Does Acupuncture Hurt?
Stop thinking about hypodermic needles.
No, really… stop it.
An acupuncture needle is as similar to a hypodermic needle as an earthworm is to a python. Associating the two types of needles can breed unnecessary anxiety that can deter some people from trying acupuncture, which is a cryin’ shame! During a typical acupuncture experience you should feel relaxed enough to drift into a restful state – a state so relaxing that it will often turn into a little nap!
And speaking of naps – because patients so often fall asleep during acupuncture, some community clinics market themselves as Nap Time for Adults. Yes, that’s nap time. For adults. So, tell me. When is the last time you napped while donating blood? Never?
So, Should Acupuncture Feel Like…Nothing?
No! Although acupuncture shouldn’t hurt, it should feel like something. At many of the points, you should feel the sensation of qi. You might feel qi moving, expanding, or dispersing. Other times, you might feel a more generalized sensation, like big waves of energy moving back and forth in your body. Sometimes it’s a slow, deep sinking feeling that will leave you feeling like you’re weighed down to your chair. Sometimes it’s floaty and light and leaves you feeling ecstatic but calm (a personal favorite of mine, and many others). I have one patient who refers to himself as an “old hippy,” and he loves to share how acupuncture is a million times better than LSD. I told him to make a bumper sticker, and I’ll stick it to my car.
Gallbladder 34: Yang Ling Quan
In order to give you a clear picture of what I mean by “the qi sensation,” let’s talk about a commonly used point called GB34.
Gallbladder 34 is located on the lateral leg, near the fibular head. When I needle this point, the patient normally does not feel the insertion. If I want the patient to feel a significant qi sensation at this point, I will adjust the needle until the patient can feel qi moving up the side of their thigh or down the side of their leg (following the Gallbladder meridian). Adjusting the needle means that I turn the needle ever so slightly in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction. For those of you who might be wondering…it does NOT MEAN that I jab you until you feel pain.
Normally, I ask the patient to say “ok” as soon as they feel qi moving up or down the meridian. Once they say “ok” I stop adjusting the needle and move to the next point. Patients new to acupuncture are always surprised by this – they are surprised that the experience isn’t painful, and they’re surprised by the qi sensation (which is often unlike anything they’ve ever felt). I’ve never had a patient report that this was a negative thing; in fact, most people love the sensation of clearing out a clogged meridian. Think about removing a large beaver dam from a bend in the river – the water would rush forth since it is no longer obstructed. This is similar to the sensation that patients report when qi begins to move through a meridian – they feel a rush of energy/warmth to an area of their body that previously felt congested, numb, or painful.
The Many Faces of Qi
The point of acupuncture is to elicit a sensory response at the point or along the meridian. The umbrella term for this sensation is deqi. The literal translation of deqi is “the arrival of vital energy.” There are lots of different words to describe the different types of qi sensations, but none of these words translate into “pain.” There is suan (a deep ache or soreness), ma (numbness or tingling), zhang (a full feeling or distending pressure) or zhong (a distinct heaviness or weight).
So, for those of you out there who have wondered if acupuncture consists of a stranger jabbing hundreds of needles in your body while you sweat and feel all of your sphincters clench at once, well…that’s not acupuncture. But it would definitely make a hilarious SNL skit! Oh wait…it’s already been done!
All of my charmingly-amazing humor aside, the experience of acupuncture should feel different, but good. And the results of acupuncture should involve YOU feeling significantly BETTER.
In fact, it’s the number one reason why people come back for more!