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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Pinning Down Acupuncture: Getting to the Point of Acupuncture Practitioners

Oct 01, 2015 11:00PM ● By Sheri Hatfield

With many different types of medical practitioners now offering acupuncture as a service, how is the layperson supposed to know which practitioner to choose? Are they all the same? Do chiropractors and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners offer the same thing? What is the difference?

To truly appreciate the differences, it is helpful to understand some history. The practice of acupuncture can be traced back at least 2,000 years to ancient China. In the 1950s, Chinese leader Chairman Mao saw there was a lack of Western-trained physicians to handle the massive health issues of the country; he saw an opportunity to standardize the TCM being practiced throughout the country as a solution to the healthcare issue. He gathered practitioners of all different types of traditional Oriental medicines together and standardized the practices, creating the modality that is known as acupuncture today.

Commonly called a healing art, TCM operates on the theory of aligning the energy along meridians in the body to balance qi or life force. These energy lines that run throughout the body can become imbalanced and cause pain, illness and disease. The patient may feel pain in one area which is actually related to another, deeper blockage or imbalance in a different spot. For instance, a patient might be feeling low back pain. A TCM-trained practitioner would check the tongue and pulse and could arrive at a diagnosis of a liver inflammation. They would then work along the liver meridian to remove blockages and may recommend an anti-inflammatory diet of foods that soothe the liver.

Many years after Chairman Mao, acupuncture has become westernized and adopted by top hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic. According to the clinic’s website, “A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain.” It says that, “in contrast to traditional Chinese theory of balancing chi, many Western practitioners view acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue to boost the body’s natural painkillers and increase blood flow.”

While all include acupuncture as a method of pain relief, it is the basis of the practitioner’s study that separates them. Consider various approaches to addressing the same lower back pain complaint: a chiropractor may take an X-ray to find the cause of the pain in spinal compression, recommend acupuncture, physical therapy, manipulation and muscle stimulation to relieve the pain and strengthen the muscles surrounding the spinal issue. A Western-trained medical doctor may treat that back pain with X-ray, acupuncture, cortisone, chemical pain relievers, muscle relaxers and, eventually, surgery. On the other hand, a Western-trained naturopath may treat the lower back pain with acupuncture in key areas along the liver meridian and recommend herbal supplements to reduce inflammation.

In the state of Connecticut, medical doctors, chiropractors, dentists, physical therapists, podiatrists, homeopaths, naturopaths, optometrists and veterinarians may practice acupuncture without any specific training. Additionally, acupuncture may be practiced by a physician’s assistant or nurse under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor; however, that physician’s assistant must have graduated from an accredited physician’s assistant program and passed the national physician’s assistant examination. A physical therapist may practice acupuncture provided he or she is licensed as a physical therapist. These are not licensed or certified acupuncturists.

To become a certified acupuncturist, the same group of professionals can take a 300-hour certification course that teaches the basic principles of acupuncture. This teaches the history and theory of acupuncture, along with common symptoms and their corresponding meridian points for needling.

In contract, to become a licensed acupuncturist in Connecticut, you must complete 60 semester hours of postsecondary education in an institution that is a recognized regional accrediting body or, if outside the United States or its territories, was legally chartered to grant postsecondary degrees in the country in which it is located. The candidate then must complete a course of study in an acupuncture program that was accredited by The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) that includes a minimum of 1,350 hours of classroom and clinical training, 500 hours of which are clinical. After 2012, the requirements changed to 1,950 hours of classroom and clinical training, 660 of which must be clinical. Then they must pass all portions of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s (NCCAOM) acupuncture examination, which includes comprehensive written exams in The Acupuncture, the Clean Needle Technique, and in the Practical Examination of the Point of Location Skills. Upon successful completion of these written exams, the candidate can then submit his or her records and a fee to the Connecticut Department of Public Health for Acupuncturist Licensure, according to the Connecticut Department of Health Acupuncture Licensing Requirements.

“It’s like the difference between taking your car to the car wash versus getting a tune up,” remarked Patricia Singer, a licensed acupuncturist. “One is very surface and makes the car look good; the other actually fixes what is wrong with the car. It is the same with acupuncturists. It’s a modality, but it’s what you do with the modality that’s the difference between a technician and a healer.”

NCCAOM has four certifications, or diplomate, programs: Acupuncture, Chinese Herbology, Oriental Medicine and Asian Bodywork Therapy. The organization lists the thousands of diplomates who have received national certification. It also provides the professional development program for continuing education for diplomates. The ACAOM lists 85 accredited programs for acupuncture on its website, one of which is at the University of Bridgeport (UB). The Masters of Science in Acupuncture (MS Ac) at UB is a three-year program consisting of seven areas: acupuncture practice and techniques; Asian medicine theory; diagnosis and application; Western biomedicine; herbal medicine survey; movement and respiration studies; counseling, communications and practice management; and clinical services. The clinical portion includes 150 hours of clinical preceptorship, or training under supervision, and 680 hours of clinical education.

Kristine DeMarco, a Fairfield-based chiropractic physician who has been practicing acupuncture for 15 years in her chiropractic practice, received her 300-hour certification for acupuncture and is currently enrolled in UB’s MS Ac program to further her knowledge of the modality. As both a recipient and practitioner of acupuncture, she states that acupuncture is “very powerful” and uses a lot of it in her practice.

For those interested in acupuncture but concerned about needles, another related option for chemical-free pain relief is acupressure with a licensed acupressure practitioner. Injae Choe, Ph.D., LMT, a third-generation practitioner who owns Sugi Acupressure in New York City and Westport, has been practicing for more than 20 years and has advanced degrees in natural sciences from UC Berkeley, Columbia and the New School for Social Research. “Things have come full circle,” Choe reflects. “People who come from a Western background are looking for holistic answers and vice versa. The great thing is that we are now putting the ‘mystical and traditional’ to scientific tests and learning that there is validity to certain aspects of Eastern medicine.”

Acupuncture provided by a medical doctor, chiropractor or naturopath is usually covered under most insurance plans; licensed acupuncturists and acupressurists typically have more difficulty getting their costs covered by insurance companies. However, one thing every practitioner can agree on is that acupuncture is an effective chemical-free pain relief solution. Those wishing to go beyond pain relief and benefit from the energetic healing aspect of acupuncture should seek a licensed acupuncturist who they may connect with on a deeper, more spiritual level.

Sheri Hatfield is a freelance writer and co-founder of an emerging children’s museum in Shelton. Contact her at [email protected].