Exploring Acupuncture

Acupuncture is one piece of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a system thousands of years old that can be used to address both physiological and psychological concerns. TCM includes such ideas as Yin and Yang, criteria used for diagnosis and treatment as well as for shifting one’s outlook to prioritize balance and to learn to accept change. You may have also heard of Qi, energy that powers our physical and emotional functionality. On the Western side, organizations including NIH and the WHO1 have recommended acupuncture for treating various pain conditions. Here are a few common questions about acupuncture.

What can I expect at my first acupuncture treatment?

A review of your medical history, both physical and emotional. Acupuncturists may ask an unusual series of questions, including the time of day in which you feel most alert, which weather you prefer, the quality of your sleep and trips to the bathroom, and your reproductive history. A practitioner may also ask about your goals, interests, and perspective on your own health. You may also discuss your range of motion, pain scale, and what makes the pain better or worse. Lastly, practitioners may ask to see your tongue, palpate pulses on your inner wrists, or apply light pressure to a tight muscle band to identify the most constrained spot.

What is an acupuncture needle?

A sterilized, single-use, solid, stainless steel needle about as thick as a human hair. Acupuncture needles are classified as medical devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA).

Do I have to use needles to try acupuncture? 

No. Practitioners can apply manual pressure, tuning forks, and essential oils (among other techniques) to acupuncture points with a goal of specific clinical results.

What will I feel during an acupuncture treatment?

It varies. You may feel a temporary sensation known as de qi (the arrival of the Qi), which can resemble warmth, tingling, heaviness, or a dull ache around the acupuncture needle. Some patients feel warmth travel between acupuncture points along a meridian. Meanwhile, your own aches or pains may diminish due to an increased production of neurological transmitters, a well-documented side effect of acupuncture

Will the needles go where I feel the pain? 

They can, but it may not be necessary. Hundreds of acupuncture points form constellations called meridians which cover the body. Like a bowling ball sent down the lane, an acupuncture point can impact the functionality of any organ along the meridian, including the skin. Acupuncture points can also address specific emotions; for example, an acupuncturist may treat the foot to help calm the mind.

Will I get the same treatment each time?

This cannot be predicted. An acupuncture treatment is based both on your medical history and your condition at the time of treatment. Moreover, acupuncturists may manipulate needles for specific therapeutic goals, from rotating the needles in a certain direction to removing them as one exhales. Acupuncturists may also incorporate styles or protocols associated with different countries, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. See a short list of additional acupuncture styles below. 

Do I have to believe in acupuncture for it to work?

No. Research has found that acupuncture points activate specific regions of the brain and provide quantifiable benefits for various health conditions. However, any of your beliefs or choices could potentially affect a clinical outcome, from choosing a healthcare provider to your nutrition, exercise, rest and sleep, relationships, and work-life balance. Proactively supporting your own health and healing can support the effects of any therapy.

What about these terms I keep hearing, like Yin, Yang, Wood, or Fire?

Yin and Yang are diagnostic criteria used to assess parts of the body, pain patterns, emotions, time of day and weather, and more. When acupuncturists view your tongue and check your pulses, they are evaluating your Yin and Yang, as well as your Five Elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. Like Yin and Yang, the Five Elements are diagnostic criteria that include the mind and body. With or without an external therapy, Yin and Yang and the Five Elements will constantly change in response to lifestyle choices and life events.

How many treatments will I need?

Typically, chronic concerns take longer to show signs of change than acute (sudden onset) conditions. Session length can vary, from a half-hour to longer, depending on the treatment context.


Acupuncture variations of which you may have heard:

Trigger point needling: An idea coined by American physician Dr. Janet Travell in the early 1940s, “trigger points” are extremely tight, tender bands of muscle or fascia which can limit range of motion and refer pain in specific patterns. Defusing the trigger point can improve comfort and mobility.

Dry needling: Inserting acupuncture needles or empty hypodermic needles into trigger points to loosen muscles and skin, improve range of motion, and reduce pain patterns. 

Auricular acupuncture: Codified by French physician Dr. Paul Nogier in the 1950s, this system of ear-based acupuncture expands on Traditional Chinese Medicine with additional acupuncture points.

NADA protocol: The National Association of Detox Acupuncturists is a nonprofit organization that began in the 1970s as a project of Lincoln Hospital in New York City. NADA’s five-needle ear protocol for chemical dependency is taught and used nation-wide. 

Electroacupuncture: Attaching acupuncture needles to electrodes, to reduce tendino-muscular constriction, improve circulation, and increase the clinical function of acupuncture points. 

Moxibustion: Moxa (mugwort) is an herb that can be burned on or near acupuncture needles or near the skin itself to increase the clinical function of acupuncture points.