What is Acupuncture?

What is Acupuncture?

Is acupuncture the same thing as Traditional Chinese Medicine? What schooling does an acupuncturist go through? How does acupuncture work?

There’s a lot of confusion around acupuncture. Here’s how we explain acupuncture at Rupa Health.

Expert Reviewed by Rachel Hemphill, DACM, L.Ac, FABORM
Owner and Head Acupuncturist at City Pulse Acupuncture in Oakland, CA

Is acupuncture just needles?

Acupuncture is technically one piece of a system of medicine known as Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that has been in use for thousands of years. (There’s even TCM ruins from Ancient Greece!)

 Many people think of “seeing an acupuncturist” as solely getting pricked with needles, however, the practice includes many other modalities, such as cupping, herbal medicine, massage (tui na), and more.


What can acupuncture help with? Should I try it?

Acupuncture is most commonly used for (and has the most research behind) pain, fertility, sports medicine, energy and sleep, and chronic stress / anxiety. However, patients use acupuncture to support nearly any condition - ranging from chronic conditions (digestive / allergies / cancer support / etc.) to acute physical conditions (sciatica / nerve impingement / etc.).

Many patients report benefits even with “mystery illnesses” and unresolved symptoms. And it’s not just when you’re sick! Patients also see acupuncturists for optimization and prevention.  

Acupuncturists assess and address the whole person (for example, nutrition, symptoms of pain, sleep quality, etc.) and tend to treat patients holistically.

Do acupuncturists go to school and get legitimate training?

Yes! An acupuncturist is a licensed healthcare practitioner who holds either a Master’s or Doctorate in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Becoming a licensed acupuncturist consists of a 4-year master’s program in Traditional Chinese Medicine, a clinical internship, and passing a board exam. Acupuncturists also have to renew their license every two years and complete 50 hours of board-approved continuing education courses.


What should I expect for my first time seeing an acupuncturist?

An initial visit is usually 90 mins long and involves two parts.  

  1. Diagnosis: The first half of your visit will be a conversation around your health history & conditions. Be prepared for detailed intake forms (multiple pages) and questions such as -- “Let me see the color of your tongue.” and “Did you have a vaginal or c-section birth?”

  2. Treatment: Depending on your needs, the acupuncturist will customize a treatment for you - including inserting needles at specific personalized points and potentially including other modalities such as cupping or massage. The treatment is performed on a soft table resembling a massage table. You may or may not remove clothing depending on the points of insertion for the needles. Generally, the acupuncturist will put the needles in and leave you in the room to relax for around 20-30 minutes. Many people take a short nap before the acupuncturist comes in to remove the needles and end the session.

Follow-up visits are usually 1 hour, and do not include the in depth diagnosis. Instead, you’ll do a short update chat on your health and then jump into treatment.

I’m afraid of needles. Does it hurt? And is it safe?

Yes, it’s safe! Many patients are surprised by how thin acupuncture needles are and how little they hurt - if they feel anything at all. The needles are so thin, they are flexible and bendy. Additionally, acupuncture needles are single use, disposable, and made of stainless steel. They also are barely inserted into the skin - it’s nothing like getting a shot.

Is this legit? How can tiny needles do so much? Tell me about the science.

Acupuncture activates several different biological systems: nervous, endocrine, musculoskeletal, circulatory, and lymphatic. When a needle is inserted, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign object and sends red and white blood cells to that area. This improves circulation to that body part and can activate healing.

At the same time, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (endorphins) are released in the brain, which are your “happy hormones” that improve mood and hormone regulation. This is why someone going in for neck pain will potentially overall feel less stressed and relaxed, potentially reducing anxiety and promoting better sleep!

Is this going to be expensive? What’s the deal with insurance?

Depending on your practitioner and the specific treatment you are receiving, an acupuncture session can range from $20 (community acupuncture in a group setting) to a hundred dollars. The national average cost is around $75 for an hour-long session. Keep in mind you might have insurance coverage!‍ 

Many insurance plans in California now cover acupuncture. The exact amount and type depends entirely on your health needs, insurance company and plan. You can also pay using an FSA or HSA if you have one. You should call your insurance company or check their website for exact acupuncture coverage under your insurance plan.

I’m in - I want to try it! How do I find a good acupuncturist?

Our goal here at Rupa Health is to make it seamless for you to find a trusted, credible acupuncturist that specifically fits your needs. We thoroughly vet all our acupuncturists using a process developed in conjunction with some of the top industry experts from institutions like Stanford & Johns Hopkins.

We’ve found that it’s important to find someone with expertise in your specific condition, which is why we categorize & organize practitioners by specialty. We also note which insurance companies practitioners are in network with.

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Ready to start feeling 100%?

References & Further Reading

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?, One Medical

Acupuncture Overview, Mayo Clinic

Acupuncture: In-Depth, NIH

At Rupa Health, we are on a mission to make integrative and alternative healthcare more accessible. We are passionate about finding you trusted holistic healthcare information you can trust.

Are you a patient looking for an integrative practitioner? We’re here to help! All of our Rupa Health certified practitioners go through a multi-level vetting process to curate the perfect match(es) for our patients. If you’re an integrative practitioner or MD looking to know more, please contact us here. We’d love to connect!

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