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Acupuncture 101: How It Works and What to Expect from Your Visit

January 29, 2021
Wellness

Interested in trying acupuncture but don't know where to start? The expert acupuncturists from WellQuarters are here to answer the most frequently asked questions.

At WellQuarters, the wellness arm of HealthQuarters, we consider acupuncture to be the foundation of our wellness program. Rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the practice of acupuncture considers each individual as a whole, rather than focusing solely on a diagnosis. To put it simply, TCM focuses on holistically restoring homeostasis and balance with the mind and spirit. Here’s what you should know.

What is acupuncture?

An acupuncture treatment involves the insertion of hair-thin needles into specific points and depths of the skin in order to elicit a natural healing response from the body. Each tiny, strategic prick causes a minor injury called a microtrauma, which signals the brain to produce pain and stress relieving chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin. These microtraumas have a localized effect, but also trigger an anti-inflammatory reaction throughout the entire body by dilating blood vessels to increase circulation.

What conditions has acupuncture been shown to benefit?

Because the focus of TCM is on bringing homeostasis and balance to the body as a whole, acupuncture is effective in treating a multitude of symptoms and conditions. Research shows that acupuncture is especially beneficial to patients suffering from acute and chronic pain (most commonly of the lower back, neck, and shoulders), arthritis, tension headaches, fatigue, TMJ, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues, and post-operative pain. New research also indicates that acupuncture is specifically useful in treating patients suffering from endocrine disorders, including PCOS, as well as significantly improving outcomes of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Due to its lack of side effects and interactions with other treatments, many people find acupuncture to be an ideal complementary treatment. For example, acupuncture is commonly used as a gentle modality to treat pain and other symptoms experienced by cancer patients and to decrease the side effects of chemotherapy. Patients with aversions to medications during pregnancy are also able to safely seek treatment from trained acupuncturists.

Beyond physical benefits, acupuncture has been shown to be as effective as certain medications in treating psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. Many patients who have been turned off by adverse side effects of pharmaceuticals have had great success with acupuncture, while others find the most benefit in combining acupuncture with additional types of treatment.

Still wondering if acupuncture is right for you? Check out the World Health Organization’s full list of diseases and disorders that can be treated with acupuncture.

Why are the needles inserted in specific points?

To best identify the most ideal points of treatment, acupuncturists first utilize their understanding of pathways throughout the body called meridians. These channels are responsible for the circulation of our energy, also known as qi (pronounced “chi”).

Present day physiologists have theorized and researched the relationship between the meridian system and human anatomy. Each of our 12 principal meridians connects to a unique organ and extends outward along our arms or legs. Located along these pathways are numerous acupoints, which possess the ability to stimulate specific nerves and muscles. To put it simply, think of meridians as road maps of  your body. They are all connected to one another and each acupoint is like an important destination on your map. 

Another major factor in TCM is the concept of balance. You may have heard that Yin and Yang represent opposing forces, but did you know that each possesses its own specific attributes? The most prevalent aspects of Yin are interior (such as internal organs and blood), deficiency, and cold. Yang, on the other hand, represents exterior (i.e. skin and hair), excess, and heat. Achieving homeostasis within the body entails the careful consideration and harmonization of each of these components.

What does it feel like? What should I know about the needles?

If you haven’t tried acupuncture because you’re nervous about the needles, you’re not the only one! Hopefully, you will be relieved to learn that standard acupuncture needles are as thin as hair—about 25 to 50 times thinner than hypodermic and intradermal needles. If you’re feeling apprehensive, let us know and we can offer you thinner needles.

Patients generally feel little-to-no discomfort during application.  But please always communicate with your practitioner if something doesn’t feel right. Our job is to make you feel comfortable and relaxed, so you can get the most out of your treatments. We don’t need to cause you pain in order for your body to get the message we’re sending.

We are certified in Clean Needle Technique (CNT) and we only use sterilized, individually packaged, disposable needles. Our needles are regulated by the FDA just like any other medical tool.

What is the experience like? How long will it take? 

When you arrive and check in at HealthQuarters, you will be welcomed by one of our Care Guides. At this point, we recommend using the restroom if you need to. Your Care Guide will lead you into the WellQuarters area, where you will meet your practitioner and be shown to your treatment room.

You will then be left alone to undress (underwear can always remain on, but let your practitioner know if you would prefer to wear more clothing and we can work to accommodate your comfort levels while still being able to access treatment points), wrap yourself in your fresh towel, and rest face up on the table. 

When your practitioner returns, they will ask about your medical history, take your pulse, and examine your tongue (so please don’t scrape it before coming in!). At this time, your treatment will begin. Your practitioner will disinfect each treatment point and then gently place 10-20 hair-thin, sterile needles into your skin. When you’re settled in, your pulse will be assessed a second time and a few more needles may be placed if necessary. At WellQuarters, we prefer to use the fewest number of needles in order to avoid overstimulating your body. 

Your practitioner will then fully dim the lights and leave you to rest with some relaxing music for 25-30 minutes. You will be given the option to be checked on part way through your treatment and you will have a bell to ring in case you need help at any other time. If you have any additional treatments included in your session—such as cupping, ear seeding, moxibustion, or gua sha—those may be done simultaneously or after your acupuncture. 

When your session is complete, your practitioner will remove your needles and discard them into a sharps container. They will then sit down to discuss how you can amplify your results at home, as well as give their recommendation for ongoing treatment, should you prefer to continue your therapy.

How are treatments created for each person? 

In addition to your medical history and the health goals and concerns that you share, your practitioner will use two major diagnostic methods to determine your course of treatment. First, they will consider your pulse an important gauge of your overall health. Many characteristics of your pulse, including regularity, speed, and strength, indicate unique nuances of your condition. 

You might notice that your pulse is taken at different areas of each wrist, with slightly varying pressures, throughout your treatment. This is because each area signifies strength, energy, hydration, and more. Whereas, varying depths reflect types of illness that might be present. In TCM, there are 28 different pulse qualities. Each subtle variance provides your practitioner with distinct insight to your needs, while changes during your treatment help your practitioner ensure success.

If you’ve been to any other doctor’s appointment, it’s likely that you have been asked to stick out your tongue at some point. After all, Western medicine often assesses the tongue as a means to detect deficiencies and illness. Similarly, in TCM, we see your tongue as a microcosm that reflects the health of the rest of your body. Each area of your tongue tells us (figuratively) what’s going on in different organs and every detail, including size, shape, color, and texture, helps us to see the complete picture.

During a treatment, your practitioner will work with you to determine the best combination of acupoints to stimulate in order to rectify blockages, imbalances, and deficiencies. Areas of pain are often treated directly. However, due to the interconnected nature of meridians, some treatment points are located in other areas that you might not expect. It could also surprise you to learn that each individual point can even be treated in a multitude of techniques—such as varying the depth of penetration or even the use of heat or mild electrical currents.

Ultimately, we work carefully with each patient to create a customizable plan intended to tap into the body’s natural ability to heal itself and nourish on all levels. Your plan could also include supplements, dietary recommendations, or even suggestions such as keeping your feet warm or doing stretches at home. 

How often should you be treated?

Your treatment plan will be based on your unique needs, and the recommended frequency will be dependent upon your condition, your goals, and how you respond to your sessions. 

That said, it’s important to know that, because acupuncture seeks to retrain your body’s natural healing mechanisms, treatments do build on each other. Especially if you are seeking treatment for an acute injury or illness, your practitioner might recommend that you come in weekly for a brief period of time. Most patients begin to feel improvement after their first treatment, but some take two or three sessions to experience real change. 

What should I do before and after?

To make the most of your acupuncture treatment, we recommend that you drink plenty of water and have a light snack before arrival. (After your snack, please remember not to scrape or brush your tongue!) 

For the sake of your comfort and optimal relaxation, we think it’s nice to wear comfortable clothes to your appointment, but it’s okay if that isn’t an option. When possible, avoid alcohol, stimulants, and other drugs prior to your appointment and right after—but do not stop taking prescribed medications without speaking to your doctor.

After your appointment, we again recommend that you drink plenty of water and have a healthy snack! This will support your body’s continued healing process. Try to keep your body warm, carve out some time to rest, and avoid overexerting yourself with strenuous labor or workouts for a few hours after your treatment—especially if you are new to acupuncture.

During and after your treatment, you might experience an increase in energy or you might be very relaxed and sleepy. You also might feel a release of emotions and even to shed some tears. This is all a completely normal and healthy part of your body’s processing and healing. In Chinese medicine, we believe that your emotions are held in your blood. And our aim during an acupuncture treatment is to get your blood and energy flowing.

Any risks to know?

When seeing a licensed practitioner, acupuncture is very low risk. Rare side effects include soreness or bruising at the site of needle insertion. It is also possible (though also rare) to feel dizziness or nausea. These symptoms should subside upon removal of needles.

Inform your practitioner of all other medical treatments you are receiving and all medications you are taking (including over the counter and supplements). Make sure to tell your acupuncturist if you have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, have a pacemaker, or think you may be pregnant. These conditions do not disqualify you from receiving acupuncture, but they could affect the way you are treated.

Call your acupuncturist if you have any questions or suspect that you are experiencing any symptoms related to your treatment.


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