About Lynn

lynn jaffeeLynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of the book, Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health, a clear and concise explanation of Chinese medicine for the lay person. She is co-author of the book, The BodyWise Woman, a personal health manual for physically active women and girls. Read more about Lynn...

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Does Acupuncture Hurt?

I can spot people with a fear of needles from a mile away, especially at health fairs, talks, or community events.  When they see that I’m an acupuncturist, their eyes meet mine for an instant, then their gaze slides to the floor and they keep on walking. The needle-shy, those people who only think of the needles when someone mentions acupuncture, are often the ones who have had painful shots, blood draws, or some other traumatic medical procedure involving needles.

It’s unfortunate; there are so many people with health problems who might truly benefit from acupuncture, but don’t do so because of their fear of needles. The reality is that people who are regular users of acupuncture don’t describe it as painful. In fact, if you were to ask one of them, they would likely describe the whole process as incredibly relaxing.

The problem is that most people don’t make the distinction between an acupuncture needle and the ones that are used in the doctor’s office. A needle is a needle…right? Well, not exactly. There are several differences betwen acupuncture needles and medical needles. Among them:

  • The guage (diameter) of an acupuncture needle is tiny compared to those used at your doctor’s office. That’s because acupuncture needles are not hollow–they don’t need to be because they’re not used to give shots or draw blood. As a result, the typical acupuncture needle is about the diameter of a thick hair. 
  • Acupuncture needles are inserted very quickly and artfully. Most acupuncturists take pride in how painlessly they are able to insert needles. In fact, many acupuncturists use a small plastic tube which guides the needle while they quickly (and painlessly) tap it through the skin. 
  • Acupuncture needles are inserted into very specific points on your body. This makes a difference because where the needles go is part of the therapeutic process. In contrast, when you get a shot, it goes somewhere in your arm, thigh, or butt–it doesn’t matter exactly where.

There is also a difference in the needles used by practitioners of different kinds of acupuncture. For example, in Chinese medicine, there should be some sensation (not really pain) on the receiving end of the needle–usually described as full, thick, or a distending feeling. However, in Japanese style acupuncture, sensation should be minimal. As a result, Chinese needles are usually made of stainless steel and are pretty straight-forward. In contrast, Japanese needles, may have plastic handles and the stainless steel shafts are frequently coated with silicone to allow for a little more “glide” on insertion. Also, there are needles for ear acupuncture and Korean hand acupuncture, both of which are much smaller and typically shorter than standard acupuncture needles.

In my own practice, I do a couple of things to ease things along for the needle-wary. First, although I practice Traditional Chinese Medicine, I frequently use Japanese needles. By doing so, I’m able to allow for some sensation on insertion, but keeping it pretty minimal. Secondly, whenever I’m dealing with someone who is worried about the whole needle thing, I let them try just one needle before they ever get onto my treatment table. I insert one needle and whether it’s an adult or a child, their reaction is always the same; they’re almost disappointed at how little they feel.

So my advice to the needle-shy: check out the needles, try just one, then decide.

2 comments to Does Acupuncture Hurt?

  • Blair

    Thank you so much for this post. I have had chronic back pain for several years now. I don’t want to resort to pills, and I believe the pain is related to muscles or nerves. I’m one of those people whose afraid of needles, and I’m going into my first acupuncture treatment next week. Wish me luck!

  • Lynn Jaffee

    Hey, good luck!