When you hear the word acupuncture, what's the first thought that comes to mind?
If the answer was "needles," you're not alone. Anecdotally speaking, it's pretty common for people to associate the traditional Chinese treatment with the supposedly scary, pointy, painful instrument used to perform the practice. In fact, I was one of them.
But needle-phobic or not, the fact is that more and more modern-day research has been linking this ancient practice to some serious health benefits. Proponents of acupuncture say it can relieve symptoms from a variety of conditions, including headaches, lower back pain, osteoarthritis and insomnia.
And the practice is continuing to gain momentum in the world of mainstream medicine, particularly as a secondary treatment to conventional medicine. According to Good Housekeeping,"Recent research from Germany has been positive, showing that adding acupuncture to standard medical treatment helps people with a wide variety of ailments." From menstrual cramps and runny noses to migraine headaches and asthma, acupuncture better healed the patients who were treated with regular care and acupuncture more so than those treated with regular care alone.
The exact mechanism behind the healing power of acupuncture isn't quite understood, though researchers have put forth several theories, including the idea that endorphins, the so-called "feel good" hormones are at work, that acupuncture works on the body's stress response system, or that some complicated placebo effect is at work, The Atlantic reported last year (for more theories on how acupuncture may work, click over to their story).
"We know it works, we just don't know why," Dr. Leena Mathew, an attending physician in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center told the publication. "It's very hard to translate into Western language."
So while the jury is still out as to exactly how acupuncture works, I was intrigued. And when I had the opportunity to try a session with with Christina Moores, M.S., L.Ac., a licensed acupuncturist in Long Island, I decided to go for it.
Moores and I started the session by discussing my medical past and family history, and decided together to try acupuncture on the front of my body. As for those dreaded needles? The truth is that, for the most part, they didn't hurt. A few times I felt some tenderness, which Moore said was either the contraction of muscles or a nerve being hit. It took about eight minutes to put all the needles in, and then I sat under a heat lamp for about 20 minutes -- at one point, it was so relaxing that I even fell asleep.
While this was just my first appointment, I left feeling rested, comfortable and definitely wanting to try it again.
Interested in giving it a go yourself? After my first experience, I spoke to Moores and HuffPost's wellness editor, Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, for their advice on what you need to know for your first acupuncture appointment. Tried it already? Share what you wish you had known ahead of time in the comments below.
It can be tough knowing where to start when beginning any new kind of treatment. First things first: know what to look for in your practitioner. Moores says "you should always check that [your acupuncturist is] licensed and in good standing." Visit www.nccaom.org to find someone reputable. He or she should be licensed in your state and also nationally by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). If you are turning to acupuncture to treat a specific condition, mention it ahead of time to your practitioner. Moores says to ask if he or she has any specific experience in treating that ailment. "Usually hearing the answer will give you a good idea of whether or not you can trust him or her," she points out. Since you will be working intimately with your accupuncturist, it is imperative to ensure you're comfortable together. Even if the accupuncturist is well-regarded, if you don't feel at ease, then Moores says "you are cutting yourself and your healthcare short." Flickr photo by Kara Allyson
In order to entirely reap the benefits of this treatment, try your best to come to the appointment with an open mind. Moores explains: "Acupuncture works whether you believe it in or not. However, people will say you have to believe in it to work." Moores says that the shifts that occur from acupuncture are "subtle changes," meaning that those who are more in touch with their bodies can more easily notice them, while those who are less in-tune may take a longer time to feel any differences. Flickr photo by James Qualtrough
Prepping for an acupuncture treatment consists of many different variables: it's best to be conscious of when you arrive, what you eat and even how you smell! Food-wise, Moore suggests eating something light before your appointment. "If you don't eat anything before, you can feel weak after the treatment because a lot of energy is moving around," she says. It's also best to stay away from caffeine for the day, if you can. And consider skipping the coffee before your visit, since it acts as a stimulant. Acupuncture shouldn't be stressful (just the opposite -- it is meant to relieve stress!). Come to your session early so you can relax. "You do not want to be rushing though an acupuncture session," Fitzgerald notes. She also reminds us of the golden rule: use the bathroom before you go! Solid advice, as you may be on the table for a half hour or longer. If possible, do not wear any scented creams or fragrances the day of your appointment. Moores explains that "a lot of people are sensitive. I treat things like headaches ... plenty of patients say 'what's that smell? It's giving me a headache."' While you may not be affected by certain scents, it's best to be mindful of other patients who might be particularly sensitive. Lastly, the omnipresent question -- what should I wear? -- has an easy solution. While your acupuncturist will likely provide a gown, Dr. Fitzgerald suggests wearing loose-fitting clothing for comfort. Flickr photo by nicolasnova
Both Fitzgerald and Moores recommend bringing medical records, even if you think they are unrelated to your treatment. "The acupuncturist will spend a lot of time asking questions that might not even seem related to your condition," Fitzgerald says. He or she may ask about digestion, sleep paterns, gynecological history, mental health issues and more. Chinese medicine looks at all conditions as "interrelated," even if there's no obvious connection in the Western view. Moores agrees: "If you have a history of medications, diagnostic tests, MRIs, always bring them; when you have any diagnostic test, blood test or anything, you should keep a copy. Those results can help us." Flickr photo by breahn
Even if you're a rookie to this old practice, make sure you're understanding everything that's happening. "Remember it is your visit and your health," Fitzgerald says. "Make sure you communicate your needs and everything you can about your condition so the acupuncturist can have as much information as possible for your assessment. If something is not clear, don't be shy to ask for clarification." Speak up to advocate for yourself. "Your practitioner could explain things in Eastern terminology," she continues. "Be sure to ask for clarification and don't hesitate to make sure you understand your treatment protocol." Flickr photo by paparutzi
It's normal for the acupuncturist to check your tongue to assess the general health of your organs and meridians. Your practitioner will also check your pulse, which Moores says can reveal a lot. "It can tell you what's going on in the body as far as stagnation and stress," she explains. "We're not really checking for the rate." Flickr photo by nathanmac87
If you're Trypanophobic, we'll give it to you straight: more likely than not, your acupuncturist will be using needles. If you're feeling just a little wary, know that, as Moores puts it, "acupuncture needles are sterile, one-time use disposable needles." They are also incredibly flexible and not at all like those used to draw blood. But do they hurt? "That's the one big question," Moores says. "I don't think [it hurts]," she continues, "most people don't think so." But while it's not necessarily a painful experience, you may feel sensitivities on different areas of the body. "Sometimes you can feel a little qi sensation -- we call it a 'zing.' It's when the needle hits the nerve," she says, comparing it to the feeling you get when you hit your funny bone. Some spots may bleed once the needles are removed -- the ears are a particularly sensitive area. If this happens, the blood is usually less than a drop, and the bleeding will stop before you leave the office. Flickr photo by SuperFantastic
After the session, be sure to rehydrate. "Definitely drink water because we're getting the energy to circulate because you want to be hydrated," Moores says. Once you leave, you should be a-OK to continue about your day. In fact, you may not feel a thing. "As you start getting regular treatments," Moores says, "you may notice feeling more uplifted. Flickr photo by Svadilfari
This health video focuses on the different benefits acupuncture can provide for many different illnesses.