What is an Acupuncture Degree?

A key component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), acupuncture is used to treat pain and mobility problems, contribute to overall wellness, and manage stress. TCM explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force – known as qi (pronounced ‘chee’) – believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in the human body. By inserting very thin needles at various depths into specific points along these meridians, acupuncturists believe that energy flow will re-balance. In the West, acupuncture treatment is considered a complementary approach to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue.

Students of acupuncture study the philosophy behind the practice, acupuncture point selection, and needle insertion. Programs typically incorporate coursework in Western medicine, food therapy and ‘energetic’ foods, Chinese therapeutic massage, traditional herbs and formulas, and professional ethics.

Acupuncture, thought to have originated in China more than 2,500 years ago, has been recognized as a healing option by the US National Institute of Health since 1997.

Program Options


  • Most acupuncture programs include at least some introductory courses in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
  • It is quite common for schools to offer combined programs in acupuncture and TCM.
  • It is important to select programs which are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Accredited programs prepare students for the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) examination, which is the licensing requirement in most US states.

Diploma in Acupuncture – Two to Three Year Duration
The diploma program in acupuncture, offered by some schools as an associate degree, explores the theoretical and clinical concepts of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. Students learn foundational philosophies, diagnostic principles, and therapeutic techniques of this ancient system of medicine. The typical program also incorporates coursework in the biomedical and biological sciences, as well as patient communication, ethics, and business development.

Here is a snapshot of the core diploma curriculum:


  • Medians and Points – a comprehensive survey of all meridian-based acupuncture points and meridians of the human body, including anatomical locations and an introduction to energetic properties
  • Energetics of Acupoints – an in-depth study of the energetic and therapeutic properties of all acupuncture points of the 12 primary meridians, the Governing and Conception vessels, and the extraordinary points; the therapeutic functions of the acupoints and simple and elaborate acupoint combinations
  • Techniques and Therapeutics – an introduction to the theory and practice of acupuncture therapy and its related disciplines; needling techniques and related skills of moxibustion (a type of Chinese medicine involving burning moxa, a cone or stick made of ground mugwort leaves on or near the body’s meridians and acupuncture points), cupping, electric stimulation, seven star needle and gua sha (a natural, alternative therapy that involves scraping the skin with a massage tool to improve circulation); using procedures to minimize the risk of infection; introduction to acupuncture micro-systems including ear and scalp
  • Internal Medicine – the five internal pathogenic factors, the six channels (as detailed in the textbook Shang Han Lun, known in English as the Treatise on Cold Damage Diseases); the four levels of pathogenic invasion (as detailed in the textbook Wen Bing Xue, known in English as Warm Disease Theory); the state of Qi and Blood; the pathologies of Zang Fu organs (the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, and spleen); therapeutic principles and methods; an introduction to Jing Gui Yao Lue (Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet); TCM diseases including the common cold, cough, asthma and wheezing, spontaneous and night sweating, palpitations, convulsions, headache, dizziness and vertigo, insomnia, psychiatric conditions, epilepsy, urinary difficulties, diabetes, and others
  • Gynecology – application of the principles of acupuncture and oriental medicine to the field of gynecology and women’s health issues, primarily those related to reproductive organs
  • Orthopedics and Traumatology – application of the principles of acupuncture and Chinese medicine to the study of orthopedics and sports therapy; introduction to motor points and use of acupuncture for injuries to the musculoskeletal system
  • Dermatology and External Medicine – application of the principles of acupuncture and Chinese medicine to the study of dermatology and other disorders of the external body such as carbuncles and furuncles, goiter, hemorrhoids, scrofula, herpes zoster, and warts
  • Pediatrics – application of the principles of acupuncture and Chinese medicine to the field of pediatrics; using acupuncture and moxibustion for diseases and conditions such as the common cold and cough, asthma, diarrhea, constipation, urinary disorders, and fevers and convulsions
  • Ophthalmology and Ear, Nose, Throat – application of the principles of acupuncture and Chinese medicine to the study of disorders of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat; using acupuncture and moxibustion for diseases and conditions such as blindness, cataracts, conjunctivitis, deafness, tinnitus, vertigo, epistaxis, and sore throat
  • Five Element Acupuncture Clinical Application – applying the theories of Five Element Acupuncture, which is used in TCM to help acupuncturists understand the natural flow of emotions, thoughts, feelings, and even life itself

Traditional Chinese Medicine

  • TCM Foundations – introduction to the basic philosophies and principles of traditional Chinese medicine; the history of acupuncture, theories of Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements
  • Introduction to Tai Qi Chuan – introduction to the theories and practices of Tai Qi Chuan, the Chinese system of healing that uses specific movements and exercises that are intended to harmonize and improve both body and spirit
  • Introduction to Qi Gong – introduction to the theories and practices of Qi Gong, the practice of controlling the flow and distribution of ‘life energy’ in order to improve the health and harmony of the mind and body
  • Tui Na – introduction to Tui Na, a form of Chinese therapeutic massage that can be used alone or in conjunction with acupuncture and herbal medicine
  • Medical Mandarin – introduction to the basics of Mandarin Chinese, including the Romanized alphabet known as Pin Yin; emphasis on terms relevant to the study of TCM, including foundational terms, acupuncture point names, and herb names
  • TCM Diagnosis – traditional Chinese medicine diagnostic principles which are applicable to acupuncture, herbology, and other disciplines of TCM; tongue and pulse diagnosis; differentiation of syndromes based on Eight Principles, Zang Fu differentiation, pathogenic factors, Six Channels, Four Levels, and San Jiao
  • Five Elements – in Chinese tradition, Five Elements is a system by which interactions within living beings and between living beings and nature can be explored and explained based on general traits associated with the elements known as wood, fire, earth metal and water; the wood element is associated with the emotion of anger and the tendons and ligaments of the body; the fire element is associated with the emotion of joy and the body’s small intestines, the pericardium, and the heart; the earth element is associated with reciprocity and pensiveness and with eating and digestion; the metal element is associated with grief and with the lungs and large intestine; the water element is associated with wisdom, endurance, and fear and with the kidneys and the bladder; the energetics of points to influence mind, body, and spirit
  • Shi Lao: TCM Diet Therapy – using food as preventative and curative therapy; examination of traditional Chinese foods and diets; Shi Lao principles and philosophies; the energetic effect of various foods, teas, and spices after consumption

TCM Clinical Practice

  • Clinical Observation – students observe experienced practitioners in their care of patients and clinical management
  • Clinical Supervised Practice – student practitioners treat patients while under the direct supervision and guidance of the instructor
  • Clinical Independent Practice – student practitioners perform all aspects of treatment in a private clinical setting, with a supervisor available but not in direct observation of student practitioners

Diploma in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine – Three to Four Year Duration
The Diploma in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine is sometimes offered under the nomenclature ‘master’s degree’ and may require that program applicants hold a bachelor’s in a health and wellness discipline.

At this level, the curriculum encompasses the content described above in the Diploma in Acupuncture section, but also includes a significant Chinese botanical medicine component, as summarized below:

  • Huang Di Nei Jing – examination of the impact of one of the most monumental texts in the history of Chinese medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing
  • Chinese Herbal Medicine – introduction to the general concepts of Chinese herbal medicine and in-depth study of the most common and widely used herbs, including their Latin, English, and Chinese names and their physical, energetic, and therapeutic properties according to Eastern philosophies; identifying dried herbs and avoiding common complications and negative interactions
  • Formulas and Strategies – covers approximately 200 formulas in 20 therapeutic groups; for each formula students learn its composition / ingredients, dosage, indications, formula analysis, cautions and contraindications, and common modifications; students gain the skill to develop their own formulas to treat a vast majority of disorders or syndrome patterns
  • Phytochemistry – introduction to the chemistry of plants and how those chemical constituents interact with human physiology, pharmaceuticals, and within individual plants; examination of chemical compounds including saponins, tannins, resins, alcohols, volatile oils, carbohydrates, phenolic compounds, coumarins, anthraquinones, flavones, bitters, glycosides, and alkaloids
  • Herbal Pharmacology – study of the interaction of herb-related drugs with living organisms; the actions, related mechanisms, and active components of herbal medicine

Doctoral Degree in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine – Four Year Duration
A diploma or master’s degree in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine is the common prerequisite to be admitted to a doctoral program in the field. The acupuncture and TCM doctoral curriculum is an in-depth exploration of areas such as psychology, oncology, gerontology, acupuncture detox, research, and the classic tests that first recorded the principles of this ancient system of medicine. Much of the program is dedicated to clinical practice.

Courses at the doctoral level may include:

  • Advanced Acupuncture Techniques
  • Western Pharmacology
  • Modern TCM Herbal Research
  • A Major School of Chinese Medicine: Wen Bing Xue
  • Major Texts in Chinese Medicine: Nan Jing, Yi Jing, and Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing
  • Advanced TCM Internal Medicine
  • TCM Psychology: Exploration of the Psyche in Chinese Medicine
  • TCM Gerontology: Age-Related Illnesses and Diseases
  • TCM Pediatrics: Advanced Conditions in TCM Pediatrics

Degrees Similar to Acupuncture

Chiropractic, categorized as alternative or complementary medicine, focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of neuromuscular disorders. Chiropractors seek to reduce pain and functionality primarily through manual adjustment and/or manipulation of the spine.

Massage Therapy
Massage therapy students study the art and science of human touch. They learn how massage and muscle stimulation can relieve physical pain and mental stress and help the body relax, regain mobility, and detoxify. The typical massage therapy curriculum includes courses in anatomy and physiology, kinesiology (the science of body movement), and pathology (the science of the causes and effects of diseases).

Naturopathic Medicine
The practice of naturopathic medicine or ‘naturopathy’ is centuries old. This alternative wellness system is built on the belief that the body can heal itself. It combines modern medical methods with a broad range of natural therapies to aid recovery, prevent illness, and boost overall health. Massage, herbs, exercise, nutritional counseling, and acupuncture all fall under the umbrella of naturopathy.

Physical Therapy
Physical therapy majors learn how to treat patients for whom movement has become strained or limited due to injury, illness, or aging.

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Skills You’ll Learn

In studying for their role within the healthcare system, acupuncture students develop certain transferable skills and learn how important they are in effectively treating clients:

The ability to listen and respond to clients’ questions and concerns is key to gaining their confidence and growing an acupuncture – or any other – practice.

Concentration, Focus, and Critical Thinking
Distraction in any kind of work lowers productivity. In the healthcare field, a lack of concentration and focus can lead to much more serious consequences. Acupuncture graduates, therefore, know that focused care is fundamental.

The ability to understand and relate to what clients are feeling and experiencing is a foundational skill that can be applied to many situations.

Acupuncture graduates know the value of being able to read body language and understanding cultural differences. They have learned that a healing environment starts with a positive therapist / client relationship.

What Can You Do with an Acupuncture Degree?

The specialized nature of acupuncture means that individuals who complete training in the procedure are generally employed directly in the field. Here are some of the environments in which they may work:

Health and Wellness Shared Practices / Centers for Integrated Medicine
In integrative healthcare clinics, acupuncturists work with other practitioners such as chiropractors, naturopaths, nutritionists, psychologists and psychiatrists, physical therapists, and massage therapists. This model allows patients to access care in a single location and various professionals to collaborate across multiple healthcare specialties. One example is the growing field of chiropractic acupuncture, which combines the two disciplines to focus on the body’s meridians in relation to the nervous and spinal systems.

As Western medicine increasingly embraces the power of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, hospitals are employing acupuncturists and expanding their integrative medicine programs. Acupuncture is proving to be particularly beneficial in the areas of anesthesia and post-surgery recovery.

Private Practice
As acupuncture enters the mainstream, opportunities to join an established acupuncture clinic or open a new practice are growing.

Acupuncture / TCM Schools
Acupuncturists with a doctoral degree in the discipline can pursue teaching jobs with acupuncture schools.

TCM Research
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health supports research training in acupuncture, and large healthcare organizations and medical research universities are funding studies such as pain management with acupuncture.

Some spas, particularly some on board cruise ships, are integrating acupuncture services into their business.


Find out what graduates typically earn.

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