Acupuncture is one of the most ancient and complex tools used by practitioners of Classical Chinese medicine. It is a system of therapy (including, but not limited to, the relief of pain) which has been in constant use throughout Chinese cultural areas of the world for at least 3,500 years. It is based on ancient texts and oral tradition developed over 2 millenia of continuous clinical observation and critical thinking. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles at varying depths in specific acupuncture points throughout the body, with the purpose of re-establishing a "state of health" within the individual. The particular points used in each treatment are chosen according to various diagnostic factors unique to Chinese Medicine, and are aimed toward helping to establish a harmonious relationship between all systems on a physical, mental and emotional level.

Philosophical Background

The human organism, in Chinese medical thought, is considered a microcosm of the external environment. Just as nature relies on balance and the natural rhythms of such things as seasonal change, so also does our health depend upon the harmonious relationship of all of our bodily systems and our emotional balance and sense of well-being. Relationships with our individual as well as natural external environment, (such as food ingested, quality of the air we breathe, living situation, relationships, work habits, exercise, general lifestyle, quality of life, etc.), is also considered crucial in maintaining health. The two main concepts upon which Chinese medicine is based are that of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements (Wu Xing).

The concept of Yin/Yang represents the fundamental duality in the universe, which, because it is in constant movement, represents complementary characteristics, ever changing into each other to create unity. Both are necessary for the whole to exist. The relationship represents relativity, since one is only defined in relation to the other. For example, Yin represents stasis, movement inward, heaviness. Yang represents movement outward, lightness, clear action. All of these terms are only relevant in relation to its point of contrast. What is light in one situation, may be heavy in another.

The Five Element Theory represents constant movement and change of everything in nature, including the human organism. They symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena. The five elements are: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each organ system is related to one of the elements, and these relationships define cycles and directions of energetic movement. Thus we know that energy flows from the lung (metal) to the kidney (water) thence to the liver (wood), and so on. There is also established a controlling cycle. For example, the heart (fire) controls the lungs (metal)--hence distress with the heart is often accompanied by breathing difficulty.

Chinese Herbal medicine is also based upon Yin/Yang and Five Element Theory and it has had its own line of development that at times has paralleled that of acupuncture and at other times has been quite divergent.

"Qi" is a Chinese word virtually untranslatable in English, but which roughly corresponds to our idea of energy or vital life force. Qi flows throughout the body by way of specific pathways (measurable electronically) called Meridians. There are 12 main Meridians which pathways correspond in location and function with 10 organ systems and 2 functions (The Pericardium and Triple Burner). When the Qi flows smoothly and evenly throughout the body, there is health and well-being. When there is stagnation, obstruction or depletion of Qi in any one area there is a domino effect which will eventually cause other
symptoms to occur. Treating symptoms in isolation will not necessarily effect a cure, since the underlying energetic cause of the problem may lie in areas other than where the symptom occurred. Therefore, an understanding of function and relationship are crucial aspects of effective acupuncture treatment.

East and West--a difference in perspective

In the Western medical paradigm, we are trained to place emphasis on body structure and how it changes during the course of disease. Disease is generally thought of as being due to causes which can be killed, cut out, or contained. In addition, there is a tendency toward compartmentalization and isolation of individual parts. There is a search for underlying mechanisms, a cause which is well-defined, self-contained phenomenon, thus creating a quantifiable description in a narrow area.

To the Classically trained acupuncturist, the emphasis is almost entirely on function and relationship. Attention is directed toward the complete physiological and psychological individual and all relevant information, including but not limited to symptoms, is woven together into a diagnosis reflecting patterns of disharmony and constitutional weakness. This synthesis helps form a picture of the individual person as a whole and helps to identify the "imbalance". Treatment proceeds toward recreating "balance", thus building that persons overall strength and vitality. Health is re-established through the body's own ability to heal itself, once obstruction has been removed.


There are various classical Acupuncture traditions which have specific areas of emphasis in diagnosis. The primary tools used by most traditions include palpating 12 energy pulses (6 on each wrist) which each correspond to one of the 12 main Meridian systems. The tongue is observed for tissue vitality, color, coating, etc. Complexion, sound of voice, odor, emotional response, body posture, flesh and muscle tone, condition of hair and fingernails, areas of sensitivity on palpation, body temperature variations--all of these factors and more are related to a complex system of correspondences which then help to form a working diagnosis of the imbalance.


There is evidence to support that Acupuncture had its origins in Neolithic times, at least prior to 1,000 BC and some archeological findings which support a date as early as 3,500 BC. In 1929, relics were excavated in Korea which included stone and bone acupuncture needles. In 1963 Chinese archeologists found stone needles at a Neolithic site in Inner Mongolia which they estimate to be between 4 and 10,000 years old. Metal needles have been used at least since 800 BC.

The birth of classical texts on acupuncture and herbal medicine occurred during the Warring States period in China (403-221 BC - Zhou dynasty). The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine or the Nei Jing, contains voluminous theoretical and practical information on all the different aspects of traditional Oriental medicine. It consists of two parts, Su Wen (Simple Questions) and Ling Shu (Spiritual Pivot) of 81 chapters each. Prior to the writing of the texts, the art was passed along by time honored oral tradition, from master to student.

Choosing an Acupuncturist

Because of the differences in approach and applied theory between Western medicine and Classical Acupuncture, a thorough knowledge of Western medicine is not necessarily helpful in learning Classical Chinese medicine. While undergraduate College Pre-medical sciences are required by both Western medical schools and Acupuncture Schools, the graduate training then becomes very divergent. Most accredited or approved Acupuncture Colleges are 3-year, full-time programs which involve intensive study of didactic and practical Chinese medical theory, acupuncture anatomy and physiology in relation to precise point location, physical diagnostic evaluation, and supervised clinical practice. After successfully completing some 2,500 hours of training and obtaining a graduate degree in acupuncture, most states require practitioners to pass the competency examination administered by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, to be eligible for licensing. Given the vast amount of material to be mastered, as well as the challenge involved in learning an art which relies so heavily on one's personal development of touch sensitivity, observational skills and basic ability to develop rapport with one's patients, successful licensure is considered entry level in the field, and most licensed practitioners continue their training throughout their careers.

The quality and length of training is important in terms of receiving the benefit of Classical Acupuncture. Before choosing an acupuncturist, it would be adviseable to ask where they were trained, the length of the program and/or whether they have passed the national competency examination (NCCAOM). Licensure in most states will ensure at least entry level training, however Acupuncture licensure has no jurisdiction, in many states, over other medical professions which may choose to include acupuncture under their umbrella of practice.

Frequently Asked Questions

More Information (external links):

Acupuncture Licensing in North Carolina:
North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board

National Certification Examination:
National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

School Accreditation:
Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Professional Organizations:
North Carolina Association for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
American Association for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance