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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.
An 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
Acupuncturists 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.
What’s it really like?
Gary Minns, 41, is an acupuncturist and herbalist running his own business in central London, Barbican Acupuncture.