Acupuncture: Everything you need to know before you try it (2024)

In the world of modern wellness, there's a spectrum that most popular trends fall under -- you have the "woo-woo" on one end and tried-and-true, science-backed practices on the other. There's also a gray area in between, which is where acupuncture fits.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice of inserting the end of a thin needle into your body to relieve pain, reduce stress and provide other health benefits. While there is mixed evidence on whether or not it works, even the most skeptical people may find relief from a practice that dates back to ancient history with roots in traditional Chinese medicine. And even though Western and Eastern medicine practices may disagree on exactly how acupuncture works -- it's said to help lots of people deal with pain, stress, hormonal imbalances and migraines among other issues.

What's interesting about acupuncture, is that it's truly endured the test of time -- people keep coming back to it despite every other kind of treatment that's been invented for pain management. "Acupuncture has withstood the test of time and gained momentum over the years because of its positive results and lack of harmful side effects," said Gabriel Sher, a licensed and board-certified acupuncturist and the director of Acupuncture at Ora in New York City.

If you're curious about trying acupuncture, keep reading to find out more about the potential benefits, risks, and other tips you need to know before your first session.

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What is acupuncture?

"Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that originated thousands of years ago. Acupuncturists insert thin needles into the skin at specific points in the body in order to balance the flow of "Qi" – the energy flow in the body," Sher says. The idea is that Qi (pronounced "chee") travels along paths (or meridians) in your body. Acupuncture points sit along these meridians and stimulating them is said to balance the flow of Qi.

Pain reliefis one of the top reasons people seek acupuncture, but it's often used for a wide variety of health concerns. "Acupuncture is commonly used to treat pain, but can be used for overall wellness, including stress management, depression, headaches, asthma, regulation of hormones, fertility issues, gastrointestinal disorders and many other ailments," says Sher.

Although it is widely used, acupuncture is not commonly recognized in Western medicine. However, Western medical practitioners that do use or recommend acupuncture treatment believe that it can be effective for relieving some ailments because acupuncture points are known for stimulating nerve, muscle or connective tissue that could help with pain. Some believe that itcan help the body release endorphins, which are chemicals that help with pain.

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What's it like to get acupuncture?

Your experience will vary widely based on where you go and who your practitioner is. But to give you an idea, at Ora in New York City, you will start the session with an initial consultation. This is a common practice since it takes some time for a practitioner to evaluate how to best treat you and determine which acupuncture points to stimulate.

You'll usually lie on a comfortable massage table in a private room while the practitioner inserts 12 to 25 needles at strategic points in the body, and then leaves them in for 25 minutes. According to Ora, some people notice immediate relief after one session, while others need more regular sessions to see results.

Acupuncture costs can vary depending on where you live and the kind of office you go to. A private session will be more expensive, and in a big city, like San Francisco, can cost around $80 to $120. You can also try a community acupuncture clinic, where you are in a room with other people while receiving treatment.

Does it hurt?

If you're not a fan of needles, acupuncture may not be for you. The process usually involves a practitioner inserting many (sometimes as many as a hundred or so) of small, fine needles into your skin. Most people say that it does not hurt since the needles are so thin, but you do have to stay very still when they are in your skin, which may be uncomfortable.

It's not going to be as painful as getting a flu shot, because the needles are much smaller. However, you might feel a twinge of pain when the needle is inserted, which usually goes away quickly.

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What does science say?

The scientific evidence on acupuncture is mixed, however it's been studied in clinical trials for a long time. A 2012 study found that it can be effective for patients with chronic pain conditions like neck, back, shoulder pain and headaches. A meta-analysis confirmed the same claims in 2018.

The research for the effectiveness of acupuncture for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression is promising, but more needs to be done before conclusions can be drawn.

Acupuncture has been studied for its effects on heart rate variability (HRV), which is a sign of overall health and stress resilience. Some studies have shown that it can help improve HRV, which is promising news for those that seek the treatment to help with stress, whether that is psychological or physical.

How to find a legit practitioner

Since your acupuncture experience will vary so much based on who you see, it's important to take the steps to find someone that is well trained and certified appropriately.

First, you will want to make sure the acupuncturist will take the appropriate steps before they even treat you -- and not rush through the process. "Unlike Western medicine, acupuncture strives to understand and treat the whole patient. A good acupuncturist will do a thorough interview of the patient to understand their current mental and physical state and lifestyle, including their diet, exercise habits, sleep and other factors," says Sher.

The actual licensing requirements vary by state, but the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is a good place to start if you're looking for a certified acupuncturist.

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Acupuncture risks and safety

Overall, acupuncture is considered relatively safe and usually has no side-effects. However, there are certain risks that are helpful to be aware of, since someone is inserting needles into your skin, which could potentially hit places you don't want them to or trigger nerves in the wrong way.

One example of an adverse effect is pneumothorax (a collapsed lung). This is not very common, but one of my former coworkers had this happen to her after an acupuncture session on her back. Since using acupuncture treatment to treat back pain is so common, it's important to be aware of the risks of having needles inserted close to bodily organs. Some researchers think that pneumothorax could be underreported, so there's a potential that it happens more than we know.

Other risks include bleeding and infection, so if you take any medications like blood thinners, you will want to check with a doctor and be extra cautious before you try acupuncture.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

Acupuncture: Everything you need to know before you try it (2024)


What do I need to know before acupuncture? ›

Your First Acupuncture Treatment: 9 Tips to Set Yourself Up for...
  • Wear (or bring) loose fitting clothes. ...
  • Answer interview questions honestly & completely. ...
  • Eat something first. ...
  • Don't brush your tongue before treatment. ...
  • Don't worry about the needles! ...
  • Get ready to relax. ...
  • Keep relaxing after treatment. ...
  • Stay hydrated.
Feb 12, 2019

What should I avoid before acupuncture? ›

So, what should clients not do before an acupuncture session? Your client should not consume heavy, spicy or fried meals, nor should they drink any caffeine or alcohol. Clients should also avoid arriving at the appointment feeling tense and try not to withhold any necessary medical information.

How do I get the best results from acupuncture? ›

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, before and after treatment. If you are a coffee addict, feel free to enjoy your morning cup-o-joe, but hold back on any more as your appointment draws near. The less influencing factors you have in your system when the needles go in, the better.

How quickly do you see results from acupuncture? ›

Hence, this treatment usually spans at least three months before one can notice improvement. Additionally, younger people may respond quicker to acupuncture treatment; nonetheless, that depends on each individual's situation.

What you Cannot do after acupuncture? ›

Clients should avoid strenuous exercise, caffeine, junk food, alcohol, cold temperatures, digital screens, and, where possible, stressful situations. What's more, if clients leave their appointment feeling lightheaded or dizzy, they should avoid driving until they feel better.

Do you take clothes off for acupuncture? ›

If access is needed to a part of your body that is covered by your clothing, you will be asked to undress to your comfort level and a drape will be provided. Many people find it more comfortable to disrobe for sessions so that clothes are not constricting the body in any way.

Who should not do acupuncture? ›

Two specific contraindications deserve special mention: patients with an AICD should avoid any electromagnetic stimulation that might be used as a form of acupuncture. Also, it is not recommended that patients that suffer or are predisposed to suffer from psychosis or delusions undergo acupuncture as well.

Why do doctors not recommend acupuncture? ›

A lack of scientific evidence is one argument they're using. They also point to the risk of harm from acupuncture, whose adverse effects include punctured lung, infection, hemorrhages, and, in rare cases, death.

Where does acupuncture hurt the most? ›

Certain points like your hands and feet might be more sensitive. If you feel pain, tell your acupuncturist. They'll adjust the needles or choose other points.

What are the most important acupuncture points? ›

Some commonly used acupuncture points include:
  • Liver Channel: LV3, Taichong. ...
  • Pericardium Channel: PC6, Neiguan. ...
  • Heart Channel: HT7, Shenmen. ...
  • Urinary Bladder Channel: BL40, Weizhong. ...
  • Kidney Channel: KI3, Taixi. ...
  • Triple Burner Channel: TB5, Waiguan. ...
  • Small Intestine Channel: SI3, Houxi. ...
  • Governing Vessel: GV20, Baihui.
Aug 11, 2016

What to expect on your first acupuncture visit? ›

It will include a pulse and tongue observation.

The acupuncturist may ask you to show your tongue and may feel your pulse on both wrists to determine the current state of your internal organs' health. These traditional Chinese medicine diagnostic tools have been used for thousands of years.

Does your body detox after acupuncture? ›

The detoxing effects of Acupuncture can last for around 3 days. During this time the body is cleansing and removing toxins and waste build-up from the body. Because of this, clients may report fatigue and discomfort. However, others can report feeling revitalised.

How long do acupuncture benefits last? ›

Initially, the benefits of acupuncture can last a few days to a couple of weeks after each session. Over time acupuncture can provide longer-lasting, or even permanent, relief from pain, inflammation and other problems.

How often should you go to acupuncture? ›

The number of treatments depends on your condition, its severity and how your body responds. Most people have an appointment once a week. Others get treatment more or less often, depending on how long the effects last. Your acupuncturist will recommend a schedule that's right for you.

What should I do to prepare for acupuncture? ›

Eat an Appropriate Amount Before Your Appointment

Most experts recommend that you eat something approximately two hours prior to your treatment. However, make sure this isn't a big meal, as this may cause you to feel uncomfortable during your appointment. The other extreme should be avoided as well.

Are you supposed to eat before acupuncture? ›

You should eat at least anywhere from a few hours before a session to 45 minutes beforehand. If you don't even have a light snack, you may experience light-headedness, dizziness or even fainting. The same can be said if you are very hungry before a session. Acupuncture can then cause a short-term drop in blood sugar.

What to expect at your first acupuncture visit? ›

It will include a pulse and tongue observation.

The acupuncturist may ask you to show your tongue and may feel your pulse on both wrists to determine the current state of your internal organs' health. These traditional Chinese medicine diagnostic tools have been used for thousands of years.

What do you wear during acupuncture? ›

So, it's best you wear loose-fitting pants that can easily be rolled up above the knee to access certain acupuncture points. Culottes are perfect (I really like this brand). Likewise, a loose fitting shirt is ideal for allowing your practitioner to easily and comfortably reach areas on your arms, neck and torso.


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