I must admit, before I had acupuncture, I wasn’t keen on needles myself. But like most people who haven’t had acupuncture, the needles I imagined were the kind my GP uses to take blood or give me injections. Those are hypodermic needles, and they’re about 20-30 times larger than a typical acupuncture needle. So basically, they hurt!
By contrast, a typical acupuncture needle is about the width of a human hair (the picture on the left is a good example). Its insertion is usually painless, although some patients report a sensation – typically a tingling, a feeling of warmth, or a dull ache.
Any sensations you may feel indicate that your Qi, or vital energy, is being activated by the needle. The Western scientific account of how acupuncture works (although it doesn’t explain all the effects of acupuncture) is that it deactivates certain areas in the limbic/sub-cortical structures and the cerebellum of the brain, leading to various physiological state changes including the innervation of the parasympathetic nervous system – in other words, any pain you’re feeling should reduce; various organ systems get a boost including your digestion and those organs dealing with toxin processing and excretion; and your brain starts to generate the alpha waves characteristic of deep relaxation.
Because originally I wasn’t enamoured of needles myself (although I have to say, I love them now), I’m very sympathetic to people who don’t like them, and I try to do everything I can to make treatment easy and pleasant for you. We can use breathing techniques to help you relax and feel in control, and I can use even finer needles with a special silicon coating that help to reduce any unpleasant Qi sensations that you may feel. If any Qi sensation doesn’t ‘settle’ within a couple of minutes, I can adjust needles to reduce sensation.
As an acupuncturist I don’t believe the patient necessarily has to feel a Qi sensation for a needle to work. As a student I worked with patients with peripheral sensorimotor polyneuropathy, meaning they had little or no sensation in their lower legs and arms. Despite the fact that these patients couldn’t feel any Qi sensation (although I could often feel it on the needle myself), they still returned week after week reporting good effects from their treatment. All this made me believe that if my patient doesn’t get a Qi sensation, it doesn’t mean the treatment isn’t working; and by the same token, a strong Qi sensation doesn’t mean a treatment is any more effective!
(It’s worth saying that not every acupuncturist believes this; many, perhaps most, are keen to help a patient feel a Qi sensation. I respect their views, and all I can say is that in general practice I seem to get good results without a patient feeling Qi on every needle. There are exceptions to this rule, particularly with a technique known as trigger-point needling, where the aim is to induce a spasm in knotted muscle tissue in order to relax it. But on the whole, as long as I can feel some Qi on the needle myself, it seems not to be necessary to have a patient feel a Qi sensation themselves.)
So if you’re not overly fond of needles, please don’t let that stop you trying the benefits of this amazing therapy for yourself. Tell me about your worries, and I’ll do my best to lay them to rest, and to help you relax and enjoy your treatments!