“What’s it like?” I’m often asked by curious would-be acupuncture patients. Acupuncture is, understandably, a mysterious thing to most westerners. People tend to assume all sorts of un-true things like there must be some sort of medication in the needles or that since they consider themselves to be needle-phobics, that acupuncture would be completely out of the question for them.
In this article, I’d like to put an end to the mystery of what to expect at your first Acupuncture appointment.
- The Initial Consultation
- The Treatment
- How many treatments will I need?
If you have read my article, What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine? then you understand that the main reason why Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is so difficult for most westerners to wrap their brains around is that the fundamental philosophy, theory and practice of TCM, although actually quite practical, time-tested and proven, is very complex and is, of course, based on a completely foreign philosophy. With concepts such as Qi, Yin & Yang, Meridian systems, etc.- it’s not surprising that most people in this country find acupuncture and TCM unfamiliar. (If that still makes no sense to you, I suggest you read the article above- good stuff…)
The Initial Consultation
Chinese Medicine is based on a very simple principle: that is that the mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic, interconnected system and that the human body is an integrated whole, not a bunch of parts and pieces.
That holistic philosophy is always present in the mind of a TCM practitioner and is reflected continuously throughout the entire theory and practice of the medicine. As a first time acupuncture patient, you’ll notice this from the very moment you begin filling out your new patient forms– which tend to be very thorough, asking questions about every aspect of your physical, mental and emotional state.
After you’ve filled out your forms, the first 15-20 minutes of your initial consultation, in most cases, will consist of a one-on-one, in-depth conversation with your Acupuncturist to elaborate on the info you provided on the forms, and to make sure that your Acupuncturist has a very clear understanding of your present state of being and how you got that way.
This will usually include an observation of your tongue and pulses on both wrists. Tongue and pulse diagnosis are tools unique to TCM which give your Acupuncturist an overall “picture” of the state of your body beyond the information gathered verbally.
At first, you may find it odd that you’re visiting an Acupuncturist to treat your migraine headaches, for example, and yet he/she asking you all about your sleep patterns and bowel movements. All of that extensive information gathered during your consultation is used by your TCM practitioner to identify an underlying pattern of disharmony in your body. Seemingly unrelated symptoms and conditions, when looked at holistically, will point to an underlying “root condition,” the correction of which will ultimately be the target of your Acupuncture treatments.
To clarify, if you think of your body as a tree, with all the apparently unrelated symptoms that you’re experiencing as the branches of that tree, in many cases, western medical practitioners would look at the branches of that tree as if they were different plants- each getting a different diagnosis, medication, or treatment to address them.
Acupuncturists, on the other hand, would take into consideration all the different branches and ask, “ok, what kind of tree is this?” And then go all the way down to the roots and treat your pattern from there.
This is how a person complaining of migraine headaches, who also happens to have occasional constipation/loose stool, acid reflux when they’re stressed, muscle aches, insomnia and occasional irritability will likely receive a single TCM pattern diagnosis and have all of those seemingly different symptoms be addressed simultaneously with each treatment.
Likewise, because Acupuncturists are treating a person’s unique, underlying pattern of disharmony, this is how we can have 5 people in the room complaining of what seem to be the exact same type of migraine headache, and yet they each get 5 different acupuncture treatments and 5 different herbal formulas. TCM is truly a custom-fitted medicine.
Now, on to the good stuff…
Armed with all the info gathered in the consultation, your Acupuncturist devises a treatment protocol using Acupuncture alone or combined with other TCM treatment modalities.
Most of the time, your treatments will take place on a comfortable massage table. Your acupuncturist will need to be able to get to various parts of your body and limbs so be sure to wear loose-fitting clothes. In some cases, you may need to partially or fully disrobe, in which case, most Acupuncturists will provide a gown for you to change into (Attractive? No. Effective? Yes.)
The specific Acupuncture points he or she selects will usually be a combination of acupuncture points on the body, limbs and/or head in order to focus on correcting that underlying pattern of disharmony. There will also be points added specifically to help alleviate current symptoms. Treatments by a qualified, Licensed Acupuncturist will never be designed to just treat symptoms– we always treat the root cause.
Once comfortable on the table, your practitioner should explain to you exactly what he/she is doing and what sensations you can expect to feel during treatment.
“Does Acupuncture hurt?” Is of course everyone’s favorite question…
When most people think of needles, they think back to all of their experiences since childhood of vaccinations and having blood drawn. Yes- Those shots hurt!
Rest assured, though, that Acupuncture needles, are nothing like hypodermic needles. They are only slightly larger than the width of a human eyebrow hair and can literally be curled like a ribbon with just the fingertips. (I, myself, am a self-proclaimed “needle-phobic.” When having blood drawn or anything else involving a hypodermic needle, I’m that girl who turns pale white, throws up, and passes out in the doctor’s office. If I can insert acupuncture needles into myself with no problem, you can have it done too, I promise.)
The needles that most Acupuncturists use these days are pre-packed, sterile, single-use, and disposable. Once the needles are all in place, they will be retained for a period of time- usually 25-35 minutes, in order for your body to fully integrate the treatment. During that time, you may feel mild, strange (but not painful) sensations at and around the needles as well as in parts of your body that do not have needles in them, or you may feel nothing at all. Note: this is not the appropriate time to do the hokey-pokey. If you move, you might feel the needles. So just don’t move.
While the needles are being retained, it’s a good time for you to take a moment in your busy life to actually allow yourself relax! Take a nap! Believe it or not, most patients report that acupuncture treatments are not only relatively painless, but also extremely relaxing and it is very common for even the high-anxiety patients to fall asleep during treatments. This is because Acupuncture treatments stimulate your brain to release massive amounts of endorphins, your body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, which helps to calm your Sympathetic Nervous System, and takes you from that insidious, high-stress “fight-or-flight” mode, to a nice, peaceful, “rest-and-relax” mode. This often occurs within minutes, and yes- even if you’re afraid of needles.
After the needles have been in place for an appropriate amount of time, your treatment will either be done for the day or your Acupuncturist may choose to include other TCM therapies such as Cupping, Gua-Sha, Electro-stimulation, Tuina/Shiatsu Massage, Moxibustion, Heat Therapy, etc. They may also give you a prescription for Chinese Herbal Medicine as well.
The herbs work in conjunction with the Acupuncture treatments to continue the therapy you received in the office, even while you’re at home. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are mutually supportive of eachother and your body and you’ll generally get better, faster results when sticking to your treatment plan and combining the two modalities.
How many treatments will I need?
Everybody is different and therefore, “every body is different.”
Because Acupuncturists recognize the absolute uniqueness of every person they treat, a definitive prognosis can be difficult to formulate in advance and even following the initial consultation. After the first 2-3 treatments, however, he/she should have a good understanding of your condition and be able to offer you a reasonable idea of how many treatments you will need.
It is also important to note that Acupuncture is considered a “cumulative medicine,” in other words, the treatments build on each other. While many people will feel some change in their condition immediately or within the first 2-3 treatments, others with more serious or recalcitrant conditions will need more of a long-term treatment before a significant, lasting change occurs.
Be aware that sometimes changes can appear slow and subtle as your entire body begins to rebalance from the condition- don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate changes, it doesn’t mean changes aren’t occurring!
How many treatments you need and how often will depend on a variety of factors: your body’s core constitution, the type of pattern diagnosis, your age, your lifestyle, the severity and duration of the condition being treated, and your willingness to participate in your own healing process by making appropriate adjustments to your lifestyle habits, diet and exercise routines if necessary. Continued follow-up care over weeks and months may be needed to further reduce your symptoms and eliminate any reoccurrence.
It is also important to understand that being truly healthy goes beyond the “absence of illness.” After a course of treatment, you may no longer be experiencing symptoms anymore, but it is still crucial to continue to strengthen, build and support your body! Stopping care as soon as symptoms subside can disrupt the healing progress that you’ve made and could lead to a relapse of symptoms. Remember, we are working to restore your body’s ability to heal and support itself naturally- this process goes beyond the simple alleviation of symptoms. Much the same way you keep a car running optimally by regular tune-ups and oil changes, periodic acupuncture treatments, even after all symptoms have been relieved, can help keep your body running optimally.
More Acupuncture FAQs
This information brought to you by your friendly neighborhood Austin Acupuncturist, Melanie Irvine, L.Ac., MAOM, owner Turning Point Wellness. For more info about how Acupuncture, Oriental Medicine, and natural nutrition can help you achieve vibrant health and well-being. Feel free to visit my website, www.TurningPointAcupuncture.net for more details and direct contact information.