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Does Acupuncture Hurt?

Popping The Question

The most common questions encountered by any acupuncturist are, in my experience:

“Can acupuncture treat (fill in the blank) ?”

“How many sessions will I need?”

and inevitably, “Does acupuncture hurt?”

The Biggest Lie in the History of Medicine

People are afraid of sharp objects.  That’s a given.  Sharp objects might gouge your eyes out.  They might mean that a wild animal is tearing through you.  It could also mean a deadly weapon of some sort is going to kill you by dismemberment or by tetanus.

Surely, though, professionally handled, environmentally controlled, factory sterilized needles shouldn’t be put in to the same category as those other things, should they?

Unfortunately, the fear they inspire is compounded by feelings of betrayal.

Betrayal? Surely I jest.

Bear with me. I kid not.

Remember how we would get any shot – vaccines, IV lines – and the nurse would say “this won’t hurt a bit” or some variation thereof?  The Filipino version translates to, “it’s just an ant bite.”

What kind of ant? A dog sized one?

Oh didn't we wish we could do this? Image by "AKARAKINGDOMS"/

Oh didn’t we wish we could do this? Image by “AKARAKINGDOMS”/

Because of our childhood experiences with syringes, we thus have an unhealthy and almost phobic fear of medical sharps.  Unfortunately this is carried over to acupuncture needles.  I say unfortunate because acupuncture needles are almost nothing like a medical syringe.  Acupuncture needles taper to a fine point, designed to separate and go between natural spaces in human tissue.  Syringes are made to be thicker, with a bevel, designed to penetrate tissue.  Hence, syringes are naturally sharper in feeling.

Language Game

The major source of misunderstanding between acupuncturist and patient is whether or not they mean the same thing when they hear the phrase acupuncture is painless.  To the patient, this phrase is usually interpreted as “ah, I won’t feel anything” but to the acupuncturist, he means “you won’t feel pain on insertion“.

Let’s make this clear, here and now.

An acupuncturist is trained to insert the needle at the right depth and speed so as to bypass the sharp pain receptors on the skin and create only minimal pain, if ever that happens.  In fact, I’ve had patients ask, “oh, is it in already?”

However, sometimes patients end up being unaware that acupuncture needles are supposed to be manipulated.  With this manipulation comes what we call the “DeQi” or Qi sensation.  According to Chinese Medicine theory, this sensation is essential to treatment.

The Qi Sensation

Remember how you would hit your funny bone?  That’s the slang term for hitting the nerve at the tip of your elbow. What did it feel like?

A bolt of lightning?

A sensation of weird heaviness?

And what direction did it go?

To the tip of your pinky, you say?

Congratulations!  You’ve just mapped out part of the Small Intestine Meridian of Hand Taiyang.

Yes, that’s how the ancients mapped out the channels/meridians – the direction of Qi sensation.

And… that’s what you’re supposed to feel with acupuncture.

I understand that if a person thinks he shouldn’t feel anything, and yet experiences this, then the patient might end up thinking, “I thought this was painless?”

Basically I tell patients they should feel… something.  Some have described it as heavy, as if I’m sitting on the point.  Others have said it feels like “grounding” as in electrical grounding.  My favorite description is “funky vibe”.

All in all, it is proper to say “acupuncture doesn’t hurt” but this must be accompanied by explanation of the DeQi sensation.

What’s your acupuncture deqi experience?  Let us know in the comments.

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