The practice of acupuncture is one of the world’s earliest healing arts, dating back over 5000 years in China. Throughout history, this ancient modality has been used to treat health concerns ranging from generalized pain, back pain and arthritic pain to diabetes, anxiety and infertility to migraine headache and cancer. One question always remains for those new to acupuncture— does it hurt? Could acupuncture have stood the test of time if it caused pain?
Let’s take a look.
Acupuncture needles and techniques have come a long, long way since archeological findings of what are thought to be the first—crude, stone-like needles according to a historical account from the British Medical Journal (5). Luckily today, modern people can enjoy a therapeutic acupuncture treatment with the use of needles that are barely sensed when inserted into the skin. Most acupuncture needles are hair-thin and range between 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches long. Some needles are even coated with a special silicone layer to improve their ease of insertion into the skin.
Do Acupuncture Needles Compare To Hypodermic Needles?
If you are new to acupuncture, along with wondering if the actual needles will hurt once inserted, you likely possess a myriad of other questions about the treatment—how long will the needles remain in my body, how far into the skin will they go, how many needles will I have in me and so on.
It should be relieving to learn that acupuncture needles are nothing like thick, hypodermic needles. In fact, it has been estimated that 40 acupuncture needles are needed to make up the circumference of one hypodermic needle. One of the only similarities that they really share is that they are both needles and make contact with the skin. Unlike hypodermic needles that are hollow and filled with medication, acupuncture needles are solid and designed without the intention to cut-through the skin (6). They also do not dispense any type of medication.
What Is a Typical Acupuncture Treatment Like?
In a typical acupuncture session, the acupuncturist will invite you to relax on a comfortable bed-like medical table or in a chair. Before your treatment, the acupuncturist will discuss with you how long the needles will remain along the skin’s surface and the treatment principles they have developed for you. This is a great chance to ask the acupuncturist any questions you may have on your mind before your session.
Needles are inserted gently along the skin’s surface. With over 2000 acupuncture points identified along the skin’s surface over what are referred to as meridians, your acupuncturist develops a personalized acupuncture point prescription to address your health concerns. If you are visiting for a migraine headache treatment, you may be surprised to receive an acupuncture needle in your hand, or, perhaps even in your foot. Unlike western medical acupuncture that places needles directly at the site of concern, traditional treatments employ what are called distal methods meaning that an acupuncture point far from the actual site of the health concern may be needled.
“But does it hurt?” you are still wondering. As the acupuncture needles are inserted along the skin’s surface, most people report a dull, achy sensation rather than a painful sensation. Asian medicine refers to this as “da qi” or acquisition of the qi. This means the needle has achieved the purpose of activating the particular meridian pathway along which the needle has been placed.
Most people will report an activated or excited sensation absent from pain. Others report feeling nothing at all as the needles are inserted. While acupuncture needles do range in size, it is this more activated sensation that the majority reports sensing. In the rare event that pain is experienced, immediately report this to your acupuncturist so needles may be adjusted along the skin’s surface or removed altogether.
Some people will report a heightened achy sensation slightly above the description of dull. Because acupuncture needles activate immune and endocrine hormones and cells, a person’s response may be more intense than another’s (7). And, in many cases, this can be due to a nervous apprehension being experienced before the treatment takes place. When we are nervous, the body produces hormones called epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones may also activate an increased immunological cellular response causing us to feel nervous. In this preceding, more heightened state, any contact with the body may result in slight discomfort. It is often this preceding heightened state that induces an increased sensation of achiness if it were to occur, not the actual acupuncture needle (7).
If you are feeling a little nervous before your acupuncture treatment, please share this with your acupuncturist so they can answer all of your questions and help you relax before your treatment. Many people visit acupuncturists to help alleviate anxiety and are able to rest in a meditative state once the needles have been inserted.
Acupuncture Reduces Pain And Can Be Used As A Surgical Anesthetic
Acupuncture is one of the most popular non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive treatments for all types of pain. It has also been found to be an effective anesthetic for use during some surgical procedures. Because it has been shown to mediate neurotransmitter and vagal nerve responses responsible for mechanisms involved in how we experience and sense pain, the use of acupuncture to prevent pain and to block certain sensations during surgery has been effectively used.
Acupuncture Is A Safe Healing Treatment
If you are considering your first acupuncture treatment, think of it as a safe, evidence-based treatment that has been used so long throughout history, that modern people still seek it for effective treatment today. Remember to share all of your concerns with your acupuncturist before beginning your treatment and get ready to relax pain-free!
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