Acupuncture: Everything you need to know before you try it

Acupuncture is an ancient practice that involves inserting thin needles into the skin in strategic areas.Getty Images

Find out the science behind it and the risks involved.

by Mercey Livingston

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.

Acupuncture is a popular practice, but it’s been around for thousands of years and has roots in Chinese medicine.Getty Images

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.

Acupuncture is said to stimulate points along the paths in your body where Qi flows.Getty Images

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…


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