One of the most beautiful and most frustrating things about the natural medicine world is that no two practitioners are alike.

It’s wonderful to find a practitioner with whom you develop a deep bond; in fact, it’s essential to the healing process. They understand you as an individual and tailor their care to meet your needs. Likewise, you’re drawn to their unique practice style and appreciate the particular modalities they use.

It can be devastating if that practitioner decides to move or retire, and it can be frustrating to find another whose style is similar.

In order to find someone with a comparable skill set, it’s important to know a few specifics about the types of treatment you received. In this post, I’ll cover a the differences in the most common types of acupuncture practiced in the United States.

That’s right, not all acupuncture is alike. There are many cultures (China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, etc.) with healing traditions that include needling certain points on the body.

The most common form of acupuncture practiced in the United States is called Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM.

Contrary to its name, it is NOT the most traditional form of Chinese medicine, but it is the most well known. When you visit an acupuncturist in the United States, they have most likely been trained in TCM. I received training in TCM and Five Element acupuncture, which is another part of the Chinese acupuncture system, so I’ll mainly discuss the differences between these two systems.

Five Element acupuncture, in its current form, is not traditional either. True Chinese medicine, or what’s now called Classical Chinese medicine, existed before Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution that took place in the 1970s.

He effectively split Chinese medicine into two systems: TCM for a more “scientifically quantifiable acupuncture” that’s more physically based, and the rest became 5 Element acupuncture, which is more mentally, emotionally, and spiritually based.

Pre-1970s Chinese medicine, or the stuff that had been around for thousands of years, is a beautifully complex, deep, and comprehensive system.

It addressed physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual issues, and many acupuncture points have these layered purposes.

There were two types of diagnoses given: constitutional, or root issues, and acute/chronic conditions, also known as branch issues.

Constitutional diagnosis and treatment helps to balance who you are at a core level and is often more mentally/emotionally/spiritually focused. It addresses the deepest part of your issue, or the root cause of what’s happening.

Acute or chronic diagnoses specify which organs or meridians are out of balance in terms of an illness, like a cold or back pain. These diagnoses and treatments tend to address the physical plane.

All ailments have physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual components.

Back pain is a great example. We think about the physical sensation created by the tightness in our muscles or connective tissue. But that pain also causes stress, and stress is emotional.

Without addressing the emotional aspect, acute back pain can become a chronic problem that never heals or that will continue to recur.

Fibromyalgia, a condition in which there is widespread pain throughout the body, typically comes on after a major emotionally traumatic event. If emotions are not processed properly, they stay in the body and manifest on a physical level.

Those who developed Chinese medicine thousands of years ago understood these profound connections and designed a system that addressed all levels of health.

The levels of health are interconnected and related; we cannot parse them out to address only the physical or only the emotional.

Traditional Chinese Medicine attempts just that, as its strength is in addressing physical issues. It’s very useful for those acute and chronic conditions that don’t have much to do with who you are a person and it’s an effective basis for Chinese herbal medicine.

But many times TCM is a symptomatic treatment in the acupuncture world. Back pain? Great! Menstrual cramps? Great! TCM will oftentimes abate or resolve these symptoms.

However, if there is a constitutional imbalance, which there almost always is, TCM will not address it. Symptoms will resolve for a bit, but will return if constitution is not treated.

In contrast, Five Element acupuncture treats people on a constitutional level.

By addressing the root imbalance, the whole body can begin to heal itself. After treatment you feel more like yourself, you are thrown off less by the stresses of life, and illness comes and goes more easily.

Being balanced on a constitutional level decreases your likelihood of developing acute or chronically recurring conditions, and it can also resolve them for a longer duration.

Five Element acupuncture is a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually based medicine. It’s downfall is in treating the physical conditions that pop up. If you are acutely ill or in pain, a constitutional treatment can help, but it sure would be nice to add in some points or treatment protocols that address the physical level as well.

In terms of needling technique, TCM is generally the most aggressive.

Because it is a physically based system, practitioners typically want you to feel the point, especially if they are working on tight muscles or connective tissue.

More aggressive needling can be helpful, but it can also be more intense and painful, depending on your practitioner.

Five Element acupuncture, on the other hand, is usually quite gentle.

In my practice I use a combination of TCM and Five Element techniques.

My goal is to address illness on all levels and create lasting health for my patients.

I attended a TCM based school and met a few practitioners who used both systems TCM and Five Element acupuncture concurrently. I saw markedly better and lasting results in their patients.

When I learned that these two systems of acupuncture weren’t separated until 50 years ago, I knew I had to integrate them both into my practice and I added Five Element training to my schooling. I wanted to practice in the way that had helped people heal for thousands of years.

Knowing the type of acupuncture you receive is important.

Unfortunately, there is a significant rift between TCM and Five Element acupuncturists, each dead set that their system is the best.

There are practitioners who integrate techniques or who were trained in Classical Chinese medicine, but they are not the majority.

I sincerely hope more acupuncturists embrace both systems, as together they form true Chinese medicine and provide the best care for patients.

If you’re interested in learning more about the 5 elements…

Check out my blog posts:

What are the 5 Elements and Why Do They Matter?

The Importance of Constitution in 5 Element Acupuncture

Integrating the 5 Elements into Your TCM Practice

3 Reasons Why Balancing the 5 Elements Improves Patient Outcomes

Why You Need to Know Your Own Elements as a Practitioner

Diagnosing Level in 5 Element Acupuncture

What is Constitutional Medicine?

You can also join the waitlist for my 5 element courses. I currently run a mentorship for acupuncture practitioners and will soon add courses for other professionals and non-professionals.