Chinese Medicine vs. Medical Acupuncture

It is not uncommon for prospective patients to call my office and ask whether or not I am a “medical doctor.” Typically, this question stems from the fact that some medical insurance companies will only reimburse if acupuncture is performed by an MD, and the lack of understanding of the training of Chinese medicine practitioners and that of the medical doctor.

Practitioners of Chinese medicine train for approximately 4 years in medical school, just like medical doctors. The difference is that we spend 75% to 80% of our time training in the theories and practice of Chinese medicine, including extensive clinical internships and externships. The remainder of our training is in western medicine and sciences. Cognizant of the fact that we live in a world dominated by western science, the practitioner of Chinese medicine must be knowledgeable of western medicine.

During our time in medical school, we spend over 3,000 hours studying acupuncture (channels, acupoints, clinical techniques and applications), Chinese medical theories, physiology and pathophysiology, herbal medicines (including herb combinations, synergies, and formulations), classical Chinese medicine, and treating patients under the guidance of supervising acupuncturists and herbalists. Not to mention that many practitioners, like myself, have extensive post-graduate training with senior practitioners and masters in the field.

So, what training do MDs have in acupuncture? None. The one’s who will advertise as “medical acupuncturists” have trained for approximately 200 hours, typically a weekend course and some “homework.” This is the standard recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) so that doctors know when to refer out to fully-trained acupuncturists. MDs, osteopaths, naturopaths and chiropractors only have this limited training. They are not practicing Chinese medicine, just using needles. Sticking needles in someone without knowledge of the underlying theories of Chinese medicine is not practicing acupuncture and is not recommended by this practitioner.

Acupuncture is strong medicine with the power to bring awareness of our imbalances to the body and mind and help correct them. Despite what you hear from an MD, its influence extends far beyond neural pathways and the release of endorphins. Improper training in and use of this sacred healing art is an affront to every skilled practitioner and to the majesty of Chinese medicine.

A strong foundation in the principles of Chinese medicine is prerequisite to being a good acupuncturist. But it is only the beginning. The simple act of inserting a needle requires significant cultivation on the part of the practitioner to feel for the arrival of Qi under the needle. According to Yanagiya Sorei and Shudo Denmei, two famous Japanese master acupuncturists, forcing an acupuncture needle into the skin of a patient is akin to rape. In 1980 Master Yanagiya stated:

Inserting needles and applying moxa, this is an art. Ours is a profession which requires a sense of adventure. Isn’t it incredible how all manner of diseases can be cured with nothing more than a needle or a few pieces of moxa? Isn’t it grand how needles and moxa can be used to create the effect of all manner of medicine?

Acupuncture is of the mind. This should be considered very carefully. One needle can be used to unlock the key to all manner of diseases. It is only natural, therefore, that one’s technique needs to be perfected.

Which kind of acupuncturist will you go see?


  1. The situation is not much better for doctors of Chinese medicine trained in China. Heiner Fruehauf has written about this:“Of an impressive sounding five years in the present bachelor curriculum, much is taken up by classes in foreign language, physical education, political studies, and computer training. By far the most extensive classes are dedicated to Western medicine contents such as anatomy, physiology, immunology, parasitology, and other topics that are unrelated to the diagnostic and therapeutic procedures of classical Chinese medicine. From both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective, therefore, it would not be entirely inappropriate to state in slightly dramatized terms that the Chinese medicine portion in the contemporary TCM curriculum has been reduced to the status of a peripheral supplement—approximately 40% or less of the total amount of hours. This issue is compounded by the ongoing division of students into Western-style areas of specialization, such as acupuncture or bone disorders. None of the specialty students, including acupuncture department graduates, are required anymore to familiarize themselves with the realm of original teachings, not even in the radically abridged form of classical quotations that still serve to bestow an air of legitimacy on most official TCM textbooks.”

  2. A sad situation for sure. Gone are the days of studying Chinese medicine in the traditional manner. This highlights for me how lucky we have been to have found a mentor like Dr. Hammer.