In a recent episode of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, a high-strung character dragged to an acupuncture session lies on a table with needles sticking out of his face and complains, “This is the most stressed out I’ve ever been in my life!”
That’s a common reaction of Westerners to the ancient Chinese medicine practice—who would choose to be stuck with tons of tiny needles? But as alternative and integrative medicine grow in popularity, more people are trying acupuncture to treat chronic pain and discomfort such as migraines, digestive troubles, hot flashes, joint soreness and more.
Proponents of acupuncture believe that stress and other forms of trauma to the body, such as injury or surgery, can prevent energy from flowing freely through the body, creating pain or other discomfort. Acupuncture uses small stainless steel needles—with no medicine in or on them—inserted just below the skin to redirect energy and blood flow, which in turn eases discomfort.
“Acupuncture views the body as having a complex electrical circuit. ‘Chi’ is the universal, or life force, energy, and we need it to be balanced and free flowing,” says Michelle Goebel-Angel, licensed acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner at the Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern in Chicago. “In Chinese medicine, we consider the entire being and also take a look at the emotional and physical surroundings. It’s a very seasonal approach to health—it’s about living in harmony with the seasons and the emotions.”
Want to know more? We debunk some of the most common myths about acupuncture.
Myth: Being stuck with acupuncture needles is painful.
Truth: How an individual experiences acupuncture really depends on his or her particular sensitivities, and sometimes on the skill of the practitioner. But most enthusiasts report little to no pain.
“Pain receptors are in our skin, so once we tap the needle through the skin, there’s really no pain. Most people tell me they don’t even feel it,” says Goebel-Angel. “Some people report an achy or throbbing sensation when we tap into the energy channel—almost like a funnybone feeling. But that really doesn’t have anything to do with the needle.” Acupuncture needles are also much smaller and thinner than, say, the needles a doctor uses to draw blood.
Myth: Acupuncturists have little medical training.
Truth: Acupuncturists are licensed by the state, and while requirements vary, 43 states require certification or passage of an exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). The organization has stringent prerequisites for the exam, including a degree from an accredited acupuncture and oriental medicine program or a lengthy apprenticeship. In short, it’s safe to assume licensed acupuncturists in most states have thousands of hours of clinical experience by the time they begin their practice.
Physicians are sometimes permitted to perform acupuncture in their practice after a much shorter education program, but if you’re looking for a practitioner with extensive training, your best bet is someone who is NCCAOM-certified.
Myth: You can get an infection from acupuncture.
Truth: While it’s not impossible, reputable acupuncturists use sterile, disposable needles for each patient, and have been trained in Clean Needle Technique, which involves thoroughly disinfecting the skin and minimizes the risk of infection.
Myth: You’ll get immediate relief from acupuncture.
Truth: It is possible to feel better after your first session, Goebel-Angel says, but for most patients, especially those with old injuries or long-term chronic conditions, a full recovery takes time. That’s partially because the philosophy behind acupuncture is directly opposed to our “quick-fix”-obsessed culture. An acupuncture session incorporates breathwork and other meditation techniques that can take time to learn and practice.
“Acupuncture is very much about mindfulness and consciousness,” she says. “People can get sucked into a crazy, fast-paced life, so it’s about creating space in their day and their life to have that calm and quietude.”
Myth: Acupuncture can only treat conditions that are stress-related.
Truth: There’s some debate in the medical community as to whether acupuncture works simply as a relaxation tool—and thus eases pain or discomfort related to stress or tension—or whether it can treat conditions and symptoms that aren’t connected to our mental state. But, albeit in limited studies, acupuncture has also been shown to offer relief for hormonal symptoms such as hot flashes and menstrual cramps, nausea related to pregnancy or cancer treatment, and pain related to injury or surgery. A study published in May in the British Journal of General Practice found that patients with unexplained musculoskeletal pain and fatigue reported significant improvement in their symptoms following acupuncture.
Myth: There is a type of acupuncture that doesn’t involve needles.
Truth: Because some people are afraid of needles, some alternative medicine practitioners are experimenting with using magnets, tuning forks, or other devices instead of needles to promote better energy flow. The term “needleless acupuncture” may also apply to acupressure or other types of Asian bodywork therapy that utilizes some of the same principles of energy flow without the stick. However, these methods have not been evaluated as thoroughly as traditional acupuncture.