Guided by diagnosis grounded in Chinese medical science, acupuncture treatment has been used for millenia to alleviate acute and chronic disorders of all kinds. It is the most well known modality in Chinese medicine, and has been developed into culturally unique versions in Korea, Japan, the UK and many other places.
Does it hurt?
Usually one of the first questions people have about acupuncture is whether or not it hurts. Most of us are familiar with hypodermic needles used to give injections and draw blood – and have had some pain from those procedures. Thus, the question! The simplest answer is – no, it doesn't hurt, particularly in comparison with those needle experiences.
The more complex, and honest, answer is that it depends. The style of the acupuncturist, your current health situation, even the heat and humidity of the treatment area can all contribute to the amount of sensation you feel during acupuncture. That said, the vast majority of patients do not feel significant pain during treatment, and those that do usually find that after the initial needle insertion, the sensation decreases to almost nothing for the duration of treatment.
There are many reasons that acupuncture is less painful than other needle experiences. However, probably one of the most important is that the needle bore is MUCH smaller than hypodermics. I use 32 gauge needles – which average about a quarter of a millimeter in size. The average blood draw is done using 18-21 gauge needles, which are around .8 of a millimeter in size. Now, those sizes are small and it may seem that there's not too much difference between those sizes. See the picture to the right for some visual comparisons that may help.
Acupuncture safety & training
US based acupuncturists undergo rigorous training, similar to other licensed medical professionals. Entry level programs are 3-4 years, with the final year being mostly clinical, and there are minimum standards for number of supervised clinical hours. During our schooling, we receive training about blood borne pathogens and how to make sure that the single-use, sterilized needles we use stay sterile until they are used. We also go through a national certification process using standardized board exams, just like most medical providers. Finally, we must go through a state controlled licensure process where our background, mental and physical fitness and education are discussed & verified.
Not the fly by night quackery that some people would have you believe! We must also do continuing education to be eligible for renewal of our licensing and certifications – most acupuncturists seek out extensive post-graduate training, including residency, to improve our skills. In fact, one of the first things I learned in school, from one of my most cherished mentors, is the importance of continuing to deepen our knowledge and skill in the medicine for the rest of our lives.
Different styles of acupuncture
If you go to ten different acupuncturists in the US, you might notice ten unique interpretations of the modality. While those of us born in the US are guided by a unified curricular format determined by the requirements of licensure and ethical practice, the medicine lends itself to the development of lineage and personal styles.
In 5 element acupuncture, for example, points are fewer, used with slightly different intention than in other forms of practice, and the stimulation tends to be gentle. Gentle stimulation is also a hallmark of Japanese acupuncture, and yet it differs from 5 element acupuncture in its interpretation of the channel system and the treatment protocols. The stimulation tends to be more intense in mainland Chinese styles, and those who practice more classical Chinese styles of acupuncture tend also to needle deeper, use bigger gauge needles and stimulate those needles more intensely. That said, even strong stimulation with needles is often much less painful than people nervous about acupuncture would expect.
Even those who consider themselves to practice more or less “by the book” (meaning the standard China-based TCM methods) often display a unique style in terms of how they dictate the flow of treatment, the way they hold the treatment space, and their actual technique with the needles.
I draw upon several different acupuncture techniques and styles depending on the needs of my patients, including Five Element and alchemical acupuncture which focus on the links between mind, emotions and body in pain and illness, Japanese style, and classical Chinese style.
I will often use auricular acupuncture, or ear points, which can help with a wide variety of issues, including stress, PTSD, illness and pain.
For more sensitive patients I frequently use Japanese acupuncture techniques, which are quite gentle, including the use of tools such as the teishin and zanshin that can stimulate points and channels without puncturing the skin. While gentle, these tools and techniques are also highly effective and helpful.
I may also use techniques that blend osteopathic and Asian medicine to finding blockages in the body to help me know which points, channels and areas of the body are most in need of treatment.
The acupuncture style I use in your treatment be just one of the above or a blend of all of them. It depends on what you need on the day that you come in for a treatment, and what we find works best for you as we continue to work together.
I practice a unique style of acupuncture using a micro-meridian system called Koryo Sooji Chim, meaning Korean Hand Acupuncture. Developed in the 1970’s by Dr Tae-Woo Yoo, this modern take on the ancient healing arts of acupuncture has been tremendously successful worldwide, most notably in the treatment of pain.
What to expect from a pain management session using this form of acupuncture:
After an intake discussion with the patient, I will evaluate the precise location of the pain and discomfort in the body, evaluate a baseline range of motion, and ask you to assign a pain level from 1-10 when performing a movement which aggravates the area of pain.
For some patients, especially patients with cold hands or disorders of the nervous system, we will need to activate the nerve endings on the hands by using a metal roller and gently rolling it back and forth between the palmar aspect of the hands for a couple of minutes.
I will then conduct a search for the most tender corresponding areas on your hands using a small metal probe. I will ask you to give feedback when an area feels “different” than the surrounding area. The sensation in the hand when the corresponding area is located can be a feeling of heat or cold, numbness or tingling, dull or sharp pain, or a referral sensation of the aforementioned responses in another location of the hand or arm. As soon as we identify those tender points, I'll then mark the location with a surgical pen. A variety of different techniques may be used to stimulate those points: pressure with the location probe, gold or silver acupressure beads with adhesive tape, moxabusion, or tiny hand needles might be inserted at a shallow depth of 1-3mm at the marked locations.
After approximately 5 minutes, I will then test the response by asking you to perform the body movement which caused the pain before the point was located to determine if the points of stimulation on the hands are correct and initiating the cellular response required to facilitate the healing process and alleviate pain. If you notice a slight change in the pain, it is indicative that the tender corresponding point is correct. You'll rest with the needles or acupressure discs in your hands for 15-20 minutes. If I determine that additional points on the body, cupping, or moxibustion would aid in the healing process, I will then perform one of those therapy styles. By the end of the treatment, most patients will notice a significant reduction in pain.
Conditions that are acute will respond faster and most favorably to the micro-meridian treatment. Chronic and/or severe injury will require additional treatments. Depending on the condition, I may send you home with additional small tacks to reapply before sleep nightly in order to extend the acupuncture session for several days.
I am one of those rare acupuncturists that started out with a real fear of needles! Because of this, and due to the mentors I was exposed to, I use a generally gentle and minimal approach that contains aspects of 5 element acupuncture and Japanese acupuncture.
If needed, I will use more intense techniques – but those instances are rare. Further, for me, all things being equal the most important thing to me is that you are able to relax and enjoy your treatment. While most of us understand that some discomfort may be necessary to get and stay healthy, I don't see any reason to make that discomfort more profound than it absolutely needs to be! We will always talk about what I plan to do, and make sure it doesn't cross any difficult boundaries for you.
I believe that treatment is more effective when all the senses and aspects of a person are being impacted. For example, I tend to use music specially selected to enhance your treatment, and also love to use essential oils which add a relaxing element to the session. The surface you rest on is warm and comfortable, and I use various methods to make sure you don't get chilly as you lie there during treatment. This combination of overt treatment (the needles), sound (music), scent (essential oils) and care paid to your warmth and softness seem to have a more powerful effect than any of those aspects alone.
Finally, know that I can – and often do – use non-insertive techniques in treatment. Cupping, moxibustion, various types of bodywork and qigong can all be used to stimulate the body in ways similar to acupuncture. If you want to learn more about the non-insertive techniques, please click here. While there are times that needling a point is absolutely necessary – we can always discuss other options – never hesitate to start a conversation about this.
/?php // If comments are open or we have at least one comment, load up the comment template //if ( comments_open() || '0' != get_comments_number() ) : // comments_template(); //endif; //?>