What Does Acupuncture Feel Like?
As an acupuncturist, the most common question I receive is “Does acupuncture hurt?” The short answer is No, acupuncture does not hurt. The needles are so thin that it takes 14 acupuncture needles to equal the size of one hypodermic needle. However, activating the qi (Pronounced “chee” and meaning “vital energy”) of the body has a sensation of its own. We call this the “qi response.” Sometimes it feels heavy, sometimes it feels like a brief spark of electricity, sometimes it feels numb, sometimes there is a feeling of spreading warmth. Whatever that initial qi response sensation feels like, it fades away in a matter of seconds. If a patient continues to feel a lasting sense of pain or discomfort, this is NOT normal, and should be reported at once to the acupuncturist so that the needle placement can be adjusted. Once the insertion is complete and the initial qi response has faded away, patients usually find themselves feeling relaxed and many drift off to sleep. Sleeping during acupuncture is deeply healing to the body. Interestingly, the timing and intensity of the qi response is an indicator of the patient’s overall health and their prognosis for improvement. The “normal” qi response, for example, occurs at a rate that is “neither quick nor slow.” This means there is actually a “too quick” response, where the patient feels an immediate and powerful surge of energy that often feels sharp. Even though it fades away quickly, it is usually a surprise to the patient and they sometimes feel unnerved by it. It doesn’t necessarily happen at every point, maybe one or two. This is an indication of excess yang energy such as seen in cases of high blood pressure. The body has an overdose of frenetic energy in the system, which usually comes from sources of heat to the body such as emotional stress, fried foods, and drugs & alcohol. While acupuncture can certainly help moderate the condition, it usually really also requires the patient to make some lifestyle adjustments. Much more common is the “too slow” response, where there is a delayed or very weak surge of energy or in fact it never comes at all. I have had lots of patients exclaim with glee how they never felt me insert a single needle. On the one hand, I am pleased that acupuncture was a painless experience for them, but on the other hand, it’s an indication of how compromised their system is and that they will require a much longer course of treatment. Qi deficiency is extremely common and leads to symptoms ranging anywhere from chronic fatigue to chronic pain to disease. Usually it is at the third or fourth treatment that patients suddenly start experiencing a qi response. They are sometimes bewildered by it because they weren’t expecting it, but I am of course delighted because it means vitality is returning. Once the patient has rested quietly for 20 – 45 minutes, the needles are removed. This usually has no sensation at all. Sometimes patients express that they feel itchy at the acupoints, and once in a while a welt can rise there. These are indications of heat clearing the system, and are completely normal. The feeling and/or the welt fades away in a few minutes. Pretty much everyone reports that they feel very relaxed and calm, and leave looking like a different person than the one who walked in!