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How does Acupuncture Practiced in the US compare to China?

Updated on August 30, 2013
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Eric Schmidt, L.Ac is the owner of Meridian Health Clinic in Santa Monica, CA. He practices both TCM Acupuncture and Dry Needling.

TCM Hospital in China

TCM Hospital in China
TCM Hospital in China

How the Practice of Acupuncture in the US Compares to China

As a licensed acupuncturist, people often ask me questions about how acupuncture is done in China. There is seems to be a general curiosity about how the practice of acupuncture outside of China (especially by non-Chinese practitioners) differs from the practice inside Chinese borders. Most people are concerned that they may not get "real" acupuncture in the US. In addition, people often have the bias to select a Chinese-born acupuncturist so that they will get the most "genuine" experience. Having traveled extensively in China and Southeast Asia, I would like to share my thoughts on the topic.

At its core, the acupuncture practiced in the US (and Europe) comes directly from the traditional teachings and texts from Asia. As with any practice, there are many schools of acupuncture that exist - they all share the same underlying principles, but have very different treatment techniques.

Having spent months working in Chinese TCM hospitals, first-hand experience revealed that most of the treatments given in China are given a busy community setting. In this setting, large hospital rooms are lined with many treatment tables and a constant in-and-out flow of patients. In China, a country of over 1 billion people, the Chinese tend to focus on efficiency and utility. Treatments must be able to treat large numbers of people quickly, and as such it becomes less important to give special care for each person. The crowded treatments rooms in Chinese hospitals can be busy, noisy, and smokey - not an ideal setting for healing the body by American standars. Most treatment rooms have 6-20 tables separated by cloth curtains (if you are lucky). Patients of all ages, genders and backgrounds lie patiently as 1 or more acupuncturists scurry about inserting needles, stimulating needles, and removing needles. Individual care is limited, but for the masses, this style of treatment works quite well.

In contrast, I have found that practitioners in the US take more time with patients and give the treatment in a private closed-door setting. All personal details are allowed to stay confidential, unlike the conditions in China where patients essentially share their problems with everyone else in the treatment room. In America, where everyone is valued as an individual, one-on-one-time is an important part of the treatment and this focused attention can even be part of the greater healing process. In this regard, sometimes acupuncturists in the Western world take on the role of therapist, confidant, and more.

Doctors Practicing in China

Doctors Practicing in China
Doctors Practicing in China

Acupuncture Outcomes

For all acupuncture treatments, the goal is simple: good results and people living happy, pain-free lives. In this regard, increased time with each patient can lead to faster improvement, but not always. This intimate approach to treatment is important in America, but may actually not be welcome in China.

Regardless of the setting, there is a big advantage to seeing a acupuncturist who's first language is the same as yours. If you speak English, a native English speaker will be better able to explain both the treatment rationale, and give useful advice for the patient to resolve a condition. In the acupuncture world, useful advice may include topics such as:

  • stretching & strengthening
  • dietary considerations
  • supplements

These layers of additional information can be valuable to the patient receiving acupuncture in their path to full recovery. In both China and the US, acupuncture is typically only one piece of the healing process.

Acupuncture can effectively treat a variety of health conditions. Appropriate conditions range from insomnia to shoulder pain to chronic headaches. People generally find acupuncture to be an very relaxing and pleasant experience. This is the case even for those who people have some initial hesitation about needles. In general each visit begins with a bit of discussion, as the practitioner gathers information to clearly understand and diagnose a problem. Much of this diagnosis is done from both a Western and Oriental medicine viewpoint. The acupuncture itself takes about 30 minutes and simply involves relaxing while the needles do the work.


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