If you’ve never had acupuncture before, finding an acupuncturist can feel a little like playing the slots in Vegas—a real gamble. You have decided to try a different kind of medicine, one that feels, um…a little foreign, and you have no clue how to find the right person for you. You don’t know what to expect—will there be beaded curtains, tie dyed wallpaper, funny music, and people walking around in Earth Shoes, or will it look like any other health care clinic?
The simple answer is that no two acupuncturists are alike. And yes, we acupuncturists tend to be independent thinkers, so you may find some that are off the grid. However, most are regular folks who help people heal by using the tools and principles of this ancient medicine—one that has been around for thousands of years because it works.
To me, there is nothing better than when a new patient calls and asks all kinds of questions. They’re doing their homework and ensuring that they’ll have chosen the best person for them. I wish more people would do that. If you’re not sure what to ask, here’s some help:
1) What is your education?
This may be the most important question that you ask. Unfortunately it’s not asked frequently enough. Consumers are led to believe that any practitioner who is trained or certified to practice acupuncture is highly qualified in the art of diagnosis and treatment using the principles of Chinese Medicine. Not always so.
Here are some of your choices:
- A physician can perform acupuncture after having 100-200 hours of training. This is called medical acupuncture. If you are considering medical acupuncture, look for a doctor who is a member of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, which requires a minimum of 200 hours of training in acupuncture for membership.
- A chiropractor who performs acupuncture may only be required to have 100 to 150 hours of unspecified training in acupuncture—depending on the state in which they’re licensed. They typically take a test sponsored by their local Chiropractic Board and pay a fee to become “certified”. Chiropractors who perform acupuncture call themselves Board Certified Acupuncturists. In addition, they are usually legally limited only to performing acupuncture treatments that augment chiropractic adjustments.
- Licensed Acupuncturists (LAc) have a masters or doctoral degree in Acupuncture or Oriental Medicine. They are also required to have a minimum of 1,800 to 2,400 hours of education and clinical training, depending on individual state requirements. In most states they must also be certified with the NCCAOM, a national regulatory agency governing Oriental Medical education and credentials. Licensed Acupuncturists are also licensed by their state’s Board of Medical Practice.
2) Can they help you?
Some acupuncturists treat any and all conditions. However, many specialize in treating certain conditions, such as muscle and joint pain, stress and anxiety, infertility, or women’s conditions. It is important to ask whether a prospective practitioner has had some experience in treating your condition. It is also important to ask what kind of results they’ve had in treating your particular condition.
3) What kind of acupuncture do they practice?
There are many different kinds of acupuncture, such as Traditional Chinese acupuncture, Ear acupuncture, Japanese style, Korean Hand acupuncture, cosmetic acupuncture, and scalp acupuncture. Some of these different kinds of acupuncture are more effective for specific conditions. For example, Ear acupuncture is especially successful for addictions, such as quitting smoking and weight loss, and scalp acupuncture might be more valuable for conditions affecting the nervous system. Be sure to ask what conditions are best helped by your practitioner’s kind of acupuncture.
4) How many treatments will you need and how often?
No practitioner should tell you how many treatments you will need on the phone before they have seen you, taken your health history, and made a diagnosis. In fact, everyone heals at a different pace. Your condition may be resolved in one or two treatments, or it may take many more. Generally, how long it takes you to heal depends on how long you’ve had your condition, the severity of your symptoms, your overall health, and the underlying cause of your condition.
5) Do they offer anything else beyond acupuncture?
There are a number of other kinds of treatments that come under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, and it’s important to ask what, if any, a practitioner offers. Many Licensed Acupuncturists are also credentialed herbalists, and can prescribe herbal formulas to address your particular condition. The herbs may come in the form of small pills, capsules, teas, powders, and raw herbs that must be cooked. Herbal medicine is a good way to augment your acupuncture treatment, and can be tailored to your specific needs.
Many acupuncturists provide help in the form of food therapy. They can help you incorporate foods into your diet that are most beneficial to your particular condition. In addition to food therapy, some practitioners incorporate lifestyle counseling into their treatments.
Other treatments that may be offered include bodywork, heat therapy, and cupping, which involves creating a vacuum in a glass cup on your skin to aid in pain relief and other conditions.
6) Ask about the money.
The price of an acupuncture treatment will vary based on the experience of a practitioner, their style of acupuncture, and the city in which you are located. For example, acupuncturists in larger cities tend to charge more than those in smaller towns. Be sure to ask a practitioner what they charge, both for initial treatments and for follow-up visits. Also ask about forms of payment, and when payment is expected. Many practitioners are fee for service providers, which means that you pay after each treatment.
7) Do they accept your health insurance?
Many health care plans currently don’t pay for acupuncture treatments. As a result, many acupuncturists are fee for service providers. If you think your health insurance plan may cover acupuncture, check with them to be sure. Make sure the acupuncturist you ultimately choose will accept your insurance as payment or if not, will provide you with a receipt so you can be reimbursed by your health plan.
If you have a Health Savings Plan or a Flexible Spending Plan, acupuncture almost always qualifies for reimbursement. Be sure to ask your acupuncturist for a detailed receipt after your visit.
8) Ask about the little details.
Do they have adequate parking? Are they located near your home or work? What hours are they open? If you have mobility issues, are they located on the first floor or do they have an elevator, and are they handicap accessible? Ask about the little things, and you won’t be surprised when you get there and have to park six blocks away.
9) Now ask yourself.
After talking with a prospective acupuncturist, you’ll have a gut feeling. Is this the right person? Have they instilled confidence in you that they can help? Were they happy to take the time to answer your questions? (Some may even offer a free consultation to answer all your questions.) If they feel like the right person, then go for it. If not, keep looking.