What Really Happens at Acupuncture — and How It Helps Your Body

Mar 27, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Like a lot of people, I'm not a big fan of needles, so the idea of someone sticking them all over various parts of my body never really seemed appealing. Having said that, acupuncture has always seemed like an interesting concept, so I decided to try it. In case you're as curious as I was, here's what happened when I went to my very first acupuncture session as well as input from medical doctors about whether or not acupuncture actually has health benefits.

What happens at acupuncture?

Yes, there are needles, but they don't come out right away. Given that it was my first time having acupuncture, I started off by filling out a long health questionnaire, which I then discussed with my acupuncturist. I immediately wanted to ask him about his qualifications — what he studied in order to offer acupuncture professionally — but I decided against it out of fear of being culturally insensitive or coming across as difficult. If at any point I felt unsafe, I could leave.

The first thing I learned was that you're expected to get acupuncture for a specific condition — not just to try it out. So I rattled off my various mental health conditions as well as painful menstruation and occasional neck pain from sitting at a desk for extended periods of time. He seemed satisfied with my ailments, and then told me to undress to the waist and to make sure my legs (from the backs of my knees to my feet) were also bare.

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While I figured he'd be poking around on my back, I didn't anticipate having to remove my tights and had not shaved my legs in quite some time — so if that's something that concerns you, you may want to do that ahead of time. Then he had me lie facedown on a massage table with my face through one of those padded holes that force you to stare at the ground.

That's when the needles started going in. Honestly, the only ones that hurt were the ones that went straight into the tender skin on the backs of my knees — the rest were an initially tiny pinch, and then I felt nothing.

Another part I hadn't anticipated was how long the needles would be in there — it was about 25 minutes total. And unlike a massage, when you're enjoying the experience and relaxing, during this time, you're just lounging there, facedown, looking like a porcupine. If I were to do this again, I'd bring a book with me to sneakily read under the table.

After this, a woman entered the room, and without saying anything, removed all the needles and then started cupping. Again, I didn't know cupping was part of the process, so it was another surprise. I tried to turn my head slightly so I could see what was going on. Turns out, she was taking small, round glass cups, quickly lighting a fire inside them, blowing them out, and then sticking them on my back. Those stayed there for a few minutes, then she removed them and gave me a massage. But it wasn't a relaxing spa massage — it didn't hurt, but it didn't feel enjoyable either. When that was over, she told me to get dressed, and nearly two hours after I arrived at the office, it was finished.

Aside from the marks from the cupping (which lasted a few days), I didn't really notice any differences or improvements after my acupuncture session. The acupuncturist said that some people feel something after their first appointment, but others take longer than that. (I take it I'm in the second category.)

Are there any health benefits?

Naturally, the acupuncturist was confident that a few sessions with him would help everything from my cramps to my depression, but I wanted to check in with some medical doctors on that as well. Turns out, some do recommend acupuncture to patients as treatment for pain.

"Acupuncture is not a cure for everything, but has been shown to be helpful for pain relief," Dr. Marc Winter, an OB-GYN and medical director of minimally invasive surgery at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows.

Similarly, Dr. Kristine Arthur, an internist at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says she frequently refers her patients for acupuncture for a number of acute and chronic conditions ranging from migraines, back pain and muscle spasms to Bell’s palsy, anxiety, insomnia and fibromyalgia.

"They often have some immediate improvement in symptoms with one visit and longer-term improvement of chronic, more severe symptoms with multiple visits," Arthur tells SheKnows. "I find it helps to reduce the need for medications; however, we can use it along with medication if needed."

Winter says, "Studies showed benefit for neck, back [and] knee pain as well as headaches," but the exact mechanics of how and why it works is "not well-explained in Western medicine."

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Dr. Kym Loi, a diplomate of Oriental medicine and integrative medicine at MemorialCare Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California, explains that in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is linked to the belief that disease is caused by stagnation or disruptions to the flow of energy, or qi (aka chi), in the body.

"Acupuncture entails stimulating points at various locations on the body to alleviate the stagnation (i.e., reduce inflammation), promote free flow of energy and improve circulation (i.e., relieve pain and reduce swelling)," Loi explains. "In other words, acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s natural energy (qi) to free up stagnation within the energetic pathways (called meridian channels) that link to their related tissues, organs and bones."

The belief is that normal energy flow means there will likely also be normal blood flow, according to Loi.

"The combination of qi and blood bring nourishment to the entire body from the inside (again, the vital organs, tissues and bones) and out (skin, hair, nail, complexion, etc.)," she explains. "With the vital organ systems working in harmony with one another, acupuncture is believed to help regulate imbalances, improve the body’s functions, restore balance and promote the body’s natural self-healing process while helping achieve physical and mental health."

Finally, when it comes to acupuncture, it's not an either-or situation: Loi says that acupuncture can be used in combination with the best evidence-based medicine "to offer both traditional and alternative treatment options to patients."

If you think acupuncture may be a good option for you, bring it up the next time you see your doctor to see if it might be a useful and safe treatment for your particular conditions.

Health benefits of acupuncture
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

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