In the UK, acupuncture is unregulated. That means that (scarily) anyone can theoretically go into business as an acupuncturist with little or no training.
When you’re finding an acupuncturist, there are certain things you should look for or questions you can ask that will determine if they are competent, well qualified and are a good fit for you.
What kind of training did they have?
How long was the training? — Look for a minimum of 3 years. Having been trained in China is not necessarily better; there are several reputable colleges of Chinese medicine in the UK.
Physiotherapists, chiropractors and others who practice ‘dry needling’ may have just done a couple of weekends of training. The rationale behind this is that their existing knowledge of anatomy should be sufficient for them to be able to needle safely, and the theory behind ‘dry needling’ (as opposed to traditional acupuncture) is relatively basic.
Are they a member of a professional body?
Being a member of a professional body (like the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) in the UK) is usually a good indicator that the acupuncturist has had a good level of training and should mean that they adhere to strict codes of safe practice and professional conduct, undertake a certain amount of CPD (additional training) each year, and are fully insured. These are all true of BAcC members, but each professional body will be different, so check them out first.
What style(s) of acupuncture do they use? The main styles of traditional acupuncture you are likely to come across are TCM, Five Elements, Stems and Branches and Japanese styles (though there will be other less well known styles around too as well as non-traditional techniques such as trigger point acupuncture). Each style has a different approach and will suit different people. I’ve written a brief description of some of the main styles of acupuncture before.
Also related to this is what kind of practitioner the acupuncturist is. Some are more ‘alternative’ than others, and you’ll want to find someone who is a good match for you.
I reckon this one is nearly as important as training. You need to be able to share some quite personal details with your acupuncturist and, over time a deep level of trust usually develops. If you don’t find them particularly likeable this will not happen and you won’t enjoy the treatments.
It is a good idea to satisfy yourself that a prospective acupuncturist is practicing safely. You might ask the question: “Are your needles single-use, sterile and disposable?” When you’re having treatment you should expect to see some hand-washing taking place and should never have any needles inserted through clothing. Equally, you should expect to be adequately covered, with gowns, towels or blankets provided to maintain your modesty if clothes need to be removed.
Some questions with no right answer
These questions are a bit sneaky, because you’re more interested in what the answers tell you about the acupuncturist and their style of treatment, than the answers themselves.
How often should I come for treatment?
The answer to this will largely depend on the style of acupuncture practiced. In China, for example, it is very common to see people every other day or even daily for a few weeks. Practitioners of other styles will see people at most weekly, and often fortnightly, monthly or seasonally once treatment is well underway. There are reasons for both approaches, and neither is right or wrong.
So how does acupuncture work then?
This may give you an insight into the acupuncturist’s beliefs about acupuncture, and the kind of style of treatment you may receive. However, I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into an explanation given at a very early stage, because it’s a really big and complex question and the best place to start will depend on the existing beliefs and experience of the person asking the question.
Does it hurt?
Acupuncture is not usually painful (certainly nothing like injections or blood tests), and many people find treatment incredibly relaxing. However, to say that acupuncture is never painful at all is misleading. Read more about the sensations you might expect during acupuncture in this article.
A couple of less useful questions
There are some questions that it’s not so useful to ask a potential acupuncturist, but that people ask all the time.
How many treatments will I need?
This one is pretty much impossible to answer, especially before treatment has started. There are so many factors that will influence how quickly you might respond to treatment, some of which will only be clear once treatment has begun.
Acupuncturists with a lot of experience may be able to give you a better estimate but I don’t think anyone will know exactly how many sessions you will need in advance.
Also bear in mind that some people continue to have acupuncture from time to time as a preventative treatment or to keep them ‘topped up’. There shouldn’t be any expectation to do this if it’s not something you’re interested in though.
Have you treated x condition before?
Traditional acupuncturists don’t treat conditions, they treat people. Most people have a number of different imbalances, some of which may be related to the main complaint, and some of which may not. These imbalances are diagnosed on the basis of signs (especially pulse and tongue diagnosis) and symptoms – particularly the quality of those symptoms (the type of pain, whether something feels hot, cold or swollen etc). These various imbalances may also interact with each other in complex ways.
The job of the acupuncturist is to identify the various imbalances, and work out the best way to treat them all. This may involve finding one ‘root’ imbalance which is responsible for many others, or may involve treating several imbalances each time. As the imbalances are corrected, healthy function is restored.
The acupuncturist cannot simply choose points according to condition the (e.g. for headaches, needle the point Taiyang on the side of the head) because you may see ten people with headaches who all have headaches for different reasons and need different treatments. Equally, one of those people with headaches may receive exactly the same treatment as someone with chronic low back pain because, although the symptom/condition is different, the underlying imbalance is the same. This is what is meant by the phrase from the classics:
“One condition, many treatments; one treatment, many conditions.”
While experience is obviously useful, what is most important is not whether the acupuncturist has treated your particular condition before, but whether they are skilled at diagnosing and treating according to the principles of Chinese medicine.