I don’t like needles, but for some reason, acupuncture seems slightly more palatable to me than your average flu vaccine. Especially if it could actually magically wipe away any ailments I might be lamenting at the moment. So, when I went to my first appointment, not knowing quite what to expect, it was a jarring experience. While it checked the box on relaxation, I probably won’t become a convert.
Before we get into my experience with acupuncture, let’s start with the basics. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that’s been around for thousands of years. It involves inserting very thin needles (picture a sewing needle) into a person’s skin at various depths in an effort to create “balance”. Acupuncture is typically used as a pain treatment, but can also treat a wide range of issues, from stress to insomnia. Western medicine explains acupuncture points where the needles are inserted as places where nerves and connective tissue can be stimulated, which can help increase blood flow and trigger natural painkillers.
I decided to give it a go, and my expectations were… well, wrong.
Making an appointment was a process: no place seemed to list their prices online, so I delved into the depths of Yelp and called several clinics to decide where to go. I was surprised to learn that they don’t list their prices because some insurance companies cover acupuncture, so costs vary person-to-person — I always thought of acupuncture as an out-there type of medicine, and didn’t even consider the possibility of insurance covering it.
I booked my appointment based on the number of 5 star ratings the clinic had on Yelp (I had an irrational fear of contaminated needles), and headed over to the acupuncturist one evening after work. I met with an acupuncturist who was certified several times over: she had a Masters of Science in Acupuncture, had studied the practice in China, and takes classes on the latest techniques regularly. She asked what I was hoping to accomplish, and I listed off a series of ailments that I thought acupuncture might help. First: circulation (my toes are notoriously cold and go numb pretty quickly), second: stress (duh), and third: a sore back. I was waiting for her to tell me that I needed to pick just one, but she seemed unfazed and wrote down some notes in my file.
She led me to a room where everyone was getting acupuncture. You read right, I was in one room with 10 other people — both men and women, ages 20 to 70, and dressed in everything from long, hippie skirts to expensive-looking business suits — about to get needles stuck in me. I waited for her to bring me to a private back room, but quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case. I laid down on the table and the acupuncturist stuck me with 11 needles: one on my forehead, one in each ear, at the inside of my elbows, wrists, knees, and feet. They slid in easily, and while I definitely felt them go in, they didn’t particularly hurt — more than a pinch, but less than a bee sting, and the sensation immediately went away once they were inserted leaving me with only a vague feeling of pressure. Then, she told me she’d be back to check in on me in half an hour.
That’s when I freaked out.
I don’t know what I expected, but I had no idea that after the needles are inserted, you’re supposed to just… chill. Suddenly, I realized how incredibly itchy my nose was, but I didn’t know if I could reach up and scratch it. Would I impale myself somehow? And what if I suddenly had to pee? Or felt faint? Or what if the fire alarm went off? Would I be able to take the needles out myself, or did I need to wait for the acupuncturist to come back and remove them before I could escape from the burning building?
After about 4 minutes, I finally calmed myself down (I know the precise timing because I started counting down the seconds) and started to feel more relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that the next thing I remember is waking myself up with a snore 20 minutes later.
I have no idea how I managed to fall asleep — minutes after I was freaking out! — and my immediate reaction was, “acupuncture works!” After 10 more minutes, the acupuncturist came back and plucked out the needles (completely painless!), and I walked home with a newfound energy and expectations of circulation improvement, no stress, and a fixed back.
The next day, my feet went numb after sitting at my desk for a couple of hours. I realized the skip in my step was probably attributed to my early-evening nap rather than the effects of acupuncture. And that’s when I thought to myself, “acupuncture doesn’t work.” Maybe I expected too much after one session, but I wouldn’t go back. I know, I know: you’re supposed to treat acupuncture like a course of medicine and create a weekly or bi-weekly routine that will eventually treat the health problem that caused you to go in the first place. But, I have to say, I always feel better after a massage. So, while I may mix 7pm naps into my routine, I don’t think acupuncture is going to make the cut.