In the world of modern wellness, there's a spectrum that most popular trends fall under -- you have the "woo-woo" on one end and tried-and-true, science-backed practices on the other. There's also a gray area in between, which is where acupuncture fits.
Acupuncture is an ancient practice of inserting the end of a thin needle into your body to relieve pain, reduce stress and provide other health benefits. While there is mixed evidence on whether or not it works, even the most skeptical people may find relief from a practice that dates back to ancient history with roots in traditional Chinese medicine. And even though Western and Eastern medicine practices may disagree on exactly how acupuncture works -- it's said to help lots of people deal with pain, stress, hormonal imbalances and migraines among other issues.
What's interesting about acupuncture, is that it's truly endured the test of time -- people keep coming back to it despite every other kind of treatment that's been invented for pain management. "Acupuncture has withstood the test of time and gained momentum over the years because of its positive results and lack of harmful side effects," said Gabriel Sher, a licensed and board-certified acupuncturist and the director of Acupuncture at Ora in New York City.
If you're curious about trying acupuncture, keep reading to find out more about the potential benefits, risks, and other tips you need to know before your first session.
What is acupuncture?
"Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that originated thousands of years ago. Acupuncturists insert thin needles into the skin at specific points in the body in order to balance the flow of "Qi" – the energy flow in the body," Sher says. The idea is that Qi (pronounced "chee") travels along paths (or meridians) in your body. Acupuncture points sit along these meridians and stimulating them is said to balance the flow of Qi.
Pain relief is one of the top reasons people seek acupuncture, but it's often used for a wide variety of health concerns. "Acupuncture is commonly used to treat pain, but can be used for overall wellness, including stress management, depression, headaches, asthma, regulation of hormones, fertility issues, gastrointestinal disorders and many other ailments," says Sher.
Although it is widely used, acupuncture is not commonly recognized in Western medicine. However, Western medical practitioners that do use or recommend acupuncture treatment believe that it can be effective for relieving some ailments because acupuncture points are known for stimulating nerve, muscle or connective tissue that could help with pain. Some believe that it can help the body release endorphins, which are chemicals that help with pain.
What's it like to get acupuncture?
Your experience will vary widely based on where you go and who your practitioner is. But to give you an idea, at Ora in New York City, you will start the session with an initial consultation. This is a common practice since it takes some time for a practitioner to evaluate how to best treat you and determine which acupuncture points to stimulate.
You'll usually lie on a comfortable massage table in a private room while the practitioner inserts 12 to 25 needles at strategic points in the body, and then leaves them in for 25 minutes. According to Ora, some people notice immediate relief after one session, while others need more regular sessions to see results.
Acupuncture costs can vary depending on where you live and the kind of office you go to. A private session will be more expensive, and in a big city, like San Francisco, can cost around $80 to $120. You can also try a community acupuncture clinic, where you are in a room with other people while receiving treatment.
Does it hurt?
If you're not a fan of needles, acupuncture may not be for you. The process usually involves a practitioner inserting many (sometimes as many as a hundred or so) of small, fine needles into your skin. Most people say that it does not hurt since the needles are so thin, but you do have to stay very still when they are in your skin, which may be uncomfortable.
It's not going to be as painful as getting a flu shot, because the needles are much smaller. However, you might feel a twinge of pain when the needle is inserted, which usually goes away quickly.
What does science say?
The scientific evidence on acupuncture is mixed, however it's been studied in clinical trials for a long time. A 2012 study found that it can be effective for patients with chronic pain conditions like neck, back, shoulder pain and headaches. A meta-analysis confirmed the same claims in 2018.
The research for the effectiveness of acupuncture for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression is promising, but more needs to be done before conclusions can be drawn.
Acupuncture has been studied for its effects on heart rate variability (HRV), which is a sign of overall health and stress resilience. Some studies have shown that it can help improve HRV, which is promising news for those that seek the treatment to help with stress, whether that is psychological or physical.
How to find a legit practitioner
Since your acupuncture experience will vary so much based on who you see, it's important to take the steps to find someone that is well trained and certified appropriately.
First, you will want to make sure the acupuncturist will take the appropriate steps before they even treat you -- and not rush through the process. "Unlike Western medicine, acupuncture strives to understand and treat the whole patient. A good acupuncturist will do a thorough interview of the patient to understand their current mental and physical state and lifestyle, including their diet, exercise habits, sleep and other factors," says Sher.
The actual licensing requirements vary by state, but the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is a good place to start if you're looking for a certified acupuncturist.
Acupuncture risks and safety
Overall, acupuncture is considered relatively safe and usually has no side-effects. However, there are certain risks that are helpful to be aware of, since someone is inserting needles into your skin, which could potentially hit places you don't want them to or trigger nerves in the wrong way.
One example of an adverse effect is pneumothorax (a collapsed lung). This is not very common, but one of my former coworkers had this happen to her after an acupuncture session on her back. Since using acupuncture treatment to treat back pain is so common, it's important to be aware of the risks of having needles inserted close to bodily organs. Some researchers think that pneumothorax could be underreported, so there's a potential that it happens more than we know.
Other risks include bleeding and infection, so if you take any medications like blood thinners, you will want to check with a doctor and be extra cautious before you try acupuncture.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.