications measure up.
Dry needling, which involves inserting needles into trigger points to relieve muscle pain, can be performed by certified physical therapists in some states. Certification entails a brief training course. In some cases, this training lasts for a mere weekend in sharp contrast with a licensed acupuncturists’ training, which is equivalent to a master’s degree. Would you let a surgeon operate on you after a two-day stint in medical school? Hopefully not. Yet, the majority of these practitioners are equally lacking in knowledge and they still wield needles. While proponents argue that dry needling is not acupuncture and there are differences, the basic premise that needles must be placed at a precise spot for healing is the same.
Supporters of crash courses believe that the treatments are safe and un-licensed practitioners are skilled enough to conduct them. However, a 2006 case study published In Motion, as cited by the Maryland Acupuncture Society, begs to differ. A certified practitioner caused a pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung, in a patient when dry needling trigger points. The study authors concluded that, “while acupuncture is generally considered a safe procedure with low risk of serious complications, such risks are directly related to the amount of training the practitioner has undergone and decrease with increased hours of required training.”
When Guild Insurance Limited, a provider of malpractice insurance for physical therapists, reviewed the liability claims related to the incident they found that over the course of one year the cases of pneumothorax due to dry needling had increased. This was in conjunction with the increase in physical therapists performing the procedure over the same time span.
Dry needling isn’t the only safety issue. Once medical professionals caught on to the popularity of holistic medicine, they quickly added “medical acupuncture” and “chiropractic acupuncture” to their menus. When these terms are used it refers to practitioners who are certified. This is not the same as licensed. A physician or chiropractor only undergoes 300 hours of training or less. Much of this is comprised of home study. Very little, if any, actual patient treatments are required for certification. Medical and chiropractic practitioners do not need to pass the national certification examination or complete continuing education courses.
Because a medical or chiropractic degree hangs on the wall, the lack of training is often overlooked. If a licensed acupuncturist performed chiropractic adjustments after such abbreviated training, it would be disastrous. Of course you would be certain that a chiropractor is more qualified and effective. The same holds true when the roles are reversed.
A study conducted by the Institute of Community Medicine in Norway found that chiropractors and physicians with little training pose a serious risk to patients. The 14-year study uncovered 193 patients who reported adverse side effects from acupuncture. The majority of these individuals consulted certified, not licensed, practitioners. The study’s authors noted that three people died from medical acupuncture treatments due to the doctors’ “inadequate acupuncture education.” Similar to the case related to dry needling, the experts also determined that pneumothorax is the most common mechanical organ injury tied to medical and chiropractic acupuncture. A career in medicine doesn’t mean that a doctor has perfected the exact placement of needles or the depth of penetration.
To decrease the likelihood of adverse side effects look for those three little letters after a practitioner’s name: L.Ac. This denotes that they are a licensed acupuncturist who has successfully completed more than 2,000 hours of education in Chinese medicine and acupuncture, which is equivalent to three to four years of schooling. Potential acupuncturists must attend an accredited college or school of acupuncture with master’s level on-site training and engage in several hundred hours of supervised clinical practice. Not to mention, unlike their medical counterparts, they must successfully pass the national certification exam and complete regular continuing education courses. The amount of knowledge garnered throughout the intensive program far outweighs what can be gained in any weekend workshop or home study course.
Acupuncture is an art and a science based on thousands of years of clinical practice. A qualified acupuncturist has honed their expertise in Chinese medicine theory, energy and organ systems, treatment procedures, safety protocols, the endless number of precise meridian and acupuncture points, and needling techniques. This is all in addition to learning a completely new and unfamiliar diagnostic criteria.
After years of education and training in the Western medical model, a physical therapist, physician, or chiropractor will typically follow the path they know, which often runs counter to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. For example, a licensed acupuncturist will take a holistic approach and view the body as a whole to find an underlying cause of their ailment, as opposed to just addressing symptoms. Traditional Chinese medicine emphasizes that the mind, body, and spirit are interconnected. Western medicine views each organ and system separately and targets the symptoms and not the underlying cause. This means that the diagnosis and treatment may be different depending on whether one sees a licensed or certified acupuncturist.
The technique, philosophy, fundamentals, and precision necessary to practice Chinese medicine take years to perfect. Most certified acupuncturists don’t have the knowledge to translate the tenants of Eastern medicine into a holistic, effective treatment. Licensed practitioners know acupuncture and Chinese medicine inside out. They create a treatment that is customized to each individual. Medical and chiropractic acupuncturists often use a one-size fits all approach.
People who receive acupuncture from someone without a license may subsequently develop a negative view toward the practice. Patients often find treatments by practitioners with minimal training to be painful or uncomfortable and in many cases don’t experience any benefits. This is dismaying to licensed acupuncturists. A qualified, licensed practitioner can diagnose a patient, target the acupuncture points most effective for that individual, and perform a well-executed, comfortable treatment. This will offer powerful healing properties, balance the body systems and energy, and improve health and well-being.
Don’t fall trap to “hobbyist” acupuncturists. Experience the powerful holistic, healing practice to gain relief from a large variety of conditions, unlock the flow of your energy, and restore the natural balance, health, and rhythm of the body. The public needs to know that visiting a licensed acupuncturist is a must. It’s a matter of public safety and also ensures that patients are not deprived of the potentially life-changing benefits of acupuncture.