It isn’t unreasonable to assume that being poked with dozens of tiny needles would induce a pain response from the body, but in reality does acupuncture hurt? We’ll talk about this and some of the other frequently-asked surrounding acupuncture in this post.

Does acupuncture hurt? 

To explore the answer to this question, we should look at how and why the treatment works and what the treatment is supposed to do to help health.

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that is becoming more widespread as a treatment for both chronic and acute pain. This technique is over 2,000 years old and involves inserting hair-thin needles into specific points on the body to release qi (energy) that has stagnated and caused pain or illness. The treatment unblocks these areas of the body and allows energy to flow better throughout.

Because of the small size of the needle, acupuncture should not induce a painful reaction. While you may experience various sensations, the feeling of pain is not normally one of them.

Acupuncturist and author Sara Calabro suggests that the sensation of the needle being inserted shouldn’t feel much worse than a mosquito bite. She describes the five most common sensations you will likely feel with acupuncture as:

  1. Heaviness: The needle can feel like a weight being placed on your body.
  2. Achiness: A throbbing sensation can sometimes occur but usually dissipates quickly.
  3. Electricity: You may feel a small jolt or a zap like an electric shock as the needles are inserted.
  4. Tingling: There may be a light tingling sensation at the insertion site or throughout the body like you might experience when your foot or hand falls asleep.
  5. Warmness: A pleasantly warm feeling may flood your body as the needles are inserted.

As with any therapy, it is important to know as much as you can before you begin treatments. Talk to an acupuncturist or another healthcare professional licensed in acupuncture treatments to find out more about the practice. Some people with pain conditions that are related to increased sensation, such as fibromyalgia or trigeminal neuralgia, may experience pain so it’s always important to talk to your doctor before undergoing treatment.

What conditions can acupuncture treat? 

Beyond asking “Does acupuncture hurt?” many people also ask about how it can help. And, acupuncture has been found to be effective at treating many different types of diseases and conditions.

Acupuncture in the U.S. is most often used to treat pain conditions, such as lower back pain and headaches. Many others, however, have found its use (along with prescribed herbs) to help with conditions when traditional methods of medicine didn’t work. While research is still exploring exactly why acupuncture works, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests that acupuncture may help with pain because it activates opioid systems in the brain that help regulate and manage pain.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in 2003 noting that acupuncture may be used for up to 28 different conditions.

For some conditions, acupuncture has been proven effective through the use of controlled trials, while other treatment areas require more rigorous study and further proof. There is evidence that acupuncture can help treat:

  • Depression
  • Dysmenorrhoea (extreme menstrual cramps)
  • Facial pain
  • Headaches
  • Hypertension and hypotension
  • Knee pain
  • Leukopenia
  • Lower back pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Neck pain
  • Dental pain
  • Periarthritis of the shoulder
  • Postoperative pain
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Sprains
  • Stroke
  • Tennis elbow

While further research is needed, the World Health Organization has also found evidence of acupuncture’s benefits for cancer pain, fibromyalgia, post-herpetic neuralgia, osteoarthritis, and chronic prostatitis.

In addition to using acupuncture for specific health concerns, many people also use acupuncture as a preventative measure. In traditional Chinese medicine, semi-regular tune-ups are more common than treatments based around specific health conditions. Preventative care may entail two to four visits throughout the year and may help re-balance the body, promote health, and prevent disease.

How can acupuncture help with pain? 

Western medicine has looked for more evidence of its efficacy and has found it. Recent research has found that acupuncture stimulates pathways in rats that mimic the pathways in humans that respond to pain drugs. This breakthrough research adds more evidence that acupuncture can help treat chronic pain in many different ways.

1. Head pain

Those patients who used acupuncture as part of their treatment of head pain, including headaches ranging from moderate to severe and either acute or chronic, found that they had fewer headaches that were less severe and of shorter duration.

2. Neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain is a pain condition usually caused by tissue damage. This damage may cause pain signals to be sent throughout the body and can result in widespread pain conditions such as fibromyalgia.

Acupuncture may help increase blood flow to the area of the tissue damage, which can promote healthy healing and potential regeneration of healthy tissue. A small study of patients with neuropathic pain due to chemotherapy found that a significant majority of study participants found their pain greatly reduced after receiving acupuncture.

3. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative wear-and-tear form of arthritis that causes inflammation and pain in affected joints. The larger joints of the body, such as the hip, can be particularly affected because this joint supports so much weight and is a crucial part of all movement (even sitting).

A 2011 study found that acupuncture helped relieved pain in almost 75% of the people who utilized this therapy for mild to moderate hip pain. One of the best parts about this treatment is that it is one of the least invasive and most safe treatments for this type of pain. There is no downtime after treatment, few if any side effects, and no risk of drug interactions or interference with other treatments.

4. Neck pain

A new study is confirming that acupuncture, sometimes in combination with posture exercises called the Alexander Technique, is actually able to offer long-term relief of chronic neck pain. The University of York Health Sciences conducted a trial study of 517 patients.

The study, called Alexander Technique Lessons and Acupuncture Sessions (ATLAS), found that after a year of treatment, those in the acupuncture and Alexander Technique groups found their pain reduced by 32% and 31% respectively, in comparison to a 25% reduction in pain for those receiving traditional care. The most intriguing part of this study is that pain relief appeared to be long-lasting, in sharp contrast to other types of treatment for neck pain which may be fleeting.

5. Back pain

One of the most astonishingly successful uses of acupuncture is for back pain. A 2012 meta-analysis of studies that involved a total of almost 18,000 patients found decreases in pain in statistically significant measures, with many patients reporting a drop in pain levels from a 60 to a 30 (on a scale of one to 100).

While these results were true for traditional acupuncture as well as electroacupuncture, they were also true for placebo or sham acupuncture (essentially fake acupuncture). Rather than increasing blood flow to an area or releasing qi through the body, maybe acupuncture simply stimulates the most powerful healing organ of all: the mind.

Does acupuncture help with stress? 

Whether it is the soothing atmosphere under which acupuncture is traditionally administered or the treatment itself, acupuncture appears to actually decrease the amount of stress hormones in the body as part of its main benefit.

As chronic pain and stress are often linked to each other, with one intensifying the other, this benefit, while not directly related to pain relief, may be a key element of acupuncture’s effectiveness for even more types of pain.

What can I expect during an acupuncture session? 

It is true that one of the most helpful tools for pain relief may be the acupuncture session itself. Treatments are usually administered in a comfortable room with soft lighting and relaxing music or other ambient noise (e.g., water features or instrumental music). Patients stay fully clothed, only exposing the area that will have needles inserted (often arms, ankles, or the head).

Once the needles are inserted, the patient is made comfortable with blankets to stay warm and pillows to support the body. Patients then simply relax for a period of time between 15 and 45 minutes. Does acupuncture hurt? No, many patients actually fall asleep during treatment.

The practitioner will then return and remove the needles, answering any questions the patient may have and offering suggestions for the rest of the day (e.g., to drink plenty of water, eat good food, and generally try to have a restful day). Pain relief may be immediate, or it may occur later in the day or overnight.

How to get started with acupuncture

When considering acupuncture, first talk to your doctor or pain therapist about your options. There may be treatments that are more effective for your specific pain condition that your doctor can recommend, or they can provide a referral for a recommended acupuncturist in your area.

Many medical professionals who may not be 100% on board with acupuncture as a reliable treatment for pain still see no harm in adding it to a treatment plan for pain. There are virtually no side effects other than maybe a small pinch as the needle is inserted and an occasional soreness at the insertion site for a few hours after. The potential benefits far outweigh the very limited concerns, and many insurance companies now cover a set number of sessions (which can range from $25 to several hundreds of dollars, depending on where you live and the extent of each treatment).

To find more information about acupuncture in your area, it may be time to talk to a pain specialist. A well-skilled pain specialist combines many different therapies to create a unique treatment plan for you. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here:

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