This is a question I get a lot from people who’ve never had acupuncture. It’s easy to see why because a lot of people are apprehensive about needles. Many people have had a fear or dislike of needles since childhood or had a bad experience at a doctor’s office or while giving blood.
My short answer is no, acupuncture does not hurt and in what follows I’ll explain why.
To start, lets talk about acupuncture needles. Acupuncture needles are so thin, you can put roughly 20-30 acupuncture needles in the hole of a hypodermic needle. Most of the needles I use are .20mm or .22mm thick, which means they are hairline thin.
When an acupuncture needle is inserted, there might be a sensation I’d describe as “pinchy,” or you won’t feel anything at all. I’ve had a number of patients unaware a needle had just been inserted. Lets talk about this pinchy feeling. If a needle feels pinchy when inserted that feeling usually lasts up to 3 seconds and I ask patients to wait three seconds to see if that pinchy feeling goes away. If a needle stays pinchy, it doesn’t mean anything was done wrong, but we want to make an adjustment so you don’t feel anything anymore. Needles should settle after the initial insertion, where you don’t feel anything, and often a patient doesn’t feel anything that needs to “settle.” A lot of patients will have a needle in and not physically be able to tell or sense the needle is there.
A special note about acupuncture sometimes feeling pinchy – acupuncture might be more pinchy if a patient is being treated for orthopedic pain and injury recovery. Also, if a patient is tense in their body because of apprehension, the needle is likely to feel more pinchy.
Very few, but some patients are needle sensitive, for those patients I use a needle that is .16mm thick. With acupuncture, you should communicate with your acupuncturist in how you feel if there is anything you want adjusted or done differently, it is your body, you are in control.
If a patient does have that pinchy feeling when a needle is inserted, it’s typically in the area of the wrist, hands and feet because there is less muscle covering these areas.
Some of the other sensations you might feel with acupuncture are a nerve shooting like sensation upon initial insertion because some acupuncture points are close to nerves. This is common and should only last a second. Very rare, but if it continues past the initial insertion a minor adjustment stops the nerve sensation “feeling.” Every person’s anatomy is slightly different, so each person will have a very individualistic experience. There are certain acupuncture points where we almost expect you to have a slight nerve sensation.
Another feeling you might have is that of a trigger point, or feeling of the muscle “jumping.” This is the feeling of the muscle having an involuntary contraction, which can feel weird at first. A lot of patients like this feeling because it helps to release tight and sore muscles. I’ve had patients who’ve come into the office unable to turn their neck to one side and after trigger point needling where able to do so.
Another term for trigger point needling is “dry needling.” In some states, physical therapists have lobbied their state representatives to add dry needling to their scope of practice and they state it’s a unique modality different from acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, but this is untrue, trigger point therapy has been described in written Chinese medicine theory for and been in use by Chinese Medicine practitioners for over 3,000 years. The trigger points are often in the location of muscle motor points and their stimulation can cause a muscle to have an involuntary contraction.
The take away from this information is…don’t let a fear of needles hold you back from trying acupuncture. Every patient I’ve treated who was apprehensive about needles or pain quickly realized they had nothing to worry about. So often in life, we build things up, making them larger than life, giving into fear and hesitation when later we realize there was nothing to fear to begin with.
As previously mentioned, a patient should keep in mind that it’s your body and you are ultimately in control and should give feedback to your acupuncturist about what you feel and if you want anything adjusted.