Acupuncture can be daunting for the uninitiated. After all, who wants to willingly submit themselves to a session of poking and prodding? Take it from me, the Biggest Baby in the World: I’ve experienced more pain flossing my teeth than going to acupuncture. As nervous as I was initially to willingly submit to being a human pincushion, I’m glad I stuck it out that first time—because I left the session feeling a little calmer, a little more limber, and a lot happier than when I came in.
It wasn’t just a placebo effect, either. According to Dr. Elizabeth Trattner, doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine, an acupuncture session can raise levels of specific hormones, boost immunity, and stimulate the secretion of endorphins and neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers and mood boosters. While it isn’t necessarily intended to replace medical care (especially in cases of serious disease like cancer), it can be a useful tool in promoting wellness. Acupuncture can “harness the body to assist itself in healing versus giving a medication,” Dr. Trattner says. It’s been shown to help with stress and anxiety, sleep issues, fertility, and even sex drive.
So yes, there are absolutely a lot of benefits. But acupuncture, like any other health-related procedure, requires some more research (and risk assessment) before just showing up to your nearest clinic. Here's what you need to know before your first session.
How acupuncture works
“Acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese theories of the flow of qi [energy] and xue [blood] through distinct pathways or more specifically, energetic highways called meridians or channels through our body,” says Lisa Sutton, a licensed acupuncturist and co-owner of CQC Acupuncture Inc.
She says that the needle—or “point prescription"—acts as one of the mechanisms by which acupuncture removes energy blockages, releases tension, and strengthens the body’s “protective qi,” or immune system. She says this helps shift the body towards a state of homeostasis, prompting it to self-heal. “[Your body] remembers an optimal way of being and wants to return to it,” Sutton says, even if you’ve been sick for a long time or haven’t been eating well. “You might have a lot to re-balance, but your body still wants to do it.”
Is acupuncture safe?
When performed by a licensed, experienced expert, acupuncture can be safe for anyone, says Amélie Levesque, Ac., acupuncturist at Clinique Altermed in Montreal. “In fact, it works wonders for reducing nausea, heartburn or lower back pain during pregnancy,” she adds. Sutton agrees: An experienced, certified acupuncturist, she says, will be gentle and take care to avoid certain points on pregnant women that might induce labor.
However, acupuncture comes with some risks just like any health treatment. Common side effects include minor muscle soreness (although that usually goes away shortly after the procedure, says Levesque) and small amounts of bleeding or bruising where the needle went in. You should also let your acupuncturist know if you have a bleeding disorder or are on blood thinners, since per the Mayo Clinic that could increase your risk of bruising or bleeding from the needles. There are also extremely rare cases of collapsed lung, although most research indicates that these scarier side effects can be avoided by going to a legit, well-trained practitioner.
How to find an acupuncturist
You’re entrusting your acupuncturist with potentially serious physical and emotional ailments, so it’s crucial to ensure they’re qualified. “If you’re getting a manicure or your dog’s teeth cleaned, you want a licensed person. Same goes for your health care practitioner,” says Dr. Trattner.
Dr. Trattner says your acupuncturist should be licensed in their state and also certified from The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine with at least five to 10 years of experience under their belt—ideally with a specialization like fertility or sports medicine. She adds that shopping around or asking friends for recommendations can be helpful tools in order to find the right practitioner. “Be an informed consumer,” she says.
Keep your researcher hat on once you walk into their office. “I would see a red flag if someone uses needles that are not sterile. There is so much risk in sterilizing the needles, like transmission of diseases,” says Levesque. “I’d look also for hygiene practices such as the acupuncturist washing his or her hands before treating you and the cleanliness of the clinic.” She adds that it helps to always look for a diploma on their wall and read reviews online, too.
What to expect during a session
Long before the needles come out, your acupuncturist will perform an intake examination to assess your overall health from a physical and emotional perspective. They’ll look at your tongue, “a map of all your organs, showing deficiency and excess,” Sutton says, and evaluate your pulse, which “paints a picture of the energetic highway, stress, stomach problems, or excess drinking,” she says.
Your acupuncturist will also ask about where you are in your menstrual cycle, as well as how you’re feeling emotionally. It might even feel like therapy! (I went in with back and knee pain issues, and ended up sobbing over something traumatic that happened 10 years ago that I completely repressed. All this to say: waterproof mascara all the way).
Once they’ve established the best course of action, it’s time for the needles. You’ll feel a vague, dull pinch once the needle goes in (about a quarter-inch to one-and-a-half inches deep, depending on where they’re being placed and your body composition). People with less body fat don’t need to be needled as deeply to access the pressure point, she adds. It should not be painful. Take it from Levesque: “I get why people are scared of needles. Nobody wants to have a metallic object piercing the barrier of their skin. And we think of shots and blood sampling when it comes to needles. But acupuncture needles are as thin as a hair,” she says.
Looking down at yourself during treatment, the placement of needles in seemingly-random places like your ears and legs might seem confusing. But the needles are all placed by your specialist very deliberately based on the results of your intake session. “Each acupuncture point has a specific function, location, diameter and needle depth, which is also dependent on a patient’s size, age and constitution,” Sutton says.
You’ll then just...lie there for a while with needles in your body. How long depends on what you’re being treated for and your energy levels; if your energy levels are low, your acupuncturist might reduce the number of needles used or the time spent with them, says Levesque.
How to make the most of your treatment
Sutton says you should definitely eat before an acupuncture session because “the movement of the qi can make you feel dizzy." This helps regulate your temperature and blood sugar, warding off dizziness, she explains. (If a client hasn't eaten, she insists that they do before she starts—that's how seriously she takes it.)
Levesque adds that in order to get the most out of your session, you also want to drink a lot of water afterwards, avoid alcohol, and stay warm by taking a hot bath or shower and eating warm foods. Make some space in your agenda after your treatment to give your body and mind a chance to heal and absorb the treatment (similar to the way shavasana or corpse pose works to seal your yoga practice). "Listen to your body. Drink if you’re thirsty and rest if you’re tired," says Levesque.
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