Why Acupuncture was NOT a Career Mistake

'Do you ever question that you’ve made a huge-little mistake by becoming an Acupuncturist?'

Do you ever question your choice to become an Acupuncturist? Are you still in school with your debt mounting while your interest is waning? Do you feel like you’ve hit a wall in the growth of your practice? Have your results from Dr. ______’s system been underwhelming in spite of what everyone in the Facebook group says? Do you worry that your student loans will never get paid off? Are Physical Therapists and Chiropractors in your community marketing Dry Needling as superior to Acupuncture? 

'I believe this is the right field for the right people.'

We are all aware of the estimations of successful Acupuncture school graduates. I have seen the percentage of non-practicing Acupuncturists after 5 years range from 35 to 90%. There’s no question of the challenges associated with the practice and profession of Acupuncture, however, I believe this is the right field for the right people. An ideal livelihood may seem far fetched for those of us in the field still struggling with student loans, lackluster results, small patient loads and confusion about the history, style & techniques. Yet when we conceptualize, approach and practice from the right mindset, a career in Acupuncture can provide us with opportunities and lifestyles that some people only dream about.

'If you believe Business and Science are viewed as oppressive, you are looking through the wrong lens.'

There seems to be tension for many of us between a successful practice and successful practice. It is common to feel that financial success and clinical success are mutually opposed. Until we’re shown that they can be compatible, we will continue to struggle. The same phenomena is at play in the tension between Chinese Medicine and Western Science. That same false belief holds people back from deepening their practices when they could be making connections between the two.

Despite all of these challenges and obstacles, it is certain you made a great career choice… Here’s why:

1. This is work that you can do until you drop dead. Much of the work that we do is best interpreted through the lens of Longevity, Anti-Aging, and Exercise Science. Domains that have depth of history in discovery improve our understanding of human health in very pragmatic ways. If we practice what we preach we can remain active, energetic and healthy far into the game. By that time your frustrations, questioning and sticking with this practice will have paid off and you’ll be pretty good at what you do.

2. This work is an art-skill and like any skill, it takes time to reach proficiency. If you’re reading this, odds are you are either a student or have been practicing for less than 10 years. Let’s face it after 15, 20, 30 years of practice you don’t give a f*ck what people say on the internet. You’re likely fresh meat. Give it some time.

3. If considered in the right lens, Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine provide an endless list of hypotheses, theories and ideas to be tested and evaluated in so many different contexts. Contexts that offer a more naturalistic and holistic view of nature that when combined with Scientific rigor, can contribute to solving some of our biggest challenges as a species.

'It is our belief that the right lens is through the science of Hormetics, a universal biological principle that applies to every level of life, from the cellular to the organismal level.'

4. People on social media do not accurately represent their practices, skill sets and results. You cannot let that affect you, dismay you or defeat you.

'The feeling of having made a mistake by choosing this profession happens to most if not all of us. It can be challenging and causes many of us to drop out of the profession.' 

5. Practicing acupuncture is simultaneously a glimpse into the past and a peek into the future of medicine. The whole goal of APSE is to strip the roadblocks built by preconceived notions and defensive thinking between the practice of Acupuncture and the basic sciences. For example, contemporary medicine practices are primarily based on the Biomedical model of disease and illness. In the case of Chronic Pain, it turns into a search for the one structural abnormality such as a frayed ligament or degenerated disc that when ‘fixed’, resolves the problem. However, when we consider a Biopsychosocial Model of pain and disease, our detective work turns into a survey of an ecosystem rather than a search for needle in a haystack, it includes the search but contains more. This is the promise of Chinese Medicine, the original Biopsychosocial Model of health. In this way we can look to CM as a guide to refining the medical paradigm and (if you’re on board) has the potential to be an endlessly fascinating journey.


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How to Save Acupuncture


The Conceptual Shift

There is a conceptual shift needed in our field. I can’t be sure if it has happened or if it will even happen. The shift is essentially moving away from point-action as the primary focus of Acupuncture. Instead, the focus should turn towards an understanding that emphasizes the adaptive response that needling and other methods induce. 

Let’s say someone comes in with a cough and is hoping that Acupuncture can alleviate his symptoms. The basic starting point that I, and most others trained in the U.S., Europe and perhaps China would be to either treat the lung with points on the lung channel or use Channel Theory, Zangfu or the 5 Elements to construct a series of points that relate to the lung in order to treat the cough. I imagine this treatment would include points along the lung, spleen, bladder and large intestine channel. One could create a compelling argument for using any points according to channel theory because of the various ways the organs and channels are interconnected. 

From pure Deadman/ Maciocia, we could justify our strategy based on choosing points that include ‘cough’ in their description. From this, we use a smattering of styles and techniques that we’ve picked up from seminars, online groups, books and more.

'I think this represents the basic state of Acupuncture in America, namely that we use ‘points’ based on their ‘function’ according to the symptoms the patient presents with.'

I think this represents the basic state of Acupuncture in America, namely that we use ‘points’ based on their ‘function’ according to the symptoms the patient presents with. My sense tells me that this is the reason clinical trials of Acupuncture have largely turned up less than promising.

We should not forget the ‘point-action’ entirely, but perhaps it would be helpful to have a lens through which to understand the nature of the stress we are placing on the system through needling (gua sha, cupping, herbs, moxa) in the hopes of resolving symptoms - like a cough. I believe the model is the Hormetic Model of low dose stimulation, high dose inhibition that describes the response of organisms and systems when exposed to stressors.

Acupuncture Pre-Conditioning & Post- Conditioning

It is important to be clear when using Acupuncture. We are breaking skin and creating a disturbance in local tissues that set off a cascade of adaptive responses at the neuronal, circulatory and fascial levels. This means that an acupuncture needle creates micro-traumas that can be categorized by the transient changes in neuronal activity, circulating biomarkers and structural deformations of connective tissue. These are transient effects, the effects themselves don't last and nor do we want them to, they are simply the information we are feeding the system in the attempt to prompt a multifaceted (neuronal, immunological, endocrinal, etc.) response from the system - the limit of which is bounded by Bioplasticity.


What is Acupuncture?

When prospective patients or friends ask about Acupuncture, they usually follow with questions like ‘does it work?’, ‘how does it work?’ or ‘can Acupuncture help with ….?’. To me, each of these questions hold concepts that require unpacking, starting with the question: ‘what is Acupuncture?’.

Does it work? How does it work? Can Acupuncture help with…? What is Acupuncture?

As Acupuncturists, we know how many lineages, styles & techniques there are to choose from. Starting early in our careers, we often resonate with a certain aspect of style, validity of target tissue or even a particular teacher. At the beginning stages of my career, I gravitated towards Trigger Points and Motor Points because I could conceptualize them… their story of use made sense. By focusing on these target tissues as my ‘thing’, I made the choice to cease any focus on other lineages or theories (such as Kiiko Matsumoto’s - which I was presented with early in my training). 

'In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the time I had with Kiiko, but that is in hindsight.’ 

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the time I had with Kiiko, but that is in hindsight. It’s not to say that I regret focusing on Trps/ MPs, rather, it is that I have developed a sense of understanding and appreciation for some of the ideas that crazy Japanese Woman was ranting about (if you’ve ever spent time with Kiiko, you know what I mean) over time and with some experience. 

Just like the beginning of my career, I will continue to have to make choices on what to focus on and what not to focus on through every point in my progressing career. At this point, I am choosing not to study Wang Ju Yi’s Applied Channel Theory or one of the Tan/Tung systems because I am choosing to focus on other areas. As with my hindsight regret of lost time with Kiiko, I know that in the future I will perhaps wish I could have spent time with these systems. In the present now, I wish I could study all of the systems, theories and ideas out there. Because of the opportunity each practitioner has to shape their own path, the practice of acupuncture can look very different depending on the chosen path. While it may seem challenging in a number of ways, I believe the variability in the system is a good thing. 

'While it may seem challenging in a number of ways, I believe the variability in the system is a good thing.’

Perhaps one of the hurdles we have in this profession is the paradox between unification under the banner of acupuncture and the seemingly disparate ways that it’s practiced. SO, to answer the question ‘what is acupuncture?’ is not so simple… it becomes a dialogue, a conversation and sometimes a debate.

Written by: Zach Haigney M.S., L.Ac