A Beginner’s Guide to Acupuncture

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If you’ve ever wondered about the healing powers of acupuncture, we’ve got the inside scoop from two professional acupuncturists and a first-timer—myself. From “Does it hurt?” to “What are the benefits?” we’ve got all the answers you need to know before you go.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice central to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that stimulates the body’s natural capability to heal itself,” explained licensed acupuncturist at ORA, Cynthia Gorman, who did my acupuncture treatment. The process involves inserting very fine needles into specific points on the body “to balance the flow of energy, also known as qi or chi.”

Co-Founder of WTHN and licensed acupuncturist  Shari Auth, DACM explained that acupuncture “works via the connective tissue to send messages to the brain that alter brain chemistry and stimulate a variety of natural processes depending on what is being treated.” She described acupuncture as “a health-care appointment that feels more like a spa appointment.” 

What should first-time acupuncture guests know before they go?

Like myself, many first-time acupuncture patrons may be nervous about the discomfort they may feel when they essentially become a pin cushion. However, the experts assured that the pain was minimal because of the rigorous training licensed acupuncturists go through and how fine the needles are.

“Acupuncture is safe, effective and not painful. Even needle-phobic patients enjoy acupuncture treatments because acupuncture needles are single-use, hair-thin and designed to bend if the guest feels the need to move during acupuncture treatment,” explained Gorman. Dr. Auth said the experience is so relaxing and not uncomfortable that people sometimes fall asleep mid-session.

While I wasn’t relaxed enough to nod off myself, the discomfort was extremely manageable. Only a handful of needles hurt at all—my right calf and the right side of my stomach—and the pain subsided in a minute or so. I felt more energized than calm throughout the experience, chatting with my acupuncturist as we went along.

What are the benefits of acupuncture?

People don’t willingly have needles inserted into them without the promise of worthwhile benefits, and acupuncture boasts quite a few. “Acupuncture reduces the body’s stress response by downregulating the nervous system and stimulating the body’s natural immune response. This is why acupuncture is effective for treating a wide variety of conditions from low back pain, digestion discomfort to anxiety and stress,” said Gorman.

Many studies have proven the efficacy of acupuncture, as listed by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Auth explained that acupuncture can work both preventatively and as a solution and has been scientifically proven to treat over 300 conditions. According to Dr. Auth, the benefits are expansive and include boosting immunity and energy, optimizing digestion, improving sleep, balancing mood, reducing stress, anxiety and depression, balancing hormones, reducing pain and inflammation, helping with seasonal ailments and anti-aging.

Who is a good candidate for acupuncture?

“Acupuncture is good for anyone who is looking for a new method to find balance and a more holistic approach to their health,” said Gorman. While most people can benefit from acupuncture, Dr. Auth said she especially recommends it for people looking to optimize their wellness routine,  people looking for a natural first line of defense to health complaints such as sleep, pain or fertility challenges, people with stress, anxiety or depression, active people who need recovery to sustain their performance, people suffering from aches and pains from TMJ to arthritis, people looking to regulate their cycle and reduce menstrual pain and people with digestive issues.

Who should be careful when receiving acupuncture?

Gorman advised that people with bleeding disorders and those taking blood thinners should talk with their doctor before receiving acupuncture. Dr. Auth also noted that there are some considerations when doing acupuncture on people who are pregnant or have diabetes or other health issues. If you’re at a professional acupuncture establishment, such as ORA or WTHN, your provider will have a consultation with you to review your medical history before treating you.

What should a first-timer expect at their acupuncture treatment?

Once you’re all checked in, most establishments will have you replace your clothes with a comfy robe. Then you’ll have your consultation with your acupuncturist to discuss your health history and the goals of your treatment. Gorman said some acupuncturists may also look at your tongue or take your pulse as well to help further customize the treatment plan. Once the plan is set, your acupuncturist will begin inserting needles, which generally takes about five to 10 minutes. The needles are left in for 20 to 30 minutes. Following the treatment, your acupuncturist will likely discuss how it went and how the treatments will move forward in the future.

How are acupuncture treatments customized to each person?

“There are over 400 acupuncture points on the body. I will select different acupuncture points based on the type of treatment and individual treatment goals of our guest,” said Gorman. Depending on your ailments, the acupuncturist will pinpoint those areas to needle. “I can treat neck pain, allergies, constipation and anxiety all in a session,” said Gorman.

When I got acupuncture for the first time at ORA, I shared that I had bad digestion and knee pain, which led Gorman to insert needles in my calves, knees and stomach. When it came to my face, I pinpointed dark circles and redness caused by rosacea as the trouble spots I wanted to tackle. Gorman explained that redness is often linked to your lungs, while dark circles are a result of your kidneys. I received needles in my chin, either side of my nose, both cheeks and my forehead. Additionally, I noted that I have migraines, which resulted in needles in my temples.

How do you feel after acupuncture?

“After every acupuncture session, you can expect to feel relaxed and rejuvenated,” said Dr. Auth. Although occasionally a condition can be resolved in one session, such as releasing a tight muscle, acupuncture generally requires consistent treatment for larger results, she explained. Following my acupuncture treatment, I felt both energized and relaxed. It’s been a week since my treatment, and I haven’t experienced knee pain. Additionally, I have had more bowel movements than usual. Perhaps acupuncture is to thank for both.

Is there anything you should or shouldn’t do before or after treatment?

Both experts stressed that you should not go to acupuncture on an empty stomach. You should be properly hydrated both before and after treatment. Gorman said there should be “absolutely no alcohol before receiving acupuncture.” As I headed out of my session, Gorman advised avoiding alcohol for 24 hours post-treatment as well.

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