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Careers: Traditional Chinese Medicine

Yin-Yang symbolTraditional Chinese medicine(TCM) began thousands of years ago, continues strong in Asia and has taken root in the Western world. The central concepts are quite different from conventional medicine. For instance, according to Chinese medicine theory, each person has a limited amount of qi or vital energy. If Qi becomes depleted, stagnant or blocked ill health ensues. Another key concept is the importance of balancing the opposing forces of yin and yang. Too much or too little yin or yang also rocks the boat of wellbeing.

To restore yin-yang balance and the healthy flow of qi, TCM practitioners use a variety of treatment modalities. They may recommend dietary changes, they may stimulate meridians (energy channels) with acupuncture needles, moxibustion (the burning of cones or sticks of herbs, chiefly mugwort, near the skin), suction cups, and tui na (massage). They may prescribe herbal formulas, meditation and exercise. Mind-body exercises focus the mind, manipulate qi and improve strength, balance and agility. They include tai chi, a fluid martial art form, and qi gong which focuses on breathing and meditative movements.

That's TCM in a nutshell. Of course, Chinese medicine theory is much more complicated. Practitioners consider many other elements in evaluating and managing a person's health.


Traditional Chinese medicine is at least 5,000 years old. The first acupuncture needles were made of stone during – yes, you guessed it – the Stone Age. (Keep in mind these relatively blunt needles weren't used to pierce the skin, but rather to press against acupuncture points.) Primitive people likely also used spines, thorns and sharpened fragments of bone and bamboo. Later, these needles were made of pottery, bronze, iron, tin, gold and silver. Modern needles are very fine, usually made of stainless steel and well sterilized. In the U.S., acupuncturists typically use disposable needles. Insertion is practically painless, although a warm, tingling sensation often signifies accurate location of an acupuncture point.

The first text about Chinese medicine is the Huang Di Neijing (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine). Thought to have been written around 200 B.C.E., the text contains a record of conversations between the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) and his physician Qi Bo. The Neijing presented the idea that age, lifestyle and environmental factors influenced health rather than spirits and demons. It also set forth concepts of yin, yang, the five elements, acupuncture theory and herbal formulas.

Another famous and possibly mythical person important in the development of TCM is Shen Nong, also known as "The Divine Farmer." According to legend he lived 5,000 years ago, introduced his people to agriculture, developed herbal medicine and authored an herbal medicine text called the Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica.

Chinese medicine's philosophical roots spring from Taoism, an ancient Asian philosophy and religion that emphasize a positive relationship with nature, reverence for ancestors, peaceful detachment from desire, compassion, moderation and humility. During the 1950s in the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong systematized TCM and stripped its spiritual elements.

Today, TCM continues strong in Asia. In the summer of 2008, a group of ITP majors and one faculty member traveled to Xianyang, China, to study at a TCM University and observe in hospitals and clinics. White-coated TCM doctors practiced in hospitals alongside conventionally-trained doctors. Within the hospital, you might find special clinics for acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping and tui na (as well as clinics for pediatrics, OB-GYN, etc.). The pharmacies contained pharmaceutical medications, patented Chinese herbal formulas and bulk herbs blended according to a physician's prescription. Early in the morning, the parks were full of people practicing tai chi and qi gong.

Here in America, TCM has become more popular. Data from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey on complementary and alternative medicine show that use of TCM techniques such as acupuncture is on the rise in America. During the previous year 3.1 million adults had used acupuncture.

Education & Training

Students enrolled at MSU Denver can begin to explore the principles of traditional Chinese medicine by taking the following three-credit class:

HES 3310 Traditional Chinese Medicine. (Beginning the 2012-2013 academic year, this class will be called ITP 3500 Traditional Chinese Medicine.) As the catalog states, "This course provides the basis for understanding the mechanisms and principles by which traditional Chinese medicine is practiced. The students will explore different therapeutic modalities. Course content includes traditional Chinese philosophy as applied to treatment in acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage therapy, T'ai Chi and Qi-Gong." (Prerequisites: HES 2150)

If you decide you want to practice TCM, you need to complete in-depth study. Practitioners in the U.S. usually undergo a training program to receive a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine (M.S.O.M) or a Master of Acupuncture (M.S.Ac). The M.S.O.M program usually takes three to four years to complete. During that time, students learn acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, tui na (massage), Chinese herbal medicine, Chinese nutrition, meditation, movements (qi gong, tai chi) and more. Students graduating from accredited acupuncture programs, which take two to three years to complete, can become licensed acupuncturists but do not get significant training in Chinese herbal medicine.

Note: Streamlined programs are also available for licensed health-care practitioners.

Applicants need to have taken at least two years (minimum of 60 semester credits) of general education from an accredited college. Coursework in biology, anatomy and physiology are recommended.

Tuition varies, though the average cost for the three-year master's program is about $50,000. Financial aid may be available.

According to the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine there are three accredited schools in Colorado:

Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine
1441 York Street
Suite 202
Denver, CO 80206-2127
Phone: (303) 329-6355
Fax: (303) 388-8165
Email School

Institute of Taoist Education and Acupuncture
325 W. South Boulder Rd.
Suite 2
Louisville, CO 80027
Phone: (720) 890-8922
Fax: (720) 890-7719
Email Institute

Southwest Acupuncture College: Boulder Branch
6620 Gunpark Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: (303) 581-9955
Fax: (303) 581-9944
Email College

Additional Information

The Auraria Library has quite a few books on Chinese medicine. So does the Florence G. Strauss-Leonard A. Wisneski Indigenous and Integrative Medicine Collection at the Health Sciences Library at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. You can search for books from other libraries on Prospector and take them out on interlibrary loan.

Essentials of Chinese Medicine (a book available online through the Auraria Library)

Useful Web Sites

American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

American Chinese Medicine Association

Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (CCAOM)

Licensure & Average Income

In Colorado, acupuncturists must be licensed and certified. Applicants must pass a national licensing examination from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (no licensure exists for doctors of traditional Chinese medicine).

Many TCM practitioners set up private practices. Some lecture and write. Increasingly, conventional hospitals and clinics have practitioners of TCM.

According to, acupuncturists earn an average salary of $43,000 to $60,000 per year. The amount depends upon factors such as how long the practitioner has been in practice, the size of the patient base, the number of hours worked, etc.

Author Information

Linda B. White, M.D. is a freelance writer, the coauthor of The Herbal Drugstore and Kids, Herbs & Health and is a visiting assistant professor in the Integrative Therapeutic Practices Program at MSU Denver.



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