What credentials should you look for in a licensed acupuncturist?

You’ve heard that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture can be beneficial for a broad range of health conditions, and are considering giving it a try. How do you know who to call? To help you feel confident about choosing the best practitioner for you, we’ll explain the credentialing for acupuncturists, Chinese herbalists, and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and what it means to be a licensed acupuncturist.

Finding a qualified acupuncturist

Finding the right practitioner can be tricky. Not only are you looking for a health partner that you can trust and connect with, you also may feel unsure about assessing the validity of their claims. You may be more familiar with the professional credentials of Western medical practitioners, such as MD or Nurse Practitioner, and where to look to assess their individual levels of training, experience, and practice styles.

You can find a highly-qualified acupuncturist to fit your needs if you know what to look for. In the U.S., there is a national organization that accredits acupuncture training programs and institutions. In addition, there is a system of professional certification and licensure requirements that can help you feel confident in an acupuncturist’s qualifications. The basic elements are training, licensure, and certification.

Professional training, licensure and certification for acupuncturists

In the U.S., practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – also referred to as Oriental Medicine – receive graduate-level professional training and are subject to licensing as a regulated profession in all but three states.

TCM is a complete medical system for diagnosis and treatment. Within that system, acupuncture is one treatment method, alongside herbal medicine, nutritional counseling, manual therapies such as cupping and tui na, exercise (like qigong or tai chi), and lifestyle advice. Licensed acupuncturists receive training in the entire TCM system, not just acupuncture.

Licensed acupuncturists continue their education and training throughout their careers. Continuing education – classes and workshops designed for professionals to expand and/or update their knowledge and skills – is a standard requirement for licensure and certification of acupuncturists. This is similar to other health professionals like doctors, nurses, and chiropractors.

Acupuncturist Training

Look for an acupuncturist who has, at minimum, graduated from an accredited three- or four-year master’s program in acupuncture/TCM. The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) is a specialized accreditation agency recognized by the United States Department of Education.  ACAOM gives accreditation to acupuncture/TCM programs and institutions that meet certain standards. Their website includes a directory of the programs and schools they have accredited.

Accredited schools ensure that all acupuncturists trained in the U.S. not only learn the tools, techniques and principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but also learn standard medical history gathering, safety, ethics, common pharmaceuticals and supplements, and recognition of when to consult with other medical practitioners or refer patients to medical specialists. It is outside an acupuncturist’s scope of practice to diagnose according to Western medicine. However, they are trained to recognize “red flags” and refer out accordingly. They learn not only how to speak in terms of Western medicine, but also how to translate that into the framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Acupuncturist Licensing

Look for a licensed acupuncturist. All but three states in the U.S. regulate acupuncturists as licensed professionals (like medical doctors and nurses) through what is known as a state professional practice act. This means that for acupuncturists to legally practice in the state, they must meet state requirements to become licensed and to stay licensed. This ensures that licensed acupuncturists meet basic qualifications for training and continuing education, as well as ongoing compliance with safety regulations and professional ethics.  

In Illinois, the initial licensing in acupuncture requires certification as a Diplomate of Acupuncture by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (see next section for more about that). Licensed acupuncturists in Illinois renew their license every two years by meeting a number of requirements, including the completion of many hours of continuing professional education. See the NCCAOM website for a helpful guide to state regulation of acupuncture.

Certifications for Acupuncturists

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) offers certifications for acupuncturists who meet educational and other requirements, and pass a required set of examinations. You can find out more about the criteria for these certifications on NCCAOM’s website. Here is a summary of key requirements for the three most common certifications:

  • Acupuncture (Dipl. Ac.) – Requires completion of a three-year master’s program in Acupuncture, and passing the board exams in Foundations, Biomedicine, and Acupuncture.
  • Chinese Herbology (Dipl. C.H.) – Requires completion of a four-year master’s program in Chinese Herbology, and passing the board exams in Foundations, Biomedicine, and Chinese Herbology.
  • Oriental Medicine (Dipl. O.M.) – Requires completion of a four-year master’s program in Oriental Medicine, and passing the board exams in Foundations, Biomedicine, Herbology, and Acupuncture.

Acupuncturists must renew their certification with NCCAOM every two years, like the state professional license. In fact, many states require acupuncturists have NCCAOM certification to renew their state license. Illinois does not require NCCAOM certification for license renewal; however, many acupuncturists practicing here choose to keep their NCCAOM certification updated anyway, as a mark of high professional standards.

Look for the letters after the name to verify an acupuncturist’s professional training, licensure, and certification

  • M.S.T.O.M., M.S.A.O.M., M.Ac., D.A.O.M. – These are a few of the degrees given to those who complete an accredited graduate program in acupuncture and traditional Chinese/oriental medicine. You can ask your acupuncturist if her/his training was at an accredited school. Or, go to the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine website to find out.
  • L.Ac. – If you live in one of the 47 states that license acupuncturists, look for this designation. If you want to know more about the standards your state requires, go to your state’s professional regulation website. In Illinois, it is idfpr.com (Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation). There, you can also see if an acupuncturist has been reported for ethical or legal issues relating to licensing requirements.
  • Dipl. Ac., Dipl. C.H., Dipl. O.M. – These are certifications from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). They verify that your acupuncturist received at least master’s level training at an accredited institution; has passed a rigorous set of professional exams; and is staying up to date in knowledge and skills through continuing education classes and adherence to other professional requirements in their area(s) of expertise.

What’s the difference between a licensed acupuncturist and another licensed health-care professional who also does acupuncture?

Chiropractors, nurses, medical doctors, and other licensed health-care professionals who offer acupuncture typically receive 100-300 hours of abbreviated training. Contrast those hours to the three to four years minimum training for licensed acupuncturists.

There are some medical professionals who have been fully trained in acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. In most cases, they will include L.Ac. after their names as part of their credentials. You can also ask your provider, “How many hours of training did you receive for acupuncture?” If the answer is something between 100-300 hours, then they have only received an abbreviated course. This means they have learned a limited number of acupuncture points. It also makes it likely that they have a limited understanding of the holistic TCM medical framework guiding the choice of acupuncture points.

Acupuncturist credentials – why they matter

Hopefully you now have a clearer understanding of what to look for when seeking an acupuncturist. You can proceed with confidence to find a practitioner with verifiable skills and experience to fit your needs. And remember, it’s not just about the needles! The professionally trained and licensed acupuncturist has spent years learning and practicing the deeply holistic approach to healing which is at the heart of TCM. Having such a practitioner on your wellness team can make all the difference when it comes to managing your health and well-being amidst all the complexities of life.