If you’re new to holistic healing as a type of treatment, acupuncture can seem a bit terrifying. How could pressing needles into your skin possibly make you feel better? Doesn’t that hurt?
Well, no, it’s definitely not the overtly painful procedure you may be imagining, and considering that it’s been studied and practiced for over 2,500 years, it seems acupuncture enthusiasts could seriously be onto something. Some people swear by acupuncture, citing it as a “miracle” to improving their quality of life because it’s said to be able to treat everything from depression and allergies to morning sickness and cramps.
If you listen to devotees, the prickly treatment sounds almost like a wonderful cure-all — but is it? Let’s take a closer look.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine-based approach to treating a variety of conditions by triggering specific points on the skin with needles. Paul Kempisty, licensed acupuncturist with a MS in traditional Oriental medicine, explains, “[Acupuncture is] a minimally invasive method to stimulate nerve-rich areas of the skin surface in order to influence tissues, gland, organs, and various functions of the body.”
“Each acupuncture needle produces a tiny injury at the insertion site, and although it’s slight enough to cause little to no discomfort, it’s enough of a signal to let the body know it needs to respond,” Kempisty says. “This response involves stimulation of the immune system, promoting circulation to the area, wound healing, and pain modulation.” Contemporary research on acupuncture relies mainly on this theory.
What’s the philosophy behind acupuncture?
The Chinese philosophy behind acupuncture is a bit more complicated, as the ancient practice isn’t traditionally based in science and medicine. “They believed that the human body was filled with and animated by an invisible life-giving force which they called ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’) and when the qi was flowing well and going to all the right places, then a person would experience good mental and physical health. When the qi was flowing incorrectly (blocked or deficient) that would result in illness,” says Kempisty.
The concept of qi isn’t too out there — think of it as your body’s natural inner workings. Sometimes you’re more prone to illness when feeling stressed or anxious. When you’re relaxed and healthy, your body physically reflects that too. After all, your mood, mental health, and general well-being do affect your physical health. Thus, acupuncture aims to assist people in achieving balance, or qi, and, as a result, provide relief for many ailments.
You may be interested in acupuncture for a variety of reasons — for example, I sought treatment for my chronic headaches and sinus pressure — as there are countless conditions and symptoms that acupuncture has been said to help with. Here are just some of the many claims:
- anxiety and depression
- chronic pain, often in the neck, back, knees, and head
- menstrual cramps and PMS
- morning sickness
Limited evidence for
- abdominal pain
- cancer pain
- stiff neck
- alcohol dependence
While there’s no evidence that acupuncture is a miracle cure-all, it does seem to have some evidence as a worth-while treatment for people who may have multiple conditions and illnesses. There’s a reason it’s been around for more than 2,500 years and as research grows, so will our knowledge of exactly what works and what does.
For now, if you have a condition that acupuncture does have scientific backing for, here’s what to expect from a session: an acupuncture session to last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, though most of this time may be spent discussing your symptoms and concerns with your practitioner sans needles. The actual treatment portion of acupuncture may last around 30 minutes, though you don’t necessarily have needles in your skin for that long!
In terms of results, it’s nearly impossible to say what one should expect, as everyone responds to and experiences acupuncture differently.
“There is no universal response to acupuncture. Some people feel relaxed and may be a little tired, others feel energized and ready for anything,” Kempisty explains. “Some people experience an improvement right away and for others it can take several treatments before noticing a positive change.”
The most common response to acupuncture, however?
“People feel happy and content,” Kempisty says. “It’s hard to put into words but there’s a distinct balanced and harmonious feeling that acupuncture gives most people and it just feels good!” You may also feel tired after a treatment and see changes in your eating, sleeping, or bowel habits, or experience no changes at all.
“If you know someone who has had a positive experience with an acupuncturist, ask that person for a personal referral or introduction. That’s usually the best way, as like-minded people often keep each other’s company,” Kempisty says.
Be sure to see a licensed acupuncturist (they should have LAc after their name). A licensed acupuncturist is required to pass the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) exam or complete the NCCAOM program in the foundations of Oriental medicine, acupuncture, and biomedicine. Some certification requirements slightly differ by state however: for example, California has its own licensing exam. You can also look online for certified acupuncturists in your area.
How much does an acupuncturist cost?
The cost of an acupuncture session depends on where you live and on whether or not the practitioner takes your insurance. For example, The UC San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine charges $124 per session, without insurance. According to Thumbtack, a company that connects customers to professionals, the average cost for an acupuncturist in San Francisco, California is $85 per session. The average cost of an acupuncturist in Austin, Texas and Saint Louis, Missouri ranges from $60-85 per session.
You should never try acupuncture on your own. Not only may it worsen your symptoms, Kempisty insists “that wouldn’t be a good way to balance your qi.” Instead, Kempisty recommends “Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation [and learning] simple self-massage techniques to promote the flow of energy into your aroma and different parts of your body,” if you’re looking for ways to gain similar benefits at home. Pressing these points is known as acupressure.
Lisa Chan, LAc and certified reflexologist, provided some insight as to which points on your body you can massage on your own.
If you’re experiencing menstrual cramps, for example, “hold the hollow of your inner ankle with your thumb, using little or no pressure.” This covers points K 3, 4, and 5. If you’re having trouble sleeping, rub in circles the “Yintang,” located between the eyebrows, going clockwise, then counter-clockwise. To help ease lower back pain, Chan recommends pressing “Du 26,” the space between the middle of your nose and upper lip.
The most popular pressure point is the “LI 4” (large intestine 4), and for good reason. Pressing this point, located on the muscle between your thumb and index finger, is meant to help alleviate headaches, toothaches, stress, and facial and neck pain. Don’t press this point if you’re pregnant, unless you’re ready for labor. In that case, it could help induce contractions.
- For menstrual cramps, massage the hollow of your inner ankle with a little pressure.
- For insomnia, rub clockwise, then counter-clockwise circles in the spot between your eyebrows.
- For lower back pain, press the space between the middle of your nose and upper lip.
- For general headaches, try pressure on the muscle between your thumb and index finger.
If you’re unsure of how or where to start, consult with a certified reflexologist or acupuncturist. A professional can demonstrate where and how to apply pressure properly. Acupuncture is recognized as safe and beneficial for many conditions, but it’s not a cure-all for everything — you should still be taking your medications. But while it may not eliminate your symptoms, it could still ease them. So it may be worth a try, especially when it comes to chronic pain.
If you’re still skeptical, talk to your doctor about your concerns. They’ll look at your symptoms, medical history, and overall health to help determine if acupuncture is right for you.
Danielle Sinay is a writer, musician, and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. She's written for Bushwick Daily where she serves as Contributing Editor, as well as Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Healthline, Man Repeller, and more. Danielle has a BA from Bard College and an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing from The New School. You can email Danielle.