Updated: May 14, 2022
Many patients are understandably nervous about having acupuncture for the first time. How large are the needles? Isn't it painful? It's definitely going to hurt, right?
Acupuncture should not hurt. You may feel a little prick when the needle first pierces the skin. But that should last a fraction of a second. It does not feel like an injection and the prick-feeling is teeny tiny. Quite often no prick is felt at all as the needles are so fine.
The brand and type of the needles that the acupuncturist uses make a difference. The more expensive, better quality, needles are a lot more comfortable. Personally, I have done a number of self-administered tests on myself to find the most comfortable needle. The needles are also very thin. Depending on how you are feeling on the day of your first appointment, you can ask your acupuncturist if you can take a look at a needle to see for yourself.
Once the needles are in place you may feel something. But this is not pain. If you do feel pain then tell your acupuncturist and they will remove the needle. The 'thing' you should feel is a rather beautiful feeling called 'deqi' which translates as 'arrival of Qi'. Each patient feels this differently, and each point can produced a different feeling. Some patients describe this as a 'gentle warmness', 'a draggy feeling', 'a small tug', 'a tingle', 'a dull ache'. Some patients may feel a sense of movement or a one-off electric shock-type feeling from the acupuncture point; this is more likely to happen on certain acupuncture points and your acupuncturist will tell you if this is likely so you can decide if you want this or not.
I find it useful to let my patients know about 'deqi' as patients sometimes find it hard to put into words the sensation they feel. In fact, with my long-standing patients the conversation often goes:
'how does that point feel?", 'I don't know but I feel something' ...and that is often all I need to know. You are likely to feel quite relaxed or settled during your treatment and your acupuncturist will sense that and will know that the needles are doing their work. This relaxed and settled feeling may continue for the rest of the day.
Not all acupuncturists are made the same. It is not always obvious to the public how each acupuncturist is different and what their style of acupuncture is. You might find a phone call before committing to treatment is useful so that you can ask some questions.
There are some acupuncturists that might typically use quite wide needles and deliberately look for a muscle-twitch response, which might be a little bit painful. This type of acupuncture might be called dry-needling or sports acupuncture. Some acupuncturists loyally stick to one size of needle for all patients and are not familiar with techniques to make needling painless.
However, there are other acupuncturists that use a nuanced approach. When they are treating you at the mind or spirit level, they will use very thin, delicate needles. Where twitch reactions in the muscle are useful for helping the patient's condition, they might end the treatment with gentle bodywork to awaken the body's calm centre (or 'deep Qi'), or combine massage or body stretches within the treatment. Take a look at this nice video to see a demo of some of the deep Qi bodywork techniques I use:
Let me also say that acupuncture is not for everyone. If you are needle phobic then please do push yourself to try acupuncture. Take a look at this post about other Chinese medicine non-needle techniques that may help you.
I hope this post is helpful and helps to answer any questions you have about what to expect at your first treatment and to calm any worries. If there is anything I have not answered, please do not hesitate to ask.