The Job and What's Involved

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese holistic therapy based on the theory that the body's health depends on life energy (known as qi or chi) moving smoothly through a series of channels (or meridians) in and around the body. If the qi becomes unbalanced the person might become ill.

Western medical acupuncture is based on the nervous system. Both systems are used in the UK.

Acupuncturists rebalance the qi by inserting very fine stainless steel needles into the skin. There are around 500 acupuncture points on the body, but acupuncturists usually select 10 or 12 for each treatment. They begin a treatment by taking detailed notes about the patient's:

  • Medical history, current symptoms and any treatment they have received.
  • Lifestyle, including factors such as diet, stress and exercise levels.
  • Emotional responses.
  • Responses to factors like the weather.
  • They also examine the patient's tongue and check their pulse.

This information allows the acupuncturist to build up a picture of energy imbalances in the body and to assess whether acupuncture will be suitable for the patient. It is very important to know when to refer patients to their GP.

The acupuncturist then decides on a treatment plan, selects the acupuncture points to be treated and explains the treatment to the patient, before starting to insert the needles.

They may also give treatment by:

  • Burning a dried herb on an acupuncture point (moxibustion).
  • Passing small electric currents through acupuncture points (electro-acupuncture).
  • Cupping (using a vacuum cup on the acupuncture points).
  • Massage.
  • Tapping acupuncture points with a rounded probe.

At the end of the treatment the acupuncturist writes up full details on the patient's record card.

In most cases a number of treatments are required. The first consultation with a patient usually lasts between 40 and 90 minutes. Subsequent treatments tend to be shorter.

Acupuncturists also keep patient and financial records.

Acupuncturists work at times when their patients can see them. This means that working hours are flexible and can include evening and weekend work. Some acupuncturists work part time.

They work in a variety of settings including their own or patients' homes, health clinics, hospices, cancer treatment units or addiction treatment centres. They usually have a couch for the patient to lie on. Health and safety requirements, such as the cleanliness of equipment and surroundings, and the safe disposal of used needles, are very important. The work involves standing and bending.

Some acupuncturists work from more than one base, so a driving licence may be useful.

Starting salaries may be around £12,500 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Around 10,000 people in the UK practise acupuncture. The majority are self-employed. They can set up practices anywhere in the UK where there are enough patients to use their services. A few acupuncturists work alongside the NHS, in hospitals, health centres or GP surgeries.

Education and Training

There are a number of courses suitable for people wanting to train as professional acupuncturists.

These range from three-year part-time professional acupuncture courses to three or four-year full-time degree courses.

The exact make up of courses varies from institution to institution, but include:

  • Diagnostic skills and techniques.
  • Anatomy and physiology and other biomedical sciences.
  • Acupuncture point location skills.
  • Acupuncture techniques.
  • Ethical and other professional issues.
  • The issues surrounding setting up a practice.
  • Supervised clinical experience.

The theory of Chinese medicine is taught to students learning the Chinese system of acupuncture.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

There are a number of professional membership bodies for acupuncturists. Each has their own standards for membership.

To become a member of The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), for example, candidates should have successfully completed a course accredited by the BAcC (see the BAcC website for a list of accredited courses). Alternatively, they need to satisfy the Admissions Committee, through written application and interview, that they have a level of training and competence equivalent to recent graduates of British Acupuncture Accreditation Board accredited courses.

Entry requirements to these courses vary, but many institutions require at least five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two or three A levels/four H grades, or equivalent qualifications. Science subjects are particularly useful.

There is a minimum age for beginning to train; this varies between 18 and 21.

Candidates are advised to check the entry requirements for the courses they wish to apply for.

Self-employed acupuncturists are responsible for arranging and funding their own continuing training and development, but as in any health-related profession it is important to keep up to date with new techniques and changes in the law. The British Acupuncture Council runs a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme for its members.

Relevant postgraduate diplomas and MScs are offered by some institutions.

Self-employed acupuncturists may find it useful to take additional training in business-related subjects such as accounts or marketing.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An acupuncturist should:

  • Have good communication skills, and be able to explain treatments to patients who have no knowledge of acupuncture.
  • Have good listening skills and be able to ask the right questions.
  • Have empathy and sensitivity towards patients.
  • Be comfortable with physical contact with patients.
  • Inspire confidence in their patients.
  • Be able to keep an emotional distance from other people's problems.
  • Know when to refer a patient to a conventional medical practitioner.
  • Have commercial skills for running a business.

Your Long Term Prospects

There is no formal career progression for acupuncturists. Self-employed acupuncturists spend a lot of time and effort building their practices.

Experienced acupuncturists with an appropriate teaching qualification may be able to teach acupuncture. Some write books or articles for newspapers and magazines.

There may be opportunities to work abroad, but individuals should check that their qualification is recognised in the country where they hope to work.

Get Further Information

British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), 63 Jeddo Road, London W12 9HQ
Tel: 020 8735 0400

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