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Does Acupuncture Hurt?

If you begin googling, “does acupuncture…” you won’t make it past the first “u” before Google characteristically injects by finishing: “Does acupuncture hurt?”

What I’ve come to realize is what people are really asking is not whether acupuncture actually hurts, but: Does it feel like a lab needle? The answer is no.

Needles used to give shots or draw blood are comparatively huge in width, as they require a hollow center to either inject or extract fluids from our body. Acupuncture needles are a fraction of that size, as they are solid don’t have to hold anything. Additionally lab needles typically puncture veins, whereas our intention is to purposely avoid them in order to stimulate particular “points.” These factors combine to form two experiences so dissimilar in sensation that it doesn’t even seem accurate to label them both as “needles.” I can guarantee you that acupuncture feels nothing like drawing blood. HOWEVER…

The tips of all needles must all be pointy in order to pierce the skin, which means you may on occasion feel a slight pinch; with the proper technique of the hand being quicker than pain receptor response, I assure you there will be some points to which you exclaim: “I didn’t even feel that one!” HOWEVER…

Simple entry is not the end of acupuncture. It’s important that we elicit a “chi sensation” with the needle, just for a quick moment before allowing you to relax (and heal). This brief sensation most often feels like a dull ache or heavy cramp and can occasionally travel down the pathway of your limb. Not to worry. The sensation is no different than what we’ve all felt from any strong massage or pressure point, because there is no such thing as a “pressure point.” Those are acupuncture points, and that sensation of “pressure” is the chi. It doesn’t freak any of us out when someone does it with their thumb, but for some reason when we’re aware that the same sensation is being elicited by a needle, we freak out. It’s mostly psychological.

I say mostly because there are tangible components as well. Some points are more sensitive than others, for example points on the hands and feet can be sensitive where there is minimal fat and muscle, but maximum “chi”. Certain medical conditions can make one more sensitive to sensation, such as Fibromyalgia. Our intention in acupuncture is to manipulate fluids and/or energy in the meridians, which in many cases have been stagnant for many years. It doesn’t feel like lab needles, but it’s not a kiss on the cheek either.

I see between 30-40 patients a week of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, and I’m fascinated by the gamut they run in response to acupuncture. I have some patients who begin freaking out even as I approach the table with the needle in hand. I can see them closing their eyes and tensing their muscles (hint: not a good idea) as I decide how to be effective and gentle. One lady used to cover her face with one arm as if “watching” a horror movie, until finally for the last point I’d request: “Okay, I need that arm now.” It can be quite comical, though I understand that it mostly comes from fear and not from how torturous the tiny needles themselves are.

At the opposite pole are the patients who are experienced enough with acupuncture to have developed the proverbial palette for it, or are just naturally tolerant. They give me the gift of being able to practice like the stereotypical, old school Chinese practitioner I so aspire to be, aggressively twisting and twirling the needle to the point that I can walk out of the room without a shadow of a doubt that I’ve manipulated their chi. They’re tougher than even I’ve ever been on the table, God bless ‘em.

One (female) colleague of mine mentioned to me that she’s observed men to be more sensitive than women in general, echoing the idea that women have higher pain thresholds. Interestingly, my experience has been the opposite, which berthed in us the hypothesis that much of patient sensitivity is psychosomatic and (at least loosely) influenced by who is needling us.

Don’t get me wrong. Acupuncture doesn’t have to be “no pain, no gain,” and I don’t necessarily believe the more it hurts, the better it works. But there is something to be said for the potential long-term benefits of short-term discomfort.

I’ve thought about it often, while abstaining from eating something I shouldn’t, calling that girl that I know I shouldn’t, or holding any yoga pose for two breaths more than I thought I was capable of, specifically “humble warrior.” Maybe this says something about my struggles with humility? It happens at least once a class, I find myself sweating and exhausted, finally unable to breathe as the teacher instructs us to: “breathe easily,” and the burning muscles in my thigh feel like they’re going to give out at any moment, and I wonder: “Why do I do this? Am I enjoying myself?” Of course not. I mean, there are enjoyable moments in yoga class – days that I feel strong and fluid and my energy is high and I get to observe and experience progress. Obviously, this part is fun. But the majority of most hours are as socially advertised: a workout. Workout: An exercise in disciplining my breath while learning about my body and pushing myself to that point just past comfort, so that I may grow and expand, and evolve, but on most days just so I can maintain and maybe even feel positive about this world and all its craziness.

Full disclosure: I hated acupuncture probably the first five times I received it. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I also disliked plain green tea and kale the first time I tried them, though probably contrived otherwise about the latter. Now I genuinely love both. I crave them both, that biting bitter flavor that is all too neglected in our western diet, which partially explains our rampant obesity and chronic disease, and anytime someone corrupts my green tea with sweetener I feel how Italians do about adding parmesan cheese to seafood pastas.

Acupuncture kinda hurts, yeah, for one or two seconds multiplied by 8-12 needles each time, for a maximum of 30 seconds, after which you get to relax for 30 minutes and absorb who knows how many benefits as a result. Acupuncture can hurt, yoga hurts, martial arts classes hurt, not eating the bad things you crave for every meal hurts, and the broken heart from leaving toxic relationships hurts. So? Welcome some reasonable discomfort into your life, and who knows how strong you can become.