Does Acupuncture Hurt
We like to say that if it hurts at all, it is about as much as having your hair pulled.
Thats the short answer.
The long answer is… longer. But not ultimately much different in general.
Acupuncture needles are very thin and fine. While true Classical Chinese-style acupuncture contains some very aggressive (albeit effective) techniques, most modern Western acupuncturists train specifically to achieve smooth low-sensation needle insertion. Many old-school Classical acupuncturists are trained for some purposes to manipulate the needles in order to produce strong sensation. That strong sensation is what most Westerners would call ‘pain’.
And: it does get results! Those anecdotal miracle cures you hear about from time to time involving acupuncture? The almost always involve some hardcore Chinese techniques involving extremely frequent (like, more-than-daily) or aggressively-placed, sized, numbered or manipulated needles.
However… barring that kind of old school stoic, martial-arts related thing – the needles, being fine, thin, and carefully inserted are often not even felt. I cannot tell you how many times I have had a scenario like this play out in my treatment room:
New Patient (with eyes scrunched shut): OK, I’m really nervous about needles so please tell me when you’re about to put the first one in so I have some warning…!
Me: I’ve already put in six.
It is true – and we actually regard it as diagnostic – that when a point is needled that has indications which are big issues for that patient, it can be more tender. There are several major points that seem to be more tender in general on the majority of people. In Chinese Medicine understanding, this is because the Qi is really ‘singing’ at those points anyway; so sticking a needle in there taps an area that was already really active. When this happens, I look for the sensation to calm down shortly after insertion, and then ideally to become less and less reactive with future treatments. That lets me know the Qi is becoming regulated.
And, lastly, there are a few points that tend to be ‘ouchy’ in any case. These are ones you’d expect to be sensitive, such as the ends of the fingers and toes, or the bottom of the foot. If I really feel one of these would be beneficial I will always check with my patient first, explaining that I feel we could get a lot of therapeutic value out of the point but that is will probably be more intense that most of the others. Many patients are fine with trying those points and appreciate the warning, but some simply decline, and then I substitute other points.
There is also something called ‘da Qi’, which translates literally into ‘the arrival of Qi’. This is the formal term for a sensation many people feel around a needle AFTER it has been placed, while it is in the skin. It is not really pain (that would be unacceptable – I do not leave a needle in if the patient complains of actual pain). It is the sensation of the Qi being tapped by the needle and responding to it – ‘arriving’ at the site of the needle. Qi is supposed to come to the needles – that is how they work – so this is always a good sign; it means the treatment is working. People will describe da Qi in different ways: for some it is experienced as an itching, for some a burning, for some a heaviness or pressure that surrounds the needle. It is localized, and very definite. It is very hard to explain but if you’ve felt it you will know exactly what I mean!
If you worry about the pain, please be assured that acupuncture needles bear virtually no similarity to hypodermic needles, the kind you are used to confronting in the hospital or doctor’s office! Those are much thicker, hollow (to remove blood or inject something), and placed deeper. Acupuncture needles are about the width of a hair (give or take – there are many variations on thickness) and are solid and flexible. They are always sterile and are extremely safe when used by a trained acupuncturist.
Hope this helps!