Does acupuncture hurt?
A common assumption about acupuncture is that it hurts. However, the needles used for acupuncture are much, much smaller than hypodermic needles used for shots. An acupuncture needle can be as thin as a human hair! While hypodermic needles are typically 18 guage, acupuncture needles are usually 34-40 guage. This means that while you might feel some sensation, there typically isn’t any pain.
What are the sensations I might feel?
Acupuncture produces different sensations in the body by accessing the energy or Qi in the meridians or channels. When a person feels an acupuncture point working, this is known as de qi. When de qi is felt, it means that the acupuncture needle has accessed the energetic material that it needs to produce movement throughout the body and unblock the meridians or channels. When the point is activated, change is initiated.
When placing the acupuncture needle, I always communicate with my patients about the sensation they are feeling. Sometimes a tiny prick is felt, like a mosquito bite, but often, nothing is felt with insertion. Once the needle has been inserted, I slowly increase the depth depending on where the point is located. Some points can be needled more deeply than others. As the needle goes in, you might feel a few different sensations of de qi. All of these sensations are normal and indicate that the points have been activated.
Here are the most common:
Heavy – Having an acupuncture point needled can feel like a weight is being placed on the area. Sometimes this feeling of heaviness expands, spreading throughout the body part where the needle was places. This heaviness is very calming and relaxing.
Achy – Sometimes the needle elicits an achy sensation at the acupuncture point. It usually dissipates after a few seconds, but occasionally a point will ache or even throb slightly throughout the treatment. If this feeling is uncomfortable, I encourage my patients to communicate that with me and I’ll make slight adjustments to reduce the sensation to a level of comfort.
Electric – The needling of certain acupuncture points can feel almost like you’re being shocked or zapped. It is usually a surprising jolt that travels down an arm or leg, but disappears quickly. Don’t be alarmed by this! It occasionally happens on specific points located near the nerves. As a trained acupuncturist I am aware of the anatomical location of all of these points in relation to the nerves, and needle these points with specific care. One of the most common points for causing this sensation is on the inside of the forearm since the median nerve runs directly beneath it.
Tingly – Sometimes people feel tingling at the needling site as well as throughout the body. This can happen immediately on insertion, or can happen gradually as you’re resting with the needles in.
Warmth – A spreading sensation of warmth sometimes surrounds the area around an acupuncture point. This typically occurs a minute or two after the needle is inserted. It is a pleasant feeling and helps to feel calm and relaxed.
What will happen during my initial visit?
The initial visit is typically 90 minutes. During the initial exam a full health history is taken. Questions will be asked regarding your chief complaint, symptoms, health and lifestyle, including diet, exercise and emotional and physical stress. I will then do a brief physical exam which includes taking your pulse, looking at your tongue, and doing abdominal palpation. I then organize this information to create a specific diagnosis for you regarding where Qi is blocked or imbalanced. Then I’ll insert acupuncture needles specifically for your diagnosis. After removing the needles, I might prescribe an herbal formula and make diet and lifestyle recommendations, depending on your particular presentation.
Why feel my pulse?
There are twelve pulse positions on each wrist that your acupuncturist will palpate. Each position corresponds to a specific meridian and organ. The quality in your pulse reflects your overall health and is a diagnostic tool to determine your specific diagnosis.
Why look at my tongue?
The tongue is a map of the body. It reflects the general health of the organs and meridians. The color, shape, coating, and overall complexion of the tongue provide information about your specific diagnostic pattern.
How many treatments will I need?
Treatment frequency and number of treatments needed depend on a variety of factors: your constitution, the severity and duration of the problem, and the quality and quantity or your Qi. Some people experience immediate results; others may take months to achieve results. Chronic conditions usually take a bit longer to resolve than acute ones. Some people require once a week treatments, while others benefit more from twice a week treatments. Often once a condition is resolved, patients return once a month for “maintenance” or “tune up” treatments.
How should I prepare for my first visit?
- Bring any questions you might have about your condition and/or about your treatment
- Wear loose and comfortable clothing for easy access to acupuncture points
- Be sure to eat something an hour or so before your treatment, but don’t eat a large meal just before treatment.
- Refrain from overexertion, working out, drugs, or alcohol just prior to, and for up to 4 hours after your visit.
- Between visits make note of any changes that may have occurred, such as the alleviation of pain, pain moving to other areas, or changes in the frequency or type of symptoms.
How does acupuncture work?
In a nut shell, acupuncture has 3 primary effects: it relieves pain, reduces inflammation and restores homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to regulate its environment and maintain internal balance. All diseases involve a disturbance of homeostasis, and nearly all diseases involve some degree of pain and inflammation. Acupuncture effects every major system of the body, including the cardiac, gastrointestinal, circulatory, cerebral, genitourinary, endocrine and immune systems.
Here are some biomedical explanations for how acupuncture works:
- Acupuncture promotes blood flow. This is significant because everything the body needs to heal is in the blood, including oxygen, nutrients we absorb from food, immune substances, hormones, analgesics (painkillers) and anti-inflammatory substances. Restoring proper blood flow is vital to promoting and maintaining health. For example if blood flow is diminished by as little as 3% in the breast area cancer may develop. Blood flow decreases as we age and can be impacted by trauma, injuries and certain diseases. Acupuncture has been shown to increase blood flow and vasodilation in several regions of the body.
- Acupuncture stimulates the body’s built-in healing mechanisms. Acupuncture creates “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s ability to spontaneously heal injuries to the tissue through nervous, immune and endocrine system activation. As the body heals the micro traumas induced by acupuncture, it also heals any surrounding tissue damage left over from old injuries.
- Acupuncture releases natural painkillers. Inserting a needle sends a signal through the nervous system to the brain, where chemicals such as endorphins, norepinephrine and enkephalin are released. Some of these substances are 10-200 times more potent than morphine!
- Acupuncture reduces both the intensity and perception of chronic pain. It does this through a process called “descending control normalization”, which involves the serotonergic nervous system.
- Acupuncture relaxes shortened muscles. This in turn releases pressure on joint structures and nerves, and promotes blood flow.
- Acupuncture reduces stress. This is perhaps the most important systemic effect of acupuncture. Recent research suggests that acupuncture stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone and signaling substance that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system. You’ve probably heard of the “fight-or-flight” response that is governed by the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system has been called the “rest-and-digest” or “calm-and-connect” system, and in many ways is the opposite of the sympathetic system.
Does my insurance cover acupuncture?
I don’t accept insurance at this time; however I can provide you with a Super Bill to turn into your insurance carrier if they cover acupuncture. To find out if you’re covered for acupuncture, contact your insurance provider directly to learn what kind of care is covered. Here are some questions to ask:
- Will my plan cover acupuncture?
- How many visits per calendar year?
- Do I need a referral?
- Do I have a co-pay?
- Do I have a deductible? If yes, has it been met?