Acupuncture 101: What To Expect At Your First Visit

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Seanna Sifflet
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Poking a sterile needle into your leg to relieve your allergy symptoms may seem like a load of “hocus pocus,” but acupuncture is an evidence-based science that has been practiced successfully to treat everything from headaches to anxiety for over 5,000 years. This Eastern technique is becoming increasingly popular in the United States and is quite effective for an array of health issues with little to no side effects.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture is one of many modalities under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, which views your body as a series of energy meridians. When this energy’s flow, or qi (pronounced chi), is disrupted, health issues occur. Acupuncture seeks to restore balance by inserting a sterile needle into various preset points throughout the body.

What should I expect from a typical acupuncture session?

Prepare for your appointment by having something light to eat and wearing loose-fitting clothes. Before a typical session, a licensed acupuncturist will ask you a series of questions about your symptoms as well as look at your tongue and take your pulse. These diagnostic tools will determine how the qi is moving in your body and help your practitioner develop a treatment plan.

There are over 300 acupuncture points throughout the body, but a practitioner typically uses between four and 20 needles for each treatment. The actual insertion and removal of the needles typically doesn’t hurt or draw any blood. At worst, you’ll feel a slight pinch.

Once the needles are in, you’ll lay on a table for about 30 minutes. Many people report feeling a pleasant tingling sensation and a sense of calm. Most people take a nap during their treatment and feel relaxed and peaceful when their session is over.

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How can getting pricked by needles be relaxing?

One of the biggest misconceptions about acupuncture is the size of the needles. People assume that the needles are as big as hypodermic needles (the ones your doctor uses to collect blood). That’s not the case. Acupuncture needles are extremely thin—about as wide as a thick strand of hair.

Another misconception is that acupuncture can only be used for physical issues like pain, when in fact it is highly effective in treating issues such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Chinese Medicine views the body as being a combination of the mind-body-spirit, so every treatment addresses these parts of ourselves.

What kind of training does an acupuncturist need?

Becoming a licensed acupuncturist in the United States isn’t easy. It requires you to complete a three-year master’s program, which includes a rigorous curriculum of Eastern Medicine, Western biosciences, and herbology. After completing a degree in Chinese Medicine, each state requires a licensing examination before an acupuncturist can practice in that state.

How do I go about finding a trustworthy acupuncturist?

Finding an acupuncturist is no different than finding any Western medical practitioner. Look for someone who is patient-centered—he or she should value your time, answer your questions to your satisfaction, and make you feel safe. Also be sure to ask practitioners whether they have experience or are comfortable treating the health issue you need addressed.

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) is a great resource to find licensed practitioners in the United States.

Seanna Sifflet, LAc, MSW is a provider at One Medical Group in New York.