Many people have questions about acupuncture—what it feels like, how it works, and what to expect in a treatment. Below are answers to some of these general questions. First of all, it is important to acknowledge that almost everyone responds differently to acupuncture. It is also important to acknowledge that every practitioner of acupuncture is slightly different. Acupuncture has been practiced as a form of medicine for over 2500 years, and throughout this time different perspectives, theories, and techniques have developed. Each perspective has validity at the appropriate time and place; they can be likened to lenses through which we can view the patient and their primary imbalances. Acupuncture is like any other medical practice—the hands that practice it inherently influence the way in which it is practiced, as well as the results.
What does it feel like? Some individuals have fear or anxiety when they think of having needles inserted in their body. This is often due to associations created when they had shots and vaccinations as young children. In these procedures, larger, hollow-tip needles are used which can sometimes cause pain, especially in young children that are much more sensitive than adults. Acupuncture needles are quite different, because they are not hollow-tipped, and can be as thin as a human hair. There are many different sensations that can be experienced when the needles are inserted and adjusted. You may feel a warmth, a distending or full sensation, a “zing” that comes and goes, a spreading sensation, or an ache. All of these are considered to be therapeutic sensations, indicating that the points and channels are active and your body is starting to shift. However, if it is ever too strong, sharp, or uncomfortable, then it is important to let your practitioner know, even if it is one of the therapeutic sensations. At our acupuncture clinic in Boulder, CO, we think it is extremely important that you are able to relax as completely as possible during the treatment. The more you are able to relax, the more effective the acupuncture treatment can be. Therefore, if you experience anything that brings lasting tension into your body, this is too strong of stimulation, even if you can “bear it”, and it is important to say something. This communication between patient and practitioner is vital in any healing relationship.
How it “works” To understand how acupuncture functions to assist each individual in healing, it is important to examine some of the fundamental theories and philosophies that are the basis of Chinese medicine. A lot of this is metaphorical, providing a beautiful way in which to visualize humanity and our place in the cosmos. To the ancient Chinese, humans are seen as the Middle Kingdom, located between Heaven above and Earth below. In this view qi, or energy, flows down from Heaven and into the Earth, as well as flowing up from Earth to Heaven. Everything that exists at the level of humanity, including humans themselves, are therefore seen as conduits for this energetic flow between Heaven and Earth. In one of the earliest texts on acupuncture and Oriental medicine, it says that “Happiness is when the Qi flows freely through the body.” This may be interpreted as meaning that as long as this flow between Heaven and Earth is smooth, we have a nearly unlimited capacity to heal, to be healthy and happy, and to live fulfilled lives full of awareness. When the qi flows freely through the body, there are no blockages and one feels relaxed and present. At our acupuncture clinic in Boulder, CO, we diagnose which meridians and organs may have potential blockages and then use acupuncture to help those meridians and organs return to their natural state of energy flow. For this reason, many people find acupuncture to be extremely relaxing; many patients even fall asleep during acupuncture sessions. This is often an excellent sign, for when a person reaches the state between sleeping and waking, there is a systemic relaxation that occurs, thus allowing the needles to be even more effective. If you are still extremely relaxed or even “spacey” after the treatment, it is a good idea to sit for a few minutes and simply be present with what you are experiencing. Other times people will feel extremely energized and awake after a treatment, which is also great. If this is the case be careful not to push yourself too much—especially if you were treated for any form of physical pain or injury. It is very easy to overdo-it and re-injure the affected body part within the first 24 hours of treatment if you push yourself too hard.
Pulse and Tongue Diagnosis When you come in for a session at our acupuncture clinic in Boulder, CO, we will ask to see your tongue and to feel your pulse. The pulse and tongue are both commonly used diagnostic methods within Oriental medicine. Both are seen as “microcosms”, or small reflections of your entire body. Thus they can be used to assess the state of your internal organs and meridians, as well as the overall flow of qi and blood throughout your body. For example, redness in an area of the tongue usually corresponds to heat in that organ. Thus, if the tip of the tongue (which corresponds to the Heart) is slightly redder than the rest of the tongue, this would likely indicate heat in the Heart, and may indicate sleep issues, anxiety, or heart palpitations, all of which might be related to manifestations of heat in the Heart from the Chinese medicine perspective. When feeling the pulse, we are primarily feeling for three different positions along the radial artery at each wrist. We are not examining only the pulse rate (beats per minute), although that is also taken into consideration. Instead we are primarily feeling for the quality of the blood as it flows through the vessels, as well as the texture and shape of the blood vessels themselves. All of these factors convey different information, not only about the state of the circulatory system but also the state of the internal organs and acupuncture meridians.
Questioning Besides examining the tongue and pulse, your practitioner will also ask many questions relating to all aspects of your health, many of which may seem completely unrelated to the primary issue for which you are coming into the clinic. These questions serve as a means to gauge the overall state of health, as well as to further understand the underlying causes for any presenting illness or imbalance. For example, you might wonder why your acupuncturist asks about any Kidney or Bladder issues when have low back pain. According to Chinese medicine, the low back is governed by the Kidneys, and the Urinary Bladder channel also traverses the low back and sacrum. Thus, when a person has back pain, sometimes it is related to an underlying imbalance or weakness in these organs. This allows the acupuncture treatment to be more focused, and oftentimes more effective.
Treatment schedule Acupuncture and Oriental medicine are not designed to be a magic bullet. There are many times when a single acupuncture treatment may be all that is required, especially if you are coming in for an acute (recent) injury or illness. However, for more chronic, severe, and long-term conditions, multiple treatments will often be necessary. In such cases, patients may need to come in for 2-3 acupuncture treatments per week for 2-3 weeks, after which time it becomes easier to increase the time between acupuncture treatments —often changing to one acupuncture treatment per week for several weeks, and then slowly increasing the interval between treatments. When you receive several acupuncture treatments close together at the beginning, there is a synergistic effect that allows the body to shift and adapt more quickly. However, if we do not see a significant shift within 3-4 treatments, I will often refer you out to other practitioners and modalities. In China, it is common for individuals to sometimes receive five acupuncture treatments per week, several weeks in a row, for severe and chronic issues such as stroke recovery, bulging/herniated discs and sciatica, insomnia, and other issues. However, acupuncture in China is integrated in the hospital setting; currently in the United States it is less feasible for patients to come in that often due to financial constraints and scheduling issues. However, we often see similarly powerful results from acupuncture when patients come in for 2-3 acupuncture treatments per week when they first begin treatment.
Commonly Treated Conditions
- Allergies/Sinus Congestion
- Post-operative pain
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Digestive issues
- Pain Relie
- Sports injuries
- Gynecological issues (Pelvic pain, PMS)
- Menopausal issues (Hot flashes, night sweats)
For a list of commonly-treated conditions according to the World Health Organization (WHO), see: Diseases and Disorders That Can Be Treated With Acupuncture