In my experience working with patients and even just talking to people who are giving the slightest bit of consideration to dipping their toes in the acupuncture waters, I’ve encountered a lot of similar questions, so I’ve compiled them here along with my input in one handy, choose-your-own-adventure resource.
Q: What is acupuncture?
A: Acupuncture is one of eight branches of Chinese Medicine, along with nutrition, herbal medicine, body work, qi gong, meditation, and a few other wellness-optimizing treats. It is a practice that involves the insertion of flexible hair-thin needles at designated acupuncture points throughout the body to restore homeostasis across multiple systems (endocrine, nervous, immune, digestive, etc).
Q: Hmm, seems dubious….how does it work?
A: There are several mechanisms by which acupuncture exerts its effects; I could write a book on this topic alone but aside from being an antidote to insomnia, it wouldn’t do much good here. To summarize, the insertion of an acupuncture needle into the skin is perceived by the body as a microinjury, and the body responds by mounting an immune response, essentially inviting all sorts of immune mediators to come party at the needle site, encouraging blood circulation and the accumulation of encephalin and endorphin, two pain-relieving substances that make us feel all warm and fuzzy. Acupuncture also modulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) to affect the stress response, and regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system to influence the production of hormones, neurotransmitters, and the organ functions they target.
Q: Ok cool but….does it hurt?
A: No, acupuncture does not hurt. You might feel the needles when they’re inserted, but they are so tiny and are inserted so shallowly that the sensation is minimal and not at all unpleasant. You might notice a feeling of heaviness, buzziness (think circulation), or even a dull ache near the needle – this is a good thing and a sign that we’re getting some communication going on under the hood, which is exactly what we want.
Q: Noted…soooo, how big are the acupuncture needles?
A: I can’t speak for all acupuncturists, but I primarily practice Japanese style acupuncture, which takes a minimalist approach to treatment – this means I use the thinnest of needles, fewer needles within a given treatment, and shallower insertion. I haven’t tested this myself, but I’ve been told that 35-40 acupuncture needles can fit in a standard 18 gauge hypodermic needle so it’s safe to say that acupuncture needles are quite tiny.
Q: Do I have to have a medical issue in order to benefit from acupuncture?
A: Not at all! In fact, a lot of people receive acupuncture as a preventative treatment to bolster the immune system before cold and flu season, or in the case of perennial allergy suffers, in anticipation of the inescapably pollen-drenched spring and summer months. Others may seek acupuncture for general wellness, simply because it feels good and helps them to feel balanced functionally, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Q: What kinds of conditions benefit from acupuncture?
A: Acupuncture is particularly helpful for pain conditions, ranging from musculoskeletal issues, to headache and migraine pain, to visceral-abdominal pain, to pain of the ladies’ monthly persuasion, and more. Because of its capacity to regulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system as well as the HPA axis, acupuncture is wonderful for quieting the stress response and restoring the bodily functions it can impair, aka digestion, elimination, detoxification, reproductive function, mood, memory, cognition, insomnia, and fatigue.
Q: I’m a hot mess. Will acupuncture fix me?
A: That depends. Are you willing to take an active role in bettering your health? If so, then acupuncture will have a palpable effect and will support and facilitate what you’re doing on your end to improve whatever condition drove you to seek acupuncture in the first place. On the other hand, if you get an acupuncture treatment once a week but continue to be a frequent flyer of the McDonald’s drive-thru, regularly choose the couch over exercise, and neglect to find a productive outlet for stress, acupuncture will only take you so far. I often prescribe simple steps patients can take to optimize their health in their own time, whether that be in the form of dietary shifts (which can be baby steps or seismic leaps, depending on the patient’s level of interest and willingness), breathing exercises that can be done in the car, or passive yoga postures to be done before bed, and many have found such behaviors to be immensely helpful in improving energy, rest, pain, function, and mood.
Q: Is there anything acupuncture doesn’t do?!
A: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe acupuncture can help on many, many fronts, however that doesn’t mean that it is categorically THE optimal choice for everyone and every situation. Certain structural imbalances may be better served by chiropractic care, some chronic conditions may require a longer treatment course in order to yield results, while other situations may be more better-served by a palliative rather than curative approach.
Q: What can I expect if I come see you for acupuncture?
A: The Chinese medicine diagnostic process typically takes into account the following factors: asking, observing, and palpation.
You can expect to start your initial appointment with a conversation about your treatment objectives, health history, and past and present lifestyle habits. Then it’s treatment time! I’ll have you hop onto the cozy, heated treatment table and I’ll feel your pulse and palpate some areas on your abdomen and possibly areas affected by pain and injury to inform my needle selection. I typically needle a handful of points and then skedaddle for 10-15 mins to let you rest; I’ll come back in, check the pulse, re-palpate to see if painful areas have resolved, and possibly needle additional points and/or apply adjunctive treatments such as cupping, gua sha, or moxa.
We acupuncturists tend to take pride in our craft and are often influenced by varying styles and theories, therefore, what you’d experience with me might be markedly different from what you might experience with another acupuncturist, just as you’d expect with any healthcare practitioner. Any acupuncturist worth their salt will want to engage in a conversation about your health objectives and history, and lifestyle habits, and will manage expectations for treatment prognosis (at least a rough estimate of how many treatments you should anticipate having in order to see x,y, or z results, and ideally, some simple self-care habits you can readily incorporate into your day-to-day).