Acupuncture Shouldn't "Hurt" — But Here's What It Does Feel Like
If you've never experienced acupuncture for yourself, you might be wondering what it feels like. After all, getting dozens of little needles poked into you doesn't exactly sound like it'd be pleasant. Here's a recap of my experience getting acupuncture for the first time and some expert tips on what physical sensations to expect during a session.
Does acupuncture hurt?
I decided to go to acupuncture to find relief from various physical pains and explore my own internal energy, or chi. When I showed up for my first appointment a couple of months ago, I didn't know what to expect—and yes, I was a little worried it would hurt. I was pleasantly surprised to find it didn't, or at least not in the way I expected.
First, it's worth noting that everyone responds to acupuncture differently. For me, certain needles, or filaments, caused a dull ache, but beyond that I didn't really feel them at all—partially because they are so thin. There were occasionally sensitive spots, like my knees and hips, but I've since been told that there was a purpose to those sensations. (More on that, later.) This experience jibes with what Toni Haugen, L.Ac, a licensed acupuncturist who works out of Buffalo, New York, has seen with many of her patients.
"When the filament is inserted, there can be a slight pinch, but oftentimes my patients are unaware that the needling has begun," she explains.
If it doesn't hurt, what does it feel like?
So, while acupuncture probably won't feel like being stabbed by a dozen needles, you can expect to feel something during a session.
"When adjusting the filament, I explain to the patients they may feel a mild, dull, and achy sensation that will immediately begin to fade," Haugen says. "It's a feeling that exists on the interior of the body and feels more like the body responding to stimulus and not like something has been inserted into the skin."
Once the filaments are in, you'll sit or lie down with them inserted for the next 10 to 30 minutes. Common sensations to have during this time include:
- slight tingling
- extreme relaxation
- warmth in the hands and feet
- relaxing of previously tight muscles
"The sensations you'll experience through acupuncture are a reflection of where you're at," notes acupuncturist Deganit Nuur. Some people report feeling like they're floating, for instance, which usually happens "when people have been [feeling] stagnant or depressed," she says.
"Others will feel very heavy, as if there's a weighted blanket on them, indicating that perhaps they were ungrounded, frenetic, or anxious before the session," she adds. "Some feel buzzing or tingling all over—the movement of chi within."
After the filaments are removed, many people report feeling a bit dreamy—myself included. It doesn't feel like much at all to have the needles quickly pulled out at the end, and once you're done, you'll begin feeling the actual effects of the treatment (though not always immediately).
What if you feel pain during an acupuncture session?
"Feeling nothing is more of a red flag," Nuur says. "Experiencing pain suggests you're connected and not dissociating. Your body is speaking to you, and that's great! We take all sensations as feedback that help us better diagnose and treat the disharmony at hand." Haugen agrees and compares an acupuncture session to a super deep massage. It may feel a bit uncomfortable but also good—and necessary.
If you feel any of the following sensations, here's some more insight into what each one could mean:
Dull aching or throbbing
Most commonly, you may feel a dull ache around the acupuncture point. This suggests the presence of chi, Nuur says, as the area is likely experiencing fresh movement. "This usually dissipates within a few minutes. Think of it like if you've sat hunched over your whole life and you start sitting up erect: It may ache at first, but ultimately it's saving you pain."
A sharp stabbing sensation
A sharp stabbing sensation, according to Nuur, is often associated with "blood stagnation." This is a deeper level of stagnation than chi stagnation and can happen as a result of injuries or when treating chronic physical pain. It's a quick sensation that should go away as soon as it arrives, but you should definitely tell your practitioner you're feeling it.
"Electric" pins and needles
There is also the lesser common pins and needles sensation that can occur along an acupuncture channel. For example, once when getting a needle in my knee, I felt what can only be described as a current run down my calf to my foot. It didn't exactly hurt, but it was definitely different. "This lasts only a second but can be really intense, and while it is uncomfortable, it is not harmful," Nuur says.
How long do the effects of acupuncture last?
I found acupuncture to be an effective therapy, but I know it's not a cure-all. To reap the most benefits of the practice, you need to repeat it and couple it with other healthy lifestyle choices.
"Acupuncture has both a shelf life and a cumulative effect," Nuur notes. "At first, the benefits may last just a few days (shelf life); however, the longer you come in for, the longer the benefits last (cumulative effect)."
If you're new to acupuncture, Nuur and Haugen say it's ideal to visit your practitioner weekly at first, and then scale back to monthly or even seasonal sessions.
"Think of it as a practice akin to yoga, or meditation," Haugen adds, "in that it can help with something specific, but if you continue to participate, you'll feel better and better."
In the two months that I've been going, I can say without question I've noticed major improvements in my posture, my neck and shoulder pain has improved, and I'm much more aware of the way I hold my body. I'll never forget waking up the day after my first appointment, and feeling like my shoulder was sitting properly for the first time in years. I also felt inexplicably relaxed the following couple of days.
The bottom line.
Despite some fleeting discomfort, acupuncture is not painful. In fact, the sensations we are usually quick to label as "pain" and "bad" can be tremendous clues into what's going on in your body during a session. So, if you were looking for encouragement to give acupuncture a try, take it from someone who can't wait for their next session—it's worth it.
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