Mention acupuncture and most people immediately jump to the needles. Don’t let your fear of needles—(and to be clear they are more like beading needles than needles used for shots)— prevent you from exploring this centuries-old practice. Acupuncture, depending on the ailment, could be just what your body needs.  

More and more Americans appear to be realizing just that as the Eastern healing tradition continues to grow in popularity as Americans explore non-Western medicine options and lifestyles. A 2018 study found that the number of licensed acupuncturists in the United States increased by 257 percent from 1998. The study found almost 38,000 licensed acupuncturists in 2018. The same study indicated that, after California, New York is the state with the second-highest number of licensed acupuncturists.

Acupuncture is based on the theory that the flow of life energy, known as chi or qi, can be balanced and improved by the use of needles inserted at key spots in the body. Acupuncture can be used to treat pain associated with toothaches, nausea caused by chemotherapy, back pain, indigestion, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other types of pain. 

The treatment itself can be deeply relaxing and even meditative. In addition to the ailments and problems with which it has been known to be effective, acupuncture sessions can feel peaceful and restorative.

Most courses of acupuncture treatment begin with a consultation so the specialist can evaluate a patient’s needs. Once a course of treatment is established, a patient can expect to have the needles retained for 25 to 50 minutes, depending on the particular ailment and patient’s condition. Some problems, like neck pain, can often be addressed in one or two visits; others can take longer. 

Rebecca Rice, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, and a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist at the Stram Center for Integrative Medicine in Delmar exchanged emails with me on the subject. Rice, who specializes in gastrointestinal issues, reproductive health, infertility, pain (from any cause), psycho-emotional issues, and lyme/tick-borne diseases, fielded questions about how newcomers to acupuncture might approach getting a first-time treatment or learning what ailments could possibly be addressed with acupuncture. 

For the needle-phobic, Rice offers this salve: acupuncture needles are much thinner than hypodermic needles, comparable to a dog whisker. Nothing is put in or taken out with them, and they are required by law to only be used once. 

For new patients who are needle-nervous, Rice usually inserts one needle so they can sample the sensation of treatment and realize there is nothing to fear. “If they experience what one needle feels like before getting a whole treatment,” she says, “they realize it’s not a scary thing.”

The treatment itself, sometimes in a darkened room with ambient music, depending on the practitioner, is often relaxing. “The sensation of acupuncture can range from feeling deeply relaxed to feeling like you are in a dream state,” she says. “Some people are able to feel a pulsing and then release in the area of pain they were coming in to address with acupuncture. Patients report feeling the discomfort shift or leave the body, for example. In cases of sinusitis or allergies, the patient may feel drainage or the inflammation-reducing while on the acupuncture table.”

While acupuncture has been known to be helpful with a wide variety of conditions, Rice notes that the practice isn’t used for emergency situations like appendicitis, broken bones, or traumatic brain injuries, though hospitals in China are known to incorporate aspects of acupuncture into their emergency-room treatments in some cases. Western medicine is still in the early stage of exploring ways to incorporate some of these approaches. 

It may be hard to imagine people without any specific physical problem being eager to have small needles poked into their skin, but for many proponents, it’s the ultimate in self-care. Some consider a treatment to be akin to going to the gym or to the therapist—a routine type of body/mind maintenance that leaves you feeling better in a general way. 

“People enjoy acupuncture to reduce stress or to relax,” says Rice. “But most people that say, ‘I just want to try it,’ or ‘my friend /relative told me I should do acupuncture,’ … these folks experience a reduction in issues they weren’t anticipating that acupuncture could actually address.” 

This may simply be a reflection of the public’s general need for subtle approaches to healing, or it could be a more specific product of the broad types of training that most licensed acupuncturists receive. “Licensed acupuncturists are not only trained in acupuncture but also herbal medicine, nutrition, energy work, tui na, cupping, gua sha,” says Rice. “These days we have the benefit of combining the East Asian medicine arts with biomedicine to form this vast understanding of health and healing. An acupuncturist is so much more than just her needles.”