Sticking needles into your skin might not sound like a good way to feel better. But that’s exactly how acupuncture works. In fact, the traditional Chinese practice has been used for centuries to treat all sorts of health conditions — and it’s still very common.
Brian Linh Nguyen, MD, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine, answers some common questions about how acupuncture works and what you can expect.
Q: What is acupuncture?
A: Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that’s been around for about 2,500 years. It’s used to help heal illness and improve well-being. This is done by placing needles into specific points on the skin to help activate an energy in the body, called qi (pronounced chee). According to traditional Chinese medicine, qi is the lifeforce energy in the body — it helps regulate and move things in the body to keep us well.
Stress, environmental factors, lifestyle behaviors, and genetics are some of the things that can block qi in the body. Acupuncturists use needles to unblock or move qi to other areas in the body to help you heal.
Q: What does acupuncture treat?
A: In China, acupuncture is used to treat everything. It’s not thought of as an alternative medicine. For most people there, it’s just a common part of their medical care. For example, in China, acupuncture is often used as a complementary treatment for all sorts of health conditions, everything from asthma to diabetes.
In the West, however, acupuncture is more commonly used as part of a care plan for conditions like chronic low back pain or joint pain. It’s also used to treat gastrointestinal issues (like nausea and vomiting) if medically necessary.
Q: What can you expect during an acupuncture session?
A: The acupuncturist will ask about your medical history and symptoms. They’ll also do an exam — similar to what you’d experience in a doctor visit. In addition, they may look at your tongue. This is a way for them to find any imbalances in your body.
Based on the exam, they’ll select the appropriate points to insert needles. They’ll typically treat what’s bothering you, plus any other underlying conditions that may be connected.
You’ll lie down or sit on a table, and the acupuncturist will put needles into various points on your body, called meridians. These are energy channels in the body. Through thousands of years of learning, traditional Chinese medicine has compiled very complete and complex systems of meridians. The acupuncturist puts needles into those meridians to help regulate and move the body back to homeostasis, or wellness.
Typically, sessions may go for 20 to 30 minutes depending on your treatment. The acupuncturist will usually dim the lights and put on quiet music to help you relax. They’ll come in and check on you throughout your session to make sure you’re comfortable. Some patients actually fall asleep during the treatment.
Q: How do you feel after acupuncture?
A: People usually feel very relaxed afterward. Some feel more energy. You shouldn’t be in more pain or more anxious.
Q: What kind of needles are used for acupuncture?
A: When most people think of needles, they think of ones that are used for vaccines or drawing blood. These hollow needles have to puncture the skin — and can be painful. But these hollow needles aren’t used for acupuncture.
Acupuncture needles are solid, stainless steel needles that are usually not much larger than a strand of hair. Acupuncture needles go between tissues, making them less painful.
Q: Does acupuncture hurt?
A: You might be more sensitive in certain areas, but it shouldn’t hurt. Acupuncture needles are usually not painful on areas of thicker skin and muscles. For example, your belly and back are less sensitive. Certain points like your hands and feet might be more sensitive.
If you feel pain, tell your acupuncturist. They’ll adjust the needles or choose other points. Their goal is not to make you feel pain. They do a lot of work to position you properly and make sure you feel comfortable.
Q: Do you have any tips for finding an acupuncturist?
A: Look for a licensed acupuncturist. For example, in California you have to go through an extensive education program, followed by a state board licensing exam. And to maintain your license, you must do ongoing continuing education. So, make sure you choose someone who is licensed. Other than that, approach it the same way you would try to choose any other type of doctor — ask friends and family, and look at reviews.
Q: Wondering if acupuncture is right for you?
A: Acupuncture is a good option for anyone who wants to complement their regular care plan with another treatment method. Acupuncture can help improve your overall well-being, much like yoga, meditation, stretching, and massage therapy. Talk to your doctor about it — they can help you decide if acupuncture is right for you.