Acupuncture: do the needles hurt?

Sarah George fertility acupunctureAs I conduct a consultation with a first-time acupuncture patient I often notice a sense of fear masked by a shy smile. After discussing the patient’s health concerns and providing some education on how I may be able to assist them, we get to the point where it’s time for the patient to jump up onto the table for the treatment. And I often see the look in their eyes – “Will the needles hurt”? I often beat them to asking the question, explaining where I am going to place the needles and what they should expect to feel – and then follow it with “no, acupuncture isn’t painful but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel any sensation. Not all sensations are painful”.

Yes, there’s a difference between pain and sensation. Pain is a sensation, but it’s not the only type of sensation. Some sensations are in fact very pleasurable. Generally in acupuncture we try to avoid any sharp, needle-like sensation. Acupuncture is nothing like having an injection or blood test. As acupuncturists we aim to perfect our technique so the needle glides almost undetectably through the layer of the skin, although sometimes you may feel a mild prick. An acupuncturist with a good technique can use a fine or thicker gauge needle relatively painlessly. As humans, we are all different and some patients are more sensitive than others so may be more aware of needle insertions, but this is less common in my experience. Many beauty therapists will tell you that women are more sensitive to pain prior to their menstrual period and waxing is often discouraged at this time. Skin texture varies on different parts of the body so sensitivity may be more pronounced in different locations. However, acupuncture shouldn’t be characterised by strong needle ‘prick’ sensations.

In fact, most first time acupuncture patients say to me after their first needle has been inserted, “Was that it? If I’d known it was like that I would have come ages ago!”

So, the needles should glide through the skin with minimal discomfort. But after this a sensation may be felt. Acupuncturists refer to this as ‘de qi’meaning that your body has recognised that the needle has been inserted into an acupuncture point or qi/energy has come to the needle. There are many schools of thought on what and how much sensation is needed to stimulate an acupuncture point with a needle. During my observations in China I noticed that many of the patients complained if they didn’t feel enough sensation from each needle! Some research has shown that obtaining needle sensation or de qi has a different effect on the brain, than when no sensation or a sharp sensation has been felt. Classical texts report that a range of sensations may be beneficial, (note that sharp is not one of them):

  • aching
  • numbness or tingling
  • fullness, distention or pressure
  • heaviness

Once a sensation has been provoked your acupuncturist may further manipulate the needle.

Let your acupuncturist know what you are feeling during needling, especially if a needled point has a sharp, electric or burning pain.

After your acupuncturist has inserted and manipulated the needles you may still feel some sensations during your treatment but again, these should not be sharp or overly painful. And of course, movement and needles don’t mix, so keeping any body part that has been needled still during your treatment will reduce sharp sensations too!

Keeping still isn’t usually a problem. When I enter a room at the end of a patient’s acupuncture treatment most people look incredibly relaxed or have just woken up from a nap. Acupuncture is a fabulous way to enjoy some rest and relaxation during a busy day and most patients treasure their acupuncture treatment experience.

To book an appointment at the clinic or further information on Chinese Medicine contact Dr Sarah George (Acupuncture).  Sarah is a practitioner of acupuncture (AHPRA registered), massage therapy and natural health.

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