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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Acupuncture Needle?

Posted Nov 18 2008 2:31pm

Occasionally I get reminded that a lot of people who could benefit greatly from acupuncture are too fearful of needles to even give it a try. Since I spend my day sticking needles in people who mostly love it, I forget what a huge issue this is for so many. So I want to talk a bit about needling sensation, and why you’re probably going to like it - or at least discover that it is no big deal.

People definitely report a variety of responses to acupuncture needles. There are a lot of factors that come into play. Believe it or not, a lot of people love the sensation of the treatment overall, and find the needling itself to be inconsequential. Here are some factors that can affect your experience.

All needles are not the same, and all needling techniques are not the same. Generally, acupuncture needles produce a lot less sensation than getting a shot - for several reasons: the needles are smaller, they are solid vs. hollow, they don’t have a cutting edge, and you are not injecting anything.

There is also a broad range of acupuncture needles. Not only is there a range of thicknesses, but there can be a big difference in quality, which relates to how sharp the needles are on a microscopic level, which in turn relates to how much sensation they produce. Some needles are even silicone coated, and really do slide in better.

Technique also comes into play. Even given equally skilled practitioners, some styles are more aggressive than others, and a stronger sensation may be actively sought after. Still the desired sensations are in such categories as heavy, or full, or warm. A sharp, stinging sensation usually means the needle is hitting a little blood vessel or hair follicle and is easily adjusted to a comfortable position.

Neither are all points created equal. While most acupuncture points are near a neural or vascular plexus, some are just plain more sensitive than others and are more likely to produce a stronger sensation.

And one more “point.”  Patients are different. Pain sensitivity varies hugely between people. I’ve seen patients who were sensitive to the tiniest needles and gentlest techniques. I’ve seen others with whom I might have used an ice pick without their noticing. Also, any given person may be more sensitive on one day than another.

In the end, most people are pleasantly surprised how comfortable and relaxing an acupuncture treatment is.

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