What are the different styles of Acupuncture?

If you don’t know much about acupuncture, it can be confusing to learn that there are different styles or schools, with different philosophies and ways of practicing. This article explains the main differences, to help you choose what is right for you.

Medical or Traditional?

The main difference is between the modern, Western ways of working (so called ‘medical acupuncture’) and the ancient, oriental styles (‘traditional acupuncture’.) These 2 are so different, that to call them both by the name ‘acupuncture’ is quite misleading.

Medical Acupuncture is a recent creation, based entirely on the principles of Western scientific medicine. Training courses for qualified Western practitioners (such as GPs, nurses, physios etc) are very short – typically around 5 days. This therapy is used almost exclusively for pain relief, although it may occasionally be used for other conditions. Sometimes physical therapists such as chiropractors or physios use this kind of acupuncture in their practice, in which case it is sometimes called ‘dry needling’.

Traditional Acupuncture is the ancient therapy developed in China, and now widely practiced across South East Asia and the world. It is a holistic treatment, based on a fundamentally different way of viewing health and disease. Training courses take around 3 years. It is probably ‘traditional’ acupuncture that you think of when you think of acupuncture. It can be used a very wide range of physical, mental and emotional conditions.

It is my experience (as a traditional acupuncturists) that most people don’t realize the huge fundamental difference between these two. Unfortunately, I often meet people who have had medical acupuncture, and found that it hurt a lot, and didn’t work, and have then dismissed acupuncture completely. The experience of medical acupuncture being quite painful seems common – this doesn’t surprise me, given the amount of training and needling practice that traditional acupuncturists have to go through before they are allowed to practice.

Types of Traditional Acupuncture

The main style of traditional acupuncture practiced all over the world is TCM (‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’.) This is what is taught and practiced in China, and is the standard for most Western courses in traditional acupuncture. It has a history stretching back over 2000 years, and given the name TCM in the 1950s when a structured syllabus was first created for teaching across China (until then there were many regional variations)

Other countries have developed slightly different styles of their own, for instance Japanese acupuncture which is known for its very gentle techniques, and use of abdomen diagnosis (feeling the abdomen as a diagnostic tool). Korean acupuncture also has slightly different theories, and it tends to favour treating constitutional problems. Some Korean acupuncturists only use acupuncture points on the hands for their treatments. On the whole though, Japanese and Korean acupuncture are quite similar to TCM.

Auricular acupuncture uses acupuncture points on the ears to treat illness. It can be used alongside other styles (in which case body points will also be used) or on its own. A recent creation – the NADA protocol – uses 5 acupuncture points on the ear in the treatment of addiction.

5-elements acupuncture was created in the 1950s by an Englishman, JR Worsley, who had trained in different countries in Asia. It focuses on treating constitutional imbalances, and is said to specialise in psychological and emotional conditions (though these can also be treated by other styles of traditional acupuncture). It is quite different in theory and practice to TCM.

Finally, ‘Classical Acupuncture’ is a new term for an old medicine. It is a catch all term to describe ancient ways of practicing that predate TCM, particularly incorporating Taoist ideas and techniques.

Choosing an acupuncturist

It is important that you know the difference between medical and traditional acupuncture, but the differences between different traditional styles might well not concern you much.

if you are looking for an acupuncturist, more important things to consider are the practitioners training and experience. How long have they been in practice, and have they treated your condition before? Do they practice any other branches of Chinese medicine that could also be of use to you? (tuina massage, herbs, qi gong, nutrition.) And most importantly, do you get on with them and trust them?

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