5 Things People Don’t Tell You About Acupuncture
July 30, 2014 | By Camille Chatterjee and Ellen Seidman
Photo: Getty Images

Does acupuncture really work? What’s it like to have a bunch of needles stuck in you? Health magazine editors Camille Chatterjee and Ellen Seidman recently started getting treatments to alleviate pain. Camille has gotten a couple of sessions for tendinitis in her elbow, and Ellen has an achy left shoulder that’s simultaneously being treated by a physical therapist. The two of them share their experiences going under the needle.

Yeah, you feel it
Camille: I was surprised to feel a little twinge or tingle in some places where a needle was placed. The first time I got acupuncture, the practitioner actually hooked the needles up to a little machine that purposely stimulated them—and, by association, certain trigger points.

Ellen: Hey, I’m going to ask about that little machine! Like Camille, I thought the process would be painless. The insertion of needles doesn’t usually hurt—but on occasion, I’ve felt it go in. And at times, when I’ve felt a serious ache in muscles, the practitioner has adjusted the needle so it doesn’t hurt.

And it’s a little weird
Ellen: I decided to take a selfie while I was lying on the table with a needle in my forehead—I thought it would look cool. As it turns out, it falls under “Stuff I wish I hadn’t done” because it made me cringe to see a needle smack in the middle of the forehead.

Camille: I once had the practitioner take a pic of my needles too—guess there’s a reason we’re health editors! I am not afraid of needles, at all, but I have to admit that I don’t like staring at a bunch of them in my skin. So I just look away. I’ve had some bruising in my arm afterward; nothing alarming, since I tend to bruise easily, but I had to deal with a week of people asking, “What’s that?”

The needles aren’t the ones you’re thinking of
Ellen: These are not those long needles you’re used to for doctor office shots. They’re more similar to needles used for sewing, but without the heads, and they’re skinnier. They come tucked inside plastic tubes; the practitioner places them on key spots and taps them into your skin.

Camille: My first acupuncturist used slightly thicker “sewing needles.” I prefer the skinnier!

Those needles don’t go where you’d imagine
Ellen: I thought the needles would be inserted into my left shoulder, where it hurts. While that is a possibility down the road, the practitioner ended up focusing on my right ankle and calf.

Camille: Acupuncture is based on the idea that your body has various lines of energy that connect to points related to a particular organ. Stimulating points on one side of the body can help heal points on the other side—explaining Ellen’s right ankle and calf, and why I got needles in my right forearm to relieve pain on my left side.

The relief can be immediate…or not
Camille: I’ll admit that the treatments for my elbow didn’t help as far as I could tell—the practitioner did tell me that I may need a bunch of sessions to see progress, and I decided to stick with the physical therapy I’d already been doing. But just one appointment was enough to loosen a knot in my shoulder and increase my range of motion.

Ellen: On my first session, he put a couple of needles in my ears for stress relief, even though that wasn’t the reason I was there. Within a few minutes, I genuinely felt like I’d been lulled into a pleasant stupor. That treatment did nothing for my shoulder pain. The next time around, though, he inserted needles in other areas and my ache subsided. I actually said the words “Wow, this works!” And it was the same for the next session. So, I’m an acupuncture convert. It’s not a cure-all but for me, it is a pain reliever.

Camille Chatterjee is the Deputy Editor of Health; Ellen Seidman is the Contributing Features Editor.