4 Things I Learned From Trying Acupuncture for the First Time

Photo: Stocksy/Aubrie Legault

Like a lot of people, I grew up steeped in the traditions of Western medicine. I go to the doctor when I'm sick, and pop a painkiller when I have a headache. But acupuncture has always piqued my interest. Millions of people turn to the traditional Chinese medicine practice every year, and even my dad—a very no-nonsense doctor—recently got trained in order to better serve his patients. All of which explains how I found myself at City Acupuncture wondering, What am I in for?

I was hoping acupuncture would help quell the constant pain I've got in my right shoulder (the result of lugging a heavy gym bag to and from work every day), as well as my anxiety. The scientific research certainly holds promise. For example, one study analyzing data from nearly 18,000 patients found acupuncture was successful in treating chronic pain, migraines, and arthritis.

In my quest to better understand the process, I visited three different places in New York City (in addition to City Acupuncture, I also went to Olo Acupuncture and Brooklyn Acupuncture Project) and I learned a lot along the way.

Scared about having needles stuck in you? Nervous about what will happen? Keep reading for everything you need to know about trying acupuncture for the first time.

Photo: Facebook/Olo Acupuncture

First things first: It's not cheap

Acupuncture is definitely a bit of an investment. I wanted to keep costs low, so I specifically sought out studios that offer "community acupuncture" at about $20 to $40 for a one-hour visit. That means that instead of getting pricked one-on-one in a private room, I sat in a communal space with massage tables or comfy chairs occupied by others who were also undergoing treatment. "This is how people get acupuncture in China," Donna Nield, my acupuncturist at City, told me.

If you prefer something private, expect to pay more—anywhere from $75 to $135, and upwards from there at in-demand places. Some traditional doctors do perform acupuncture, which means you might be able to get it covered by insurance, but the atmosphere will probably feel more clinical.

brooklyn acupuncture project
Photo: Facebook/Brooklyn Acupuncture Project

Expect your acupuncturist to be pretty darn nosy

At each of the studios I visited, I filled out lengthy forms asking about everything from my stress levels to how well I poop. Acupuncturists aren't trying to be invasive; they're just looking to get a full view of what energy channels may be blocked in your body.

The questions don't stop there. At Olo, my acupuncturist spent 20 minutes asking about my body and lifestyle. She assured me that regular acupuncture would help with my shoulder pain and anxiety, but also recommended meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga—and even emailed me after my session to recommend some specific apps.

The bottom line? If you aren't asked to fill out any forms, or your acupuncturist doesn't spend at least 10 minutes asking about your health history and concerns, you should probably go somewhere else.  

acupuncture what you need to know
Photo: City Acupuncture

Nope, it doesn't hurt

This was my top concern ahead of time, but Nield told me I'd just feel a little pinch and she was right. The needles themselves are very small and thin—like a cat's whisker—so while it's not necessarily super comfortable, it's not truly painful either.

During my first treatment, I got needles in my ears, elbows, knees, and a few on my feet. Once they were in place, I was told to lie still for 20 minutes while I took in the serene spa music. No reading, no looking at my phone. Everything flows better when you're just doing nothing, Nield told me, and that's the whole goal—to promote and restore energy.

brooklyn acupuncture project
Photo: Facebook/Brooklyn Acupuncture Project

How often you go totally depends on you

All three of the places I visited suggested that I get treated about once a week for a month, or every other week for two months. But some people go once every couple of months, while others book a series of sessions when there's something specific they want to work on, like an injury or coping with a stressful time. In the waiting room at Olo, a very pregnant woman sat down next to me and explained she was there to help bring on labor—another application that's being studied, though the results aren't totally clear.

Photo: Unsplash/Lena Bell

My verdict

The day I went to Brooklyn Acupuncture Project, my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was meeting an ex for drinks later and the thought of it made my heart beat fast, palms sweat, and stomach flip. "Let's just focus on your anxiety today, not the shoulder pain," my patient acupuncturist said, even letting me close my eyes and sit in a chair because I felt too fidgety to lie down.

After she put pins in my ears, forehead, and hands, she dabbed my wrists with a soothing essential oil and after 20 minutes of breathing in the calming scent, I did feel better. It's not surprising. Existing studies on acupuncture and anxiety have been small, but they're promising. In one, regular treatments helped lower pre-exam jitters. Another found it may help patients with anxiety disorders.

Of course, short-term benefits and long-term changes are different beasts, and I didn't notice a miraculous difference in my anxiety or my shoulder pain after three sessions—but I do believe that if I stick with it (in conjunction with my usual yoga, meditation, and more "Western" practices), I'll experience a real change. Here's hoping!

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