Acupuncture for Beginners

It’s the rare person that can’t remember their first time…uh, having acupuncture. For me it was about twenty years ago, when a groin pull had me completely hobbled, threatening to ruin an upcoming backpacking trip. I went to my Western doc early on, and got a whole lot of ibuprofen for my efforts. After several months of not healing, I was ready to try anything–even acupuncture.

Does acupuncture hurt?The problem was that while I had heard about acupuncture, I knew absolutely nothing about it. How does it work? Where do I find a good practitioner? And it just felt…foreign. And risky. And potentially painful. When I look back at that time, there were a lot of things I would have liked to have known. Here is my short list:

It’s not painful. Let’s tackle this one right up front, as it tends to be on most peoples’ minds before their first acupuncture treatment. Anyone who has had acupuncture will tell you that the sensation is not what you expect…not like getting a shot or having blood drawn. The most common sensation during acupuncture is a dull ache signaling the needle is in the right place. In addition, we practitioners have differently gauged needles, and can use incredibly tiny ones for the needle shy.

-It works! And it’s important to note that acupuncture’s effectiveness goes far beyond just treating pain conditions.  The World Health Organization (WHO) in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has compiled a list of conditions and diseases for which acupuncture has been shown to be effective through solid research. The list is extensive (and keeps growing) and includes conditions from allergies, arthritis, and insomnia to emotional issues, morning sickness, and whooping cough.  Acupuncture is good for pain and much, much more.

Acupuncture is more than just the placebo effect. Scientific studies have documented the effects of acupuncture on brain chemistry.  When an acupuncture needle is inserted, it increases the circulation of chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. In addition, research has documented that acupuncture boosts immunity, regulates hormones, and increases circulation.

Many detractors of acupuncture say that the calm setting, empathetic practitioners, and relaxing nature of acupuncture cause patients to think they feel better after a treatment (like that’s a bad thing).  I would agree that these elements absolutely help someone who is sick, worried, and in pain, especially if you compare an acupuncture treatment to some of the painful, impersonal,  and invasive treatments associated with Western medicine.  However, the science is there as well – acupuncture works by causing positive physiologic changes in your body.

-Acupuncture is not a religion. You don’t have to drink the cool aid, wear a mood ring, or talk to crystals for it to work. The reality is that your body is inherently programmed to heal, but sometimes the message to heal gets jammed. Acupuncture causes physical changes in your body to get that healing back on track. It’s that simple.

-Not all acupuncturist are created equal. When I decided to try acupuncture, I had no clue where or how to find a practitioner. Knowing what I do now, my best advice is to look at hours a practitioner has spent in acupuncture training.  If you want acupuncture performed by someone who is proficient in acupuncture, go to a licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.).  Licensed acupuncturists are nationally certified and have roughly 3,000 hours of training in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, including about 650 hours in a clinic. There are other health care providers who provide acupuncture, but they tend to have far less training. This includes Western medical doctors (50 to 100 hours of acupuncture training), chiropractors (100 to 200 hours), and physical therapists (as little as 28 hours!) who call what they do “dry needling” (it’s really acupuncture).

-Acupuncture is not a one time thing. If you are seeing a practitioner for a specific health condition, it will almost always take more than one or two sessions. Over the years I have seen a number of patients who have expected to be all better after one session. However, acupuncture is a therapy, and expecting to be done after one time is like taking one antibiotic pill, wearing your orthotics for one day, or doing your physical therapy exercises only once.

-The side effects of acupuncture are positive. Not only have you begun the healing process, but you have also spent some quiet time on the table, bumped up your endorphins, and taken time for yourself. Most people leave their acupuncture session feeling rested, relaxed, and…good!

Is there a downside? There is a possibility of bruising or feeling slightly lightheaded if you haven’t eaten recently. However, in the hands of an experienced and well-trained practitioner, the negative side effects are minimal.

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