What happens during an acupuncture treatment?

acupuncture treatment

"Am I going to look like the guy from Hellraiser?"

"I don’t know about acupuncture - What if I’m afraid of needles?!"

"Do I have to lie as still as a board when the needles are in?"

These are just some of the common questions people ask me when they’re in my office for their first acupuncture treatment.

Yeah, acupuncture is getting more and more commonplace nowadays (even my Grandpa had acupuncture for a painful hip almost 10 years ago), but it’s still a pretty bizarre thing for many, many people.

Today I’m going to demystify an acupuncture treatment for all y’all. Help you to see what my devoted patients see. Understand why I can have a new patient going from being a nervous wreck about the thought of needles in their body one second, to blissfully snoozing away on the table 30 minutes later.

So, what really happens during an acupuncture appointment?

If it’s your first time (Ooh, you acu-virgin you!), you’ll take a seat in a comfy chair, I’ll get you a glass of water or tea, and then we’ll start out with your typical doctor’s office boredom. Yep, paperwork. Acupuncturists in Minnesota are licensed by the MN Board of Medical Practice, which means I follow many of the same rules and regulations as any other doctor’s office. I’ll go over your privacy rights and the acupuncture consent form with you and then we’ll be past the boring stuff and onto the reason you’re here!

One of the reasons people love getting acupuncture is that they’re not used to a medical practitioner actually taking the time to really get to know them and their health story. During your first treatment we’ll easily spend up to 40 minutes chatting about your medical history, your current symptoms - I’ll even want to hear about your diet, sleep, stress, and anything else that might be affecting your health.

After I get to know you better than a first tinder-date, I’ll take a look at your tongue and feel your pulse. No, I’m not counting your pulse rate - although I will make note if it’s especially fast or slow. When I’m feeling your pulse I’m actually feeling for the quality of your pulse. Does it feel taut like a guitar string? Or soft and squishy like a sponge. There are tons of variables that I’m feeling for when I take your pulse - all of which give me even more diagnostic information.

Same goes for looking at your tongue. (And no, please don’t scrape your tongue before an acupuncture treatment! That coat means something to me! And seriously, I look at tongues all day long - no need for embarrassment here.) The shape, color, and texture all tell me things! Just from looking at your tongue, I can tell how you’re pooping, how you’re sleeping, or how stressed out you’ve been feeling!

After the interrogation (oops, I mean interview and tongue/pulse diagnosis), it’s #needlenap time!

I generally ask patients to either wear loose clothing or to bring a change of shorts/t-shirt with them so I can have easy access to elbows and knees. (Lots of great acupoints around those elbows and knees!) Then you’ll lie down on my super comfy, heated massage table (yep, you read that right, this is the ultimate adult nap-time) and I’ll get started.

The treatment itself consists of ultra-thin, sterile, disposable needles inserted gently by yours truly into specific areas of the body. I generally explain to people that the insertion feels like a tiny mosquito bite - nothing like a shot from a doctor! The needles I use are crazy thin (thinner than a dog’s whisker) and incredibly comfortable.

Once the needles are in, there are a range of sensations you might feel. I’ve heard everything from “I feel light - like I’m floating,” to “My arms are like a ton of bricks right now.” My favorite was when a patient told me that it felt like “water bubbling from a stream.” Seriously! How freaking awesome is that? I always make sure to tell people that if any of the needles feel painful or uncomfortable, to let me know right away and I’ll take it out and re-do it. There’s no reason that you should feel any discomfort in one of my treatments (that’s just not my style).

Once you’re all set, you can lie back and relax. And don’t worry - even though you have needles in, you don’t have to be perfectly still. If you have an itch - scratch it! I don’t want you hopping off the table with a bunch of needles in you, but shifting your weight around to get more comfortable or scratching an itch on your nose is really no big deal. Your comfort is key. You may even doze off a bit! This deep sense of relaxation really helps stimulate the body's innate ability to heal.

What happens after an acupuncture treatment?

After you’ve been resting (or napping/meditating/counting the slats in the ceiling) for about 25 minutes I’ll gently wake you up and take all your needles out. Everyone always proclaims how much more relaxed they feel right away.

After you’re up and back to reality, I’ll have you drink a glass of water (and remind you to keep drinking more after you’ve left) and go over your treatment plan with you. The frequency of your appointments is totally dependent upon your specific situation. In some acute cases more treatments in a shorter amount of time is necessary, while in more chronic conditions, a longer treatment plan that includes herbs might be recommended. In general it’s good to plan on coming once a week for a month to “build up your dosage” and to help the treatments last longer. As your symptoms become less noticeable I’ll scale back the frequency to fit your body’s needs.

As for how you’ll feel later in the day - everyone reacts differently to their first acupuncture treatment. Some people feel a bit zoned out (almost as if you've had a couple at happy hour!) while others get a boost of energy. How you personally react will tell me a lot about your constitution and how I’ll proceed in future treatments. So always feel free to email me the next day and update me on how you’re feeling.

Either way, whether you feel relaxed or energized, I recommend you avoid vigorous exercise after treatment. Even though you might be thinking, "All I did was lay on a massage table and take a nap!" your body was working hard that whole time - moving a lot of energy and doing a lot of healing - all of which can be a little tiring. If you're determined to get in some exercise after your appointment, I suggest something gentle such as restorative yoga, tai chi, or a nice walk.

So there you go! An acupuncture appointment deconstructed. That’s not so scary after-all, right?

Do you feel like you have a better idea now of what goes on in a session? Do you still have more questions? I’d love to hear them (and answer them)!

Tell me in the comments what other questions you have about acupuncture!

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

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