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Hello and welcome to “Acupuncture 101,” a series of blogs targeted towards people who are considering Acupuncture, but not sure of what to expect. This first entry is about the typical sensations you’ll encounter when being needled by an Acupuncturist.


So, What IS Acupuncture?

So you’re considering Acupuncture, or maybe you’ve even gone ahead and booked your first appointment. What should you expect? What on Earth have you signed up for? You’re gonna pay to willingly have some guy poke you with needles for an hour? You must be crazy!

Or – maybe you’ve just taken your first steps toward taking charge of your health! Chinese Medicine is an extremely powerful form of treatment, one that has helped millions of people heal from within, and lead more balanced lives (I promise, it’s not as hokey as it sounds). However, I understand why many people hesitate at first. Traditional Chinese Medicine (which I’ll refer to as TCM) isn’t something we’re used to in the West. Many people have a very limited understanding of what Acupuncture is, or what it is used for.

In it’s most basic sense, Acupuncture is all about promoting the flow of Qi, (often [poorly] translated to “life force” or “vital energy”),  along the body’s meridians. But that’s a very jargon heavy, ambiguous explanation. I recently discovered an amazing article written by John Amaro that translates those vague concepts of “Qi” and “Meridians” into language that the average North American will understand. He likens Qi to electricity, and meridians to the circuit that electricity flows on. I won’t try to out do him, so I’ll post a link to his explanation here. Whether you want to discuss these ideas in TCM terms, or in more modern terms – the treatment stays the same. Needles are inserted into specific points along these pathways to break up any blockages, and promote healthy flow of energy. Treatment gets to the root of your ailments by bringing the body back to balance. Acupuncture is most commonly known here in the West for pain relief, but due to it’s ability to correct disharmony in the body, Acupuncture can be applied to wide array of disorders. It is particularly effective for psycho-emotional disorders like anxiety, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal health, headaches, and even infertility.

Needles can also be used off of meridian pathways on muscular motor points. To either relax muscles that are hyperactive, or activate muscles which are weak.

What does it feel like? Does it hurt? I’M AFRAID OF NEEDLES!

There is something of a myth here in the West that Acupuncture is supposed to be this relaxing, spa-like experience where the patient forgets about the needles and floats away on a cloud. I regret to inform you this isn’t exactly true. Don’t get me wrong, Acupuncture can be an extremely calming experience, (especially if you’re being treated for anxiety or irritability), but we must remember that Acupuncture is first and foremost a MEDICAL practice. Our focus is on healing you – and just like Western Medicine it can sometimes be a little uncomfortable. BUT – there is a difference between slight discomfort, and pain. Acupuncture should never be a painful experience. Many patients worry that the use of needles inevitably means pain, they think Acupuncture is akin to torture. This is also a myth. The truth lies somewhere in between the myths I’ve dispelled above.

So if Acupuncture isn’t painful, what kind of feelings can you expect? There are a surprising number of sensations you may experience when being needled for the first time: soreness (often a dull ache), fullness/distention, heaviness, heat or cold, itching, a muscular twitch, numbness etc. Also common is the sensation of an electric shock or jolt travelling down your arm or leg. These are all normal sensations characteristic of something called the “de qi sensation.”  In Chinese, “de qi” means to “obtain qi” – it means that Qi has arrived at the acupuncture point being needled, facilitating a healing reaction. In more modern terms I simply think of this as the body “paying attention” to the area being needled. Treatment without the “de qi” sensation is generally less effective, in other words – feeling something (even a little discomfort) is better in the long run than feeling nothing.

Abnormal sensations are a sharp, burning or stabbing pain. If you ever feel any of these the acupuncturist will remove the needle immediately and use a new one at a slightly different angle. Sensations like this usually occur when a needle isn’t inserted far enough. The reason we often use guide tubes with needles is because the superficial layers of your skin are highly innervated and sensitive to pain, by using a guide tube we’re able to tap the needle right through that sensitive area so you feel the minimum amount of discomfort.

If any pain or discomfort lasts longer than a couple minutes, it’s always good practice to let your Acupuncturist know, so we can assure nothing is wrong. Rest assured though, Acupuncture when practiced by a Licensed Acupuncturist is near risk free. We know what we’re doing 🙂

I hope this post helped you to gain a better understanding of what to expect in your first treatment!


If you’re living in Edmonton, Alberta and would like to book an appointment with me (Jon McDonell), click HERE!

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