After just one session, I slept soundly and woke up feeling refreshed.

By Amy Brightfield
October 21, 2019

When you’re dealing with persistent pain, getting a bunch of needles stuck in you may not sound exactly like a way to feel better. But there is more and more evidence that suggests acupuncture—a traditional treatment in Chinese medicine that involves inserting thin needles at certain points in your body—can indeed help relieve discomfort. Research shows that acupuncture can help manage chronic pain, particularly from tension-type headaches, peripheral joint osteoarthritis, back pain, and neck issues. Ahead, you'll learn what to expect from an acupuncture treatment—and what it really feels like.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

There are a few ways that experts think acupuncture works, explains Wen Chen, Ph.D., program director at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. "Acupuncture affects the tissues and nerves and may dampen pain signals to the brain," Chen says. It may also prompt your body to release chemicals that soothe pain, much like how exercising activates the production of feel-good chemicals called endorphins. 

As your faithful health nut, I couldn’t ignore the evidence, so I made an appointment with Devon Greenbaum at Advanced Holistic Center in New York City to get stuck. Before my session, Greenbaum sat down to talk with me. She asked if I had any stress in my life (maybe a little, given my entire family on both sides was about to descend upon me for a big event), if I had trouble sleeping (sometimes it’s hard to shut off my brain), and where I felt discomfort (my shoulders, neck, and lower back).

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For the treatment, I lay under a towel while facedown on a padded table like the ones used for massages. One by one, Greenbaum inserted needles at points along my feet, legs, and back. How did she decide where to place them? The theory is that we have hot and cool energies called Chi (pronounced chee) flowing through our bodies. When that energy is stagnant or there’s an imbalance of hot and cool, we develop symptoms like insomnia and aches. My diagnosis based on our conversation: an excess of stagnating hot energy. (My mom always told me I ran hot!) So she placed the needles at points to break up that energy.

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Does Acupuncture Hurt?

As each needle went in, I felt a slight prick then warmth and tingling in the area. Around my ankle, I did feel more of a twinge that lasted a few minutes. Greenbaum said maybe that was a particularly sensitive spot and adjusted the needle so I was comfortable. It took her about seven minutes to insert 30 needles. (It sure didn’t feel like that many.) Then I lay there for about 30 minutes—time enough for the needles to stimulate the surrounding tissues and muscles. Later that afternoon I felt unusually spacey and tired. Greenbaum explained that after an acupuncture session— especially your first—your body is getting rid of toxins. "Fatigue is part of any healing process and a sign that the acupuncture is working," she said. That made sense: It’s like the fatigue you feel after a massage.

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Even though it usually takes about six weeks of sessions to feel better, that night I slept soundly and woke up refreshed and energized. Acupuncture had already started to cool this hot health nut down. If you're interested in trying out this technique for yourself, your health care provider can recommend a state-certified acupuncturist. Also check the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health for guidelines to figure out if an acupuncturist is reputable.

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