An acupuncturist is an alternative health practitioner who treats and prevents illness via the insertion of needles at specific points in the human body.
Acupuncture is just one segment of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Along with Qi Gong (movement exercise), herbal prescriptions, moxibustion (the application of heat to key points) and Tui Na (Chinese Physiotherapy), acupuncture is prescribed to patients in order to help balance the flow of energies around their bodies and through their various internal systems. TCM works on the principle of the life force, Qi, that flows around meridians and pathways. TCM regards disease as related to irregularities within this flow. The insertion of thin, sterile steel needles at key points along the meridians can redirect, flush, diminish or increase the flow of Qi and thereby re-balance and fortify the body so that it can cure itself of disease.
The practice of acupuncture can be dated back to Neolithic times via a stone needle (a bian shi stone) found in Mongolia. It is further theorised that the 5,000 year old Mummy (Otzi the Iceman), found preserved in a glacier in Alpine Italy, had received treatment similar to acupuncture, as he bore dotted tattoos along his spine, one ankle and a knee which corresponded to acupuncture points in these areas where x-rays showed that he had suffered from arthritis.
In modern China acupuncture is regularly prescribed by the mainstream medical establishment to treat a huge range of ailments and is becoming increasingly accepted in the West. Physiotherapists and GPs can take NHS funded courses in acupuncture to treat pain and inflammation in their patients. Meanwhile independent acupuncturists follow the TCM methodology and treat a huge variety of ailments from depression to acne.
Most acupuncturists are self-employed and their earnings are completely dependent on how many patients they regularly treat. Earnings will usually increase with time as their client base expands. Regular promotional work, expanding their skill-set and positive word of mouth referrals will all contribute to increase earnings.
- An acupuncturist starting out may earn from £12,000 upwards.
- An experienced acupuncturist with a large client base may earn up to £35,000.
- An acupuncturist who has moved into an owner/ managerial role and employs others can earn in excess of £40,000.
ResponsibilitiesAn acupuncturist's responsibilities could include any of the following:
- Conversing at length with the patient about their lifestyle, feelings, habits, outer and inner life
- Plotting a course of treatment based on their findings
- Taking palpitations form the different pulses in the wrist
- Observing the tongue for indications of inner health
- Applying sterile needles to the patient's body
- Applying suction cups to specific areas of the body
- Applying a weak electrical current to pre-positioned needles
- Gently twisting pre-positioned needles
- Giving general health advice to patients
To practise as an acupuncturist you must study a course recognised by the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board, which will usually take two to three years full time. To gain entry to such a course you will be expected to have five GCSEs and often two A-levels, one of which must be a science subject.
During an acupuncture course you will study subjects such as:
- Principles of Qi.
- Anatomy and physiology
- Diseases and conditions
- Diagnostic techniques
- Treatment methods
- First Aid
- Business and administration
Although acupuncture is currently unregulated in the UK the government is taking steps to rectify this and qualified acupuncturists can apply for voluntary membership of the Health Professions Council (HPC).
Qualified medical practitioners such as GPs and physiotherapists may be able to take a different path to accreditation.
It would be helpful for an acupuncturist to possess the following personal characteristics:
- An empathetic nature and good listening skills
- Ability to extrapolate the key issues from a host of others
- Steady hands and a calm manner
- An interest in alternative therapies and TCM
- An interest in ancient Chinese philosophy and religion
- The ability to form functional doctor/patient relationships
- A good state of emotional and physical health
Working ConditionsAcupuncturists usually work from a clinical setting, often within an alternative medicine practice among other disciplines such as aromatherapy, reflexology and massage. Alternatively they may work from a dedicated Chinese medicine practice, within a hospital setting, or in patients' own homes. Evening and weekend work is common in order to treat patients outside office hours.
Acupuncture involves the use of specially made steel needles. The thinner the needle, the more expensive they are and traditionally Japanese needles are the most sought after. A small electrical generator that runs from the mains is used to deliver a light electrical current to inserted needles. This is designed to avoid the need for regular twisting of the needles and allows a practitioner to treat several patients at once. Cupping is another technique used to stimulate Qi and is almost always performed by an acupuncturist. It involves the use of clear glass bowls and a flammable material used to create an air vacuum inside the bowl. Bowls are thus attached to the skin in order to draw stagnant blood and Qi through blockages.
Both men and women commonly enter the TCM industry. The work can be emotionally tiring as it involves dealing with other people's problems. However the joy of seeing patients improve over time usually far outweighs any negative aspects and most practitioners find it a rewarding career.
A major part of any acupuncture course should consist of hands-on practice. Volunteer patients are treated under the supervision of a trained and experienced acupuncturist; trainees conduct the consultation and may mark out insertion points in pen. These will be checked and the needles applied under supervision.
Any experience dealing with people in need such as within charity organisations may also come in handy.
Many acupuncturists have some experience with internal Chinese martial arts such as Tai Qi (Tai Chi), Baqua, Xi Ying or Qi Gong (not a martial art but an exercise practice) as these work along the same principles as acupuncture.
Independent alternative medicine practices employ acupuncturists. Many acupuncturists are self-employed and simply rent a room at such a practice.
Many acupuncturists find it beneficial to train in more than one discipline of TCM. Becoming qualified in herbal prescriptions, Tui Na or moxibustion, for example, increases the number of conditions and therefore patients that a practitioner can treat.
Experienced acupuncturists can move into training or managerial roles to supplement their income.
Gary Minns, 41, is an acupuncturist and herbalist running his own business in central London, Barbican Acupuncture
How long have you been working in the acupuncture industry?
I've been involved with acupuncture now for about 6 years. I had a strong interest in alternative medicine for a while and when I was on holiday once I met some people who were into acupuncture and they perhaps influenced me more towards that. With me it was a case of lots of little steps rather than one big leap.
What did you do before this job?
I used to work in the City for Lloyds Insurance brokers. I worked there in total for about fourteen years. I got to a point where I thought if I wanted to do something different then now was the time, otherwise I would be in that job until I either retired or was fired. I couldn't see myself doing that for ever, so I decided it was time for a complete change. I did a lot of thinking about it over the course of eight months, a lot of soul searching while I was still working.
What do you do in a typical day as an acupuncturist?
Acupuncturists generally tend to work on their own and that is certainly true of me. In any single day I see patients and treat them and then there's the administration side of that too, writing up case notes, and keeping computer records up to date. But the bulk of my day is taken up by talking to patients and treating them.
I check the bookings the night before and arrive about an hour and a half before the first appointment. Then I prepare the clinic, get the needles out and the case studies. When patients come in there's an initial consultation if it's their first time but every time a patient comes in we spend a little bit of time chatting.
People come in for a range of reasons such as a bad back, muscle problems, or it can be a bit more serious like insomnia. In these cases you need a lot more information to find out what's going on, you need to work out why they're suffering and you need a lot of general background information - day to day habits. They may actually have other problems that they are not verbalising but which are in fact affecting their well-being. You must check pulses on both wrists and the colouration of their tongue. People's general demeanour also tells you a lot about their energy balances.
What do you like about the job?
For me there's an independence to it; having come from a corporate background I enjoy that. But there's also the factor of seeing people, treating them and watching them improve over time; that's very satisfying when it happens.
What do you dislike about the job?
I suppose the problem that comes with working for yourself is that you have to do a lot of administration type things, that aren't so much fun but you have to do them.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Go though some proper training obviously. Look for courses at one of the main universities that do it - University of East London or Middlesex for example, as then you're guaranteed that you're getting a good level of training. Although everyone is pressing for stronger regulation at the moment it's still a bit hit and miss.
What job do you think you might do after this role in terms of career progression?
There's an old saying amongst acupuncturists that once you start it you never retire. I'm not sure if I ever see myself involved in a huge clinic, as I like to be involved at patient level.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
I would say go for it; it's very rewarding. There's an organisation called the BAC; they run a lot of conferences and courses, and are quite good people to speak to if you would like to know more about training and what's involved. Also be prepared to learn a lot of information!