Not Every Acupuncturist Is the Same! Or, Why You Need a Registered Acupuncturist

Who would you rather stick needles in you for your Qi ? Someone who has eight hours of lecture from a textbook and learned about 20 acupuncture points? Or someone who spent four years, full-time, learning every facet of the human body, thousands of acupuncture points and their applications for every possible illness, diagnostics and syndrome differentiation, Eastern medicine philosophies with 5,000 years of history behind them, herbal medicine, nutrition and the five element theory, and received practical instruction in a teaching clinic and two hospitals?

It’s not a hard choice when you’re shown the entire picture! However, acupuncture weekend courses are still offered to certain types of practitioners. Then the practitioner shows up on Monday morning, ready to poke. Honestly, it’s really unsettling to see people practicing acupuncture with so little knowledge! 

What’s wrong with non-registered acupuncturists?
I often come across patients who tell me about a past acupuncture experience with another practitioner—say, a physiotherapist. Now, physiotherapists are allowed to learn medical or anatomical acupuncture, but it’s very specific to musculoskeletal injuries, and it uses a technique called “dry needling,” which is limited to treating tight muscles. It has nothing to do with proper Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) diagnosis. The patient will then detail how uncomfortable and painful the treatment was, because medical acupuncture encourages a trigger response. That actually has a draining effect on the patient’s Qi and they become more prone to having a weakened immune system. 

Here’s what a TCM practitioner knows. Of the thousands of acupuncture points all over the body, each and every one has 10 or 20 different functions. A TCM practitioner knows that the selection and combination of points is based on the diagnosis of the entire body, not just of one area. What’s more, we develop each treatment individually, working with a selection of points in keeping with the patient’s individual constitution, so each combination of points is also person-specific. 

In TCM, we do treat musculoskeletal injuries. But a shoulder injury in TCM treatment, for instance, will be treated differently every time, depending on what the rest of the patient’s body needs in order to support their healing. Not every patient’s constitution can handle intense and strong stimulation, and not every acupuncture point is supposed to be given strong stimulation. 

Why is gentle acupuncture so important?

The arrival of Qi, known as De Qi, is the sensation that occurs as a result of gentle needle stimulation. This includes a variety of responses that you might feel as a mild tingle, warming or refreshing sensation, a slight numbness, a dull ache, soreness or distension. All of this should feel light, and usually subsides after five to 10 seconds. 

The reason why acupuncture has a relaxing effect is because when Qi is flowing, it engages physiological responses. Every time a needle is inserted, the brain releases natural pain mediators, called endorphins and enkephalins, to promote relaxation, improve your mood and reduce pain in a natural way. This, in turn, activates the downshift of your nervous system to take advantage of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” function. 

De Qi does not arrive at every single point; it manifests in the most affected and imbalanced areas. If we apply the same points on another day, the De Qi may arrive at another location, due to your body’s needs at that moment, and where your Qi is blocked or backlogged. I often say ”Jackpot!” when patient tells me they feel it, because it shows that we have released a significant blockage that otherwise would have gone unnoticed until it festered long enough to create an ailment. This demonstrates the preventative aspect of acupuncture. 

De Qi is supposed to arrive based on the patient’s own natural timing and healing response. If it’s forced, then it becomes taxing. Severe stimulation fatigues the nervous system and defeats the entire point of an acupuncture treatment: RELAXATION! If you feel discomfort or pain during a treatment that does not subside within a few seconds, then the application is not being properly done. Where’s your Qi at? Is the person giving you acupuncture paying attention to that crucial detail?

Regulated acupuncture means a better, safer patient experience. 

Regulatory colleges for acupuncture have been developed in order to provide public safety, especially when it comes to health and treatment. It’s important to know that the person you choose to give you treatment and provide information to help you heal from an ailment is able to conduct themselves to a high standard. This offers you protection and helps you get the best possible care.  

Licensing and regulation requirements differ from country to country, and from province to province in Canada. The United States has an accreditation commission, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), by which all acupuncturists must abide. In Ontario, the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario(CTCMPAO) was established in 2013. At that time, existing practitioners who had the proper education and training were granted certification. That meant you had to have completed a full-time post-secondary traditional Chinese medicine program of at least four years, and completed a program of clinical experience in the TCM profession that was structured, comprehensive, supervised and evaluated, consisting of at least 45 weeks of clinical experience involving at least 500 hours of direct patient contact. I was part of that first cohort.

After that cohort, the requirements for new members were set. They include several examinations, standards of practice (legislation, ethics, safety, diagnosis, communication), professional development and an academic document review. As well, for practitioners to maintain a good standing and keep their licenses, they need to do a minimum of 15 hours of professional development every year.

What credentials should your acupuncturist have? 

In Ontario, you want make sure that the following credentials are listed when you are meeting your acupuncturist: Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner (R.TCMP) or Registered Acupuncturist (or both!). A reputable practitioner will have these credentials posted on their website and in their clinic, and if they don’t, you are well within your rights to ask about them! These designations align with the requirements for practicing in Ontario under the regulatory college, which makes sure all its members have sound ethics and knowledge for practice with patients. 

A good acupuncturist knows they’re taking on a huge responsibility when they stick needles in you and wants to make sure you have the best possible care. They’ll be proud to show you they have earned your trust and will work to a high professional standard.

If you are going to trust someone to stick needles in you, they should have the highest amount of knowledge and experience. So don’t settle for practitioners who just use the term “acupuncturist”—it’s too generalized and not enough to denote proper education and experience. Look for the term “registered” in Ontario and “licensed” in the United States. Only the best for your Qi!


The Qi FactorJulie Amarkey