Acupuncture – your mom has told you for years that it’s helped her headaches. Your best friend got it to help with her morning sickness. Your boss gets it for his chronic low back pain. So you’ve gone and done it – you made your first acupuncture appointment.
Acupuncture’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years, but it’s very common for my new patients to be acupuncture first-timers. As newbies, it’s natural to have questions. My goal is to address many of the common questions I get before and at first appointments and to give you a general idea of what your session will like from beginning to end.
First things first: What is the difference between Community and Private Acupuncture?
Private acupuncture or one-on-one acupuncture is typically done in a private clinic room, a home setting, or a hospital room. Treatments are done on a larger portion of the body than in community acupuncture because the privacy allows you to undress if needed. This usually only happens in cases where certain points on the hips, thighs, or parts of the chest and abdomen need to be reached.
In private acupuncture, I do a detailed interview called an “intake”, and finely tune the treatment to your needs. Usually, I leave the room and dim the lights so you can take a nap while listening to soft music.
Community acupuncture is done in a communal space. For instance, I practice my community acupuncture nights in the Health Foundations Birth Center yoga studio. I set up two chairs and a table depending on how many patients I’m expecting. There are still dim lights and soft music, but there’s the addition of being in a room with others who are relaxing. You can get into a healing rhythm very easily.
The intakes for community acupuncture tend to be shorter and points are restricted to the head, arms, hands, legs, and feet. No undressing is necessary.
The type of appointment you are receiving is important because it answers the next question:
What should I wear to my acupuncture appointment?
For both community and private acupuncture, you can wear your normal clothing. If for any reason it’s constrictive or limits accessibility I may substitute another point or omit it altogether. If this is the case it may impact your session but I’ll let you know so we can be prepared for next time. Remember, a reputable acupuncturist will never, ever needle through clothing.
To make things easy,wear comfortable clothing you can roll up past the knees and elbows. You may be asked to take your socks off for access to your feet.
Are you liking what you see here? Check out these other acupuncture basics:
Acupuncture 101: How to talk to your acupuncturist (the basics of qi, blood, yin, and yang)
What type of paperwork will I have to fill out?
This may differ slightly per practitioner but in general:
- a health history
- an informed consent (the benefits and potential risks of acupuncture)
- a HIPAA form (a US federal law that governs the privacy of your information)
- a short notice cancellation and financial policy
Other forms may include a minor consent form for pediatric clients, additional forms for take-home treatments, and a HIPAA release form if for any reason you would like your information shared with another person or clinic.
Not seeing an answer to your question?
What is the intake like?
A Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) intake is based on the “ten questions”. It’s not really ten questions. It is a template that covers your body head to toe, inside to outside, to ensure that my treatment plan addresses your holistic health.
In a private session, the intake can take up to 45 minutes of questions. This allows me to nail down your pattern diagnosis, plan an herbal treatment with you, and discuss dietary interventions.
In a community-style appointment, the intake will rarely last more than 10 minutes because of the time and space limitations. However, once I get to know you after a few appointments we’ll generally have a solid treatment plan complete with diet and lifestyle changes, as well as herbs if you need them.
The question categories include:
- Chills and fever or overall body temperature
- Head and body
- Chest and abdomen
- Food and taste
- Thirst and drink
- Stools and urine
- Ears and eyes
- Emotional well-being and stress
- Gynecological history, pregnancies, and childbirth
- Male urogenital issues
During the intake, I will also take your wrist pulse on both your left and right arms and look at your tongue. Fun fact: your tongue is the only muscle visible from the outside of the body so we can see the movement of blood in your tissues. The coat of your tongue tells us a ton about the state of your digestive system. You can get a lot of information about someone just by knowing what to look for in the tongue.
Based on this you will get a “pattern diagnosis”. This means that I’ve looked at your symptoms and found at least one of about 100 categories you seem to fit into. I might say you have something like “spleen qi deficiency” or “liver qi stagnation”. This doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with your spleen or liver.
In fact, it doesn’t change or replace any of your Western Medical diagnoses at all. It’s just another way of saying that you have low energy or that you’re stressed in a way that also helps me choose my points.
The Acupuncture Needle
This is what most people have questions about: how big are the needles? Do they hurt?
An acupuncture needle is a very small, solid, thin needle usually made of stainless steel. It has a handle and a tapered shaft. To give you an idea of how small it is, you can fit 10-20 acupuncture needles inside the tip of an average hypodermic needle, what you would get your flu shots from. Check out this google image search for a better visual.
They are designed to be as painless as possible – many needles won’t be felt at all. For the ones that are felt, the only sensation is on insertion and it’s usually quick and not painful.
Over time as your body recognizes the needles, you may start to feel a dull but comfortable pressure like someone is resting or pressing their finger where the needle is. This is called “de qi” and it’s a good thing. If you feel anything sharp, shooting, stabbing, or burning let me know so I can back the needle off – that’s your body’s way of telling us we’re close to a blood vessel or a nerve. This isn’t common, but it’s good to know.
De qi is an indication that your body’s nervous, circulatory, and endocrine systems are starting to respond to the treatment. This is what will allow needles placed in the ears, hands, or feet to have an effect on your whole body. So, relax and let them do their work!
After the appointment
While in the chair you may feel different states of relaxation and may even fall asleep (we call it a needle nap). It’s normal to feel very calm and relaxed at the end of a session.
If you feel sleepy or overtired, let me know. We may have done too much this time and we can use fewer needles next time.
If at any point you feel dizzy or like you’re about to faint let me know – that’s a sign of low blood pressure or low blood sugar and it may help to eat before your next appointment.
After a brief check-in for how you’re feeling, you’re done! If you had a headache it may be gone completely. If you had nausea it may be diminished or gone entirely. It depends on how you react to the treatment.
It’s important to remember that just because the symptom you came in with is better the underlying cause may still be there and could cause future issues. Acupuncture is a cumulative medicine, so you may need to come in for more treatments. Building acupuncture into a care plan that includes your primary care provider can help get complicated conditions under control quickly.
If you’re looking for a more detailed take on what to expect after acupuncture, check out this blog post.
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and links
For more information about community acupuncture, visit the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture – www.pocacoop.com
A google image search for a size comparison of hypodermic to acupuncture needles – goo.gl/aoByXK
For more information on the Ten Questions visit the Sacred Lotus
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul and White Bear Lake, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul, the Naturally Well healing collective in White Bear Lake, and doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!