As Westerners, it’s understandable that we approach acupuncture and Chinese medicine treatments with some skepticism and lots of questions. Better to answer the questions and debunk the myths than to let misconceptions steer us away from a highly effective healing system that has been used to preserve health and promote healing for thousands of years.

We have a tendency to fear the things we don’t understand. It’s human nature. Gaining an understanding of what to expect during an acupuncture treatment can help to calm any fear or anxiety you might have.

Acupuncture hurts.

The video above is edited from a 1935 cartoon short Balloon Land, which tells the story of a surrealistic world where balloon people are threatened by the dangerous Pincushion Man. Creepy, yes – but I use it to prove a point. (Pun intended.) I’d like to be very clear: I am not the Pincushion Man and I am not here to hurt (or pop) you.

Acupuncture does not produce the same feeling as receiving an injection or phlebotomy. Receiving an injection or having blood drawn is performed with a much larger gauge (thicker) needle. Conventional Western medical needles are also hollow and cut on a taper, enacbling the practitioner to pierce the desired tissue either to draw fluid from the body or to inject a substance into the body. It’s often painful and uncomfortable.

The needles that are used in the practice of acupuncture are very fine, similar in width to a hair or a cat’s whisker. They are also solid so they typically pierce the skin more easily, causing no damage to tissue and creating only a faint sensation. This sensation tends to be perceived as more energetic: a vibration or feeling of heaviness, rather than pain. As a clinician, I view this as a desirable reaction. “In the business,” we call it the arrival of qi to the acupuncture point. Since this sensation is unfamiliar to most people who have never had acupuncture before, it’s commonly misinterpreted as pain. This sensation will generally fade quickly. Needles inserted into places like hands, feet, ears and wrists (areas that aren’t very fleshy) tend to elicit the most sensation.

Due to the many natural chemical reactions that are sparked in the body by acupuncture, including endorphin release, most patients find acupuncture treatment very relaxing and many fall asleep during treatment. This is your body’s energy reorganizing and finding homeostatic balance.

Acupuncture doesn’t work. I had it once and nothing changed.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine treatments build upon one another, so you need to give them some time to work. Success cannot be judged if results aren’t instantaneous. You don’t get into shape after working out for one day, right? Stop looking for a quick fix! Chinese medicine and acupuncture would not be the oldest continually practiced form of medicine in the world if it didn’t work.

A quick lesson on acupuncture and Chinese medicine: It is based on the premise that the body has the innate potential to heal itself. In Chinese medicine, we use modalities like acupuncture, massage, Chinese herbal medicine, cupping and moxabustion to support the body’s transition towards health.

What is sometimes difficult to wrap our heads around is that many of our issues have been in the making for a quite a while. Maybe an annoying symptom has just started or resurfaced after being dormant for a long stretch of time. During treatment, I use a “root and branch” approach to tease out the imbalance. I look, feel and inquire about the recent chain of events around the current concern but I also go back and drill down into what other precipitating factors may have come into play to prod this complaint to the forefront.

Often enduring stress, less than optimal nutritional choices, or lack of sleep was enough to ignite “the sleeping giant”. This is not to say that some complaints will respond rather quickly to treatment and potentially resolve.

Generally speaking, there are 4 criteria that I use to provide you with a realistic prognosis:

  • The length of time that the issue has existed. Acute conditions, issues that are less than a month old, tend to respond to treatment sooner than longstanding, chronic complaints.
  • Overall health of a patient. Generally, people in better overall health respond faster to treatment.
  • Severity of the issue. Milder complaints respond faster than severely debilitating disease processes.
  • A willingness to make some changes to your life and/or routine. Illness can be seen as an opportunity to reshuffle things a bit. I recommend lifestyle modifications to enhance the healing process. Try one or two ideas out, rather than being resistant. Often these suggestions spur other positive changes to our day-to-day existence.

Acupuncturists are all the same.

This is kind of like saying all doctors are the same. Chinese medicine is a detailed and nuanced system of medicine that has been practiced in several countries around the world for thousands of years. As a result, there are many valid schools of thought and traditions within the profession.

To receive the best care in the United States you should seek a practitioner who has been comprehensively trained and NCCAOM Board certified in Oriental Medicine. This designation is the Board certification given to practitioners who have passed ALL of the NCCAOM tests pertaining to the practice of Chinese medicine. This distinguishes practitioners with competency in acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and Western Biomedicine.

My approach to patients is built on this foundation. I have been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001 and I am a Pennsylvania Licensed Practitioner of Oriental Medicine (L.OM.). I am also a Board-appointed member of the Consulting Staff at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, part of the Jefferson Health System. I hold the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a level of accreditation held by only 8% of practitioners across the state. I invest a considerable amount of time each year to expand my training, learn new methods and gain a deeper understanding of the medicine.

Acupuncture is not real. It is folk medicine and legitimate healthcare professionals would not recommend it.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are recommended by many medical institutions as both a stand-alone and integrative treatment. Both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize acupuncture and Chinese medicine as efficacious treatment options for a wide range of conditions.

The WHO recently released the document The WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014–2023, a policy statement developed and launched in response to the World Health Assembly resolution on traditional medicine (WHA62.13). The strategy aims to support member states in developing proactive policies and implementing action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy. Even the United States military uses acupuncture. The Department of Veterans Affair’s War Related Illness and Injury Study Center offers veterans care that includes acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

Acupuncture is only for pain relief.

While many patients do seek acupuncture for relief of chronic pain such as arthritis, low back pain, headaches, neck pain and basically any other muscle pain you can think of, the benefits of treatment do not stop there.

The World Health Organization and National Institute of Health recognizes acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine’s ability to treat over 43 common disorders. Studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment alone or in combination with conventional therapies to treat anxiety, depression, stress, addiction, insomnia, allergies, hypertension, asthma, nausea from chemotherapy, infertility, digestion, fibromyalgia and may also help with stroke rehabilitation among many other things.

Acupuncture has a lot of side effects and you’ll need time off work.

Actually, acupuncture has very few side effects. Treatments do affect everyone differently however, so it is generally recommended to take it easy after a treatment. It is also recommended that before having treatment, make sure you have had light meal so you reduce the likelihood of becoming light headed or faint. Sometimes needles in certain acupuncture points can cause a residual ache or even some slight bruising lasting a couple of days after the treatment. This can be soothed with topical ointments or a warm epsom salt bath. The most common side effects are pleasant: better sleep, more energy, less stress, mental clarity, and better digestion.

I don’t believe in acupuncture so it won’t work for me.

Acupuncture stimulates the central nervous system. This releases chemicals such as endorphins into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These natural painkillers stimulate the body’s natural healing abilities, promoting physical and emotional well-being. So, you don’t need to believe in acupuncture for it to believe in (or work for) you.

Acupuncture is dangerous and unregulated.

No one wants to receive any sort of medical treatment in an unsafe environment – and acupuncture is a medical treatment. The FDA regulates acupuncture needles just as it does other medical devices under good manufacturing practices and single-use standards of sterility.

Currently, most states plus the District of Columbia require the passage of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) examinations or NCCAOM certification as a prerequisite for licensure. Like any other medical professional, the more time and training your acupuncturist or Practitioner of Oriental Medicine has spent seeing patients, the more experience they might have for your particular concerns.