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A major concept of traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which originated at least 2500 years ago, is that a vital energy - or life force - called qi circulates throughout the body via a system of 12 meridians. Imbalances or disharmony in the flow of qi is believed to cause illness. TCM includes herbal medicine, moxibustion, tui na (massage), dietary therapy, tai chi and qi gong, and acupuncture.

The earliest recorded documentation of acupuncture procedures is The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine; dating from 100BC, this is the oldest, continually used medical textbook, and it included detailed knowledge regarding the concepts of meridians. Acupuncture helps correct the flow of qi and restore the body to balance: the practitioner inserts the fine surgical stainless-steel needles into the body at specific points along the meridians, depending on the condition. To enhance the needles’ effects, the practitioner may manipulate them by twirling them, add electrical stimulation, or use moxibustion – smouldering herbs – above the needles.

One of the most accepted complementary therapies in Australia, which is the only country in the world with mandatory statutory registration (through AHPRA) for practitioners, TCM is gaining acceptance in Western mainstream medicine, with GPs often referring patients to acupuncturists. Acupuncture is particularly beneficial for relieving pain, with research suggesting it achieves this by releasing endorphins. A 2017 study, from Indiana University, showed how electroacupuncture triggers a neurological mechanism that promotes tissue repair and relieves injury-induced pain. These findings provide the most comprehensive picture to date on how electroacupuncture stimulates the brain to release stem cells, and insights regarding the cells' healing properties. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, TCM can help many conditions.

Getting started

“The minimum qualification required is a four-year Bachelor degree,” says Waveny Holland, Board President, Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association (AACMA) (www.acupuncture.org.au). Examples include: Bachelor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UWS); Bachelor of Health Science (Acupuncture) (Endeavour); Bachelor of Health Science (Chinese Medicine) (SSNT). “Often students are keen to get into the study of TCM subjects, but other subjects such as biochemistry, pathology and clinical science, which appear to have no connection to Chinese medicine, are a necessary part of the course,” adds Waveny. “These are worth knowing about, because once you graduate, you’ll be practising in a Western society and they’ll help when your patients talk about their illness in Western-medicine terms.

For students to get maximum value from their education, Waveny advises: “No question is too silly/stupid to ask, so don’t hesitate to request clarification or more information. Attend lectures and experience as much as possible by observing at clinics. Join AACMA as a student member: membership is free. This will also give access to continuing professional development, a requirement for registered practitioners, and open up networking opportunities. Business start-up, and establishing and managing a practice are course subjects, and AACMA is the only professional association for Chinese medicine practitioners with a purpose-built mentoring program to help new practitioners get started in practice. Qualities that make a good Chinese medicine practitioner include being a good listener and communicator, knowledgeable and skilled in your discipline, and prepared for further study to improve and enhance your knowledge. And you need to care.”