If you’re squeamish about needles, don’t worry — you won’t even see them. But that’s not all you need to know about acupuncture.
I’ve had my share of quality time with back pain. I slipped and whacked my back on my brick steps as a teenager (my mother did tell me it was icy out) and it was never the same after that. I’d pull it at odd times, have bouts of terrible, unstoppable pain for no reason (OK, I sit a lot at work) and most of all have spent a lot of time and money on massage, yoga classes and weird contraptions to help my posture. The latest in my quest for relief is acupuncture. Here’s my experience and what you can expect if you’re interested in the same.
Also, full disclosure: I have a slight curve in my spine which was recognized early. Unfortunately, my doctor didn’t seem phased by it. About 20 years later now, here we are.
If you’re just here for the cupping, scroll down. Usually though, the two go hand-in-hand.
What is acupuncture?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) says the practice aids the flow of “qi,” energy which flows through the body. Blockages in qi create issues ranging from illness to pain. Woo-woo aside, acupuncture works by poking needles into your skin. It’s basically dry needling (ahshi), also an acupuncture practice, which focuses on the release trigger points in the muscle which cause pain.
I’m not going to go into detail about how to choose an acupuncturist. Of course, you want an appropriately licensed doctor who takes your health plan. Check reviews, malpractice lawsuits and length of service to help you find a provider who is right for you. If you find a very firm language barrier, a bad vibe or feel the office’s practices aren’t sanitary (especially since your skin is being punctured and there is risk of exposure to blood), feel free to move on.
My acupuncturist is a Korean ex-pat with 20 years experience. He hasn’t mentioned my qi flow in 10 visits. You have to have a good ear to catch everything he says, but to make up for it he is very… animated.
Most of my visits these days are 35 to 45 minutes. The first few visits were a little lengthier as the doctor got to know my issues. We began with my description of my pain and other issues. What happened next surprised me. He didn’t explain how he was going to fix me in six to eight weeks as long as I came in every day religiously, or that I had to take some obscure herb. No. My doctor started crawling on the floor.
Laugh, please! He was describing to me (rather animatedly) how to do well by my body. He demonstrated “cat/cow” yoga pose and how to “stretch like a cat” (on the floor) for relief. Been there, done that, but I appreciated the sentiment. But, he had some stern words for my history of yoga practice.
“Here, you take one class and you’re a ‘yoga master,'” said my doctor. People train their whole lives to be teachers of this art, he added.
It was refreshing to get practical advice from my new doctor, before he even spoke about a treatment plan or how much it might cost. Real, easy things I could do at home. Only, I tried that already.
In the small, private room there is a padded table with sanitary sheet and room for your face so you can lay face down. On the table is usually a hospital-style gown, which you leave open in the back.
Strip down to your bra and if you wear tight pants, I recommend bringing a pair of loose pants or shorts, if your bottoms aren’t already loose around the legs.
If you wear a bra, you can leave it on, but your doctor may ask to unhook it if you don’t. Have to get at your back and all. Make sure you are comfortable on the table. You’ll be here a while. Relax.
Your doctor may ask you to state which “line” is generally most painful, as he traces lines on your back. He’ll likely nod sagely before sterilizing the lines on your back and tapping the
hair-like needles into your skin from a newly-opened package of acupuncture needles.
Acupuncture should not hurt. On occasion I’ve had someone in training assist with needle placement and I could tell — those hurt a bit as they broke the skin. If you feel any more than the tiniest of pinches, they’re doing it wrong. Or they’ve inserted it directly into a trigger point, in which place, they’re doing it wrong. I mentioned it when my doctor plunged a needle into one of my knots and he removed it and placed two more (painless ones) in the area instead.
“After they put in the first needle in, you melt like butter,” said my co-worker who referred me.
Following this, my doctor attaches a electro muscle stimulation (EMS) device to a few of the needles and asks I say when I feel
the slight pulse on my lower or upper back. You don’t want to it to be too strong, just enough to feel it. As your muscles relax, the contractions brought on by the EMS feel stronger and if it’s up too high, can be uncomfortable.
Note: My doctor also asked if I had a pacemaker before doing this. Beware.
At this point, your doctor may turn on a heat lamp so you don’t freeze, put on some calming music and will leave the needles in for about 20 to 25 minutes.
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Don’t try to move with the needles in. The muscles targeted with the needles will hurt and it’s just not comfortable.
Note: In my first session I complained of pain on both sides of my back, but my acupuncturist only treated one side of my back. I was disappointed, but didn’t question it. My acupuncturist was pleased to hear I had relief on the treated sidewhen I returned for my second session, but the opposite was still painful. To get the full effect of the treatment, you really have to go to multiple sessions. Chiropractors work in a similar way, treating one side at a time.
My doctor pulls out all of the acupuncture needles in my back and neck before giving them another wipe to sterilize. Usually a few remain in my hands, wrists, ankles and feet while he moves on to cupping, which I get the impression is optional.
Cupping uses dome-shaped objects made of glass, ceramic or other material which are heated or otherwise suctioned onto an area of skin. The suction causes blood to flow to the surface, increasing circulation and promoting healing in the muscle. There are two types of cupping: dry cupping and wet cupping. Wet cupping is when the skin is cut during the cupping process so blood can flow out from the skin. Ick.
This is dry cupping. My doctor uses a hand pump to suction the cups after applying a layer of baby oil to my back. According to WebMD, it’s rare to get more than seven cups at one time, but I’ve counted as many as 21 cups strapped to my back and shoulders in a session.
If a few cups fall off in the 2 minutes they’re on, that’s okay. They may fall on the floor and bang loudly. It’s okay. Don’t move. You’ll feel suction on the area, but it’s not painful.
Note: Cupping may cause temporary bruising. In my experience it’s slight, not painful, and doesn’t last more than a few days.
My doctor finishes every visit with a hot “stone” massage. He uses a heated jade stone wand and baby oil to break up fascia, promote blood flow and soothe muscles. This is my favorite part.
After your first visit
You may or may not feel more “open” or relaxed following your first session. I had the sensation of something “opening” in my back, perhaps my muscles decompressing. It was similar to the feeling of doing a lot of lower back stretches, then relaxing, or getting a deep tissue massage. Your tension starts to release and your body tingles into relaxation. Enjoy it!
Don’t tingle too much, though. Prolong tingles in the extremities can be symptoms of other things.
Have you tried acupuncture? What was your experience like?