What is Acupuncture Like?

“Ooh, what’s it like?” This is the question I often get once someone finds out that I’m an acupuncturist. Their question is full of curiosity as well as hesitation. Many people find acupuncture mysterious, foreign and often assume untrue things about it. Today I thought I would shed light onto what an acupuncture treatment is really like, and why people who are “needle phobic” even end up so relaxed during the treatment that they take a nap.

THE INTAKE

Acupuncture is only one branch of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The basic principle of TCM is that the mind and body are integrated into one large interconnected network, like an ecosystem, not just parts and pieces working independently. This holistic philosophy can be seen immediately with comprehensive intake forms that cover every aspect of your physical, mental and emotional state.

As an acupuncturist, I want to understand not just your present state, but also how you got there. In addition to the health history information you and I will discuss, I will also check your pulse on both wrists and look at your tongue. These are two diagnostic tools that add to the overall picture. What am I looking for on your tongue? Color and shape of the tongue body, moisture level, and presence, absence, thickness and color of the tongue coat. With a holistic view, all of this information and seemingly unrelated symptoms help to show where the pattern of imbalance is in your body. Acupuncture treatments are then targeted to your underlying root condition.

Think of your body as an ecosystem. One example could be the absence of wolves in Olympic National Park that led to an increase in elk population, who overate shrubs and trees. The decrease in trees caused severe erosion and changed the nature of the rivers, which in turn affected “everything from the salmon to song birds.” To help the song birds, ecologists need to go to the root cause: the wolves. This explains why when someone comes in for treatment of migraines, they might also find that the occasional insomnia they were suffering from or irritability when stressed also subsided. Acupuncturists use your symptoms and information from your tongue and pulse to work toward deciphering your root condition.

THE TREATMENT

Most acupuncture treatments take place lying on a comfortable massage table or reclining in a chair. Your acupuncturist will need to access various parts of your body and limbs, so it’s a good idea to wear loose-fitting clothing. The points treated depend on what you are being treated for, and the underlying pattern of imbalance.

Everyone’s favorite question is, “Does it hurt?” Often when people hear the word “needle,” the first thought that comes to mind is a memory of getting blood drawn or receiving a shot. Those types of needles are hypodermic needles, also known as syringes, and yes, they hurt. However, acupuncture needles are very thin, about the width of a hair.

Although the needles don’t hurt, you might experience some mild or strange sensations. For example, some people will feel a heaviness or ache around a point, or a warmth or coolness, possibly a buzzing or movement sensation. Sometimes other points that are not needled will have a sensation. All of these feelings are normal; it is also normal not to feel anything during acupuncture. You are more likely to be aware of the needles if you move, so it is better to lie still and relax.

During your treatment, while the needles are in, it is the perfect opportunity to take time out of your busy day to actually allow yourself to relax. Take a nap. Believe it or not, even high-anxiety and needle-phobic patients fall asleep. This is possible because acupuncture stimulates the release of endorphins and serotonin, your natural feel-good chemicals, moving you away from the fight-or-flight mode into rest-and-digest. Several patients have told me that they didn’t believe me when I said they would relax enough to take a nap. Another patient compared the treatment to an hour-long savasana or corpse pose, yoga’s final resting pose.

If you’ve never experienced acupuncture, there is no better time than the present to invest in a healthier, happier life.

Originally published in Nature's Pathways on September 1, 2014.