Put a pin in it: The ultimate wellness guide to acupuncture
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Acupuncture: Maybe you’ve heard of it—or, thanks to Instagram and trendy acupuncture studios popping up across the country, maybe you’ve seen it during your daily scroll. While some people would have you think that acupuncture is just the latest installment of trendy but, ultimately, unnecessary wellness treatments, research says otherwise. In fact, according to MINDBODY senior director of research and product marketing, Amaya Becvar Weddle, Ph.D., acupuncture is expected to continually grow by 14.5 percent each year between now and 2023. That tidbit, combined with the fact that there’s close to 3,000 years of documented case history, it’s safe to say that acupuncture is anything but a fad.
To help uncover why the needle-poking modality is on the rise, we chatted with some of the top acupuncturists and doctors. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know before booking your first acu sesh.
What is acupuncture?
Thanks to the long history of acupuncture, different philosophies of the medicine developed throughout the world. Today, the most common acupuncture modalities include classical Chinese medicine, five-element acupuncture, Japanese meridian therapy, and, above all, traditional Chinese medicine.
Though these modalities are all slightly different, Dr. Aimée Derbes, DACM, LAC, of Align New York notes that they use the same set of several hundred acupuncture points that lie along the 12 main meridians. “The meridians can be likened to the body’s highway system,” she explains. “Like highways, they provide the fastest, most efficient connections for energy, blood, and information to travel from one part of the body to another.”
If you’re wondering which application is best, understand it’s entirely subjective. “None is better than another in and of itself,” Derbes explains. “I would suggest finding a practitioner you feel comfortable with rather than focusing on a specific system of treatment.”
Last but not least, while each acupuncture application is rooted in the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine, Dr. Hilda Gonzales, DACM, LAC, of San Diego-based Saffron & Sage points out that they do differ in ways from the types of needles used to the amount of stimulation used on the needles, which is sometimes a determining factor for people with a fear of needles. “For example, Japanese meridian acupuncture uses thinner needles with a shallower insertion,” she explains. “They can affect managing stress or pain. It all depends on the root cause of the problem.”
What are the different kinds of acupuncture you can try?
With the modalities out of the way, let’s chat about how they’re put into action. According to Costa Mesa-based Magnolia Wellness founder and lead acupuncturist, Angela Sinnett, the most popular acupuncture practices include traditional acupuncture, facial rejuvenation acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, auricular acupuncture (aka ear acupuncture). With her help, we’ve broken down the characteristics of each, below.
Traditional Acupuncture: “This is the most common type of acupuncture and involves very fine sterile needles being inserted into various acupuncture points on the body,” Sinnett says, noting that each acupuncture point has a different therapeutic effect.
Facial Rejuvenation Acupuncture: This type of acu specifically targets complexion concerns and anti-aging. “It helps boost collagen production and lift and tone the facial muscles,” Sinnett says.
Electro-acupuncture: As if needles alone weren’t enough to trigger therapy, electro-acupuncture utilizes current by clipping an electrical machine to the top of each needle. “The needles are stimulated with an electrical current that increases circulation to the area,” Sinnett explains. “Oftentimes, patients will feel a tapping or slight tingling sensation at the acupoint. It is especially helpful for pain and labor induction.”
Auricular Acupuncture: This method involves stimulating external points on the ear with needles. “It is frequently used to lower stress levels,” Sinnett shares.
Does acupuncture hurt?
N-O-P-E. Bet you didn’t expect that, huh? Despite the needles lodged into your skin, the therapy treatment is virtually painless thanks to the needles’ size and insertion depth. “Acupuncture needles are the size of a human hair, and depending on the hair, they might be even smaller,” Dr. Shari Auth, DACM, LAC, LMT, of NYC-based acu studio WTHN explains. “They are so small you can fit 40 acupuncture needles into one hypodermic needle. Most people feel a dull sensation or nothing at all when the needles go in. In fact, acupuncture is so relaxing it’s common for people to fall asleep on the table during acupuncture. It’s a healthcare appointment that feels more like a spa visit, so instead of being nervous, be excited!”
What are the benefits of acupuncture?
Now that you know what acupuncture is and how it’s applied, it’s time to get to why you clicked on this article in the first place: the benefits. And let’s be clear, there are many.
Dr. Auth says that acupuncture works by sending messages to the brain that alter brain chemistry. While the effects vary based on client needs, she mentions (and a 2019 study published in the American Family Physician Journal supports) that acupuncture increases the body’s natural opiates, endorphins, and enkephalins to reduce pain, and it can also reduce cortisol and increase serotonin to reduce stress. “Acupuncture also increases circulation to relax tight muscles and is a natural anti-inflammatory to help alleviate inflammatory-related conditions,” she adds.
Sinnett adds to this, noting that “acupuncture resets the nervous system, literally flipping the switch out of fight or flight mode for the body. It boosts the immune system and restores sleep patterns, helps reduce pain and inflammation in the body, and can even improve ovarian function and egg quality for families trying to have a baby.”
All in all, in acu speak, Derbes says, “Acupuncture balances the flow of qi (pronounced chee) and blood in the body’s meridians, and with free flow of qi, illness doesn’t have a chance to arise.”
What’s the best way to prolong the effects of acupuncture?
Of course, in order for these mind-blowing benefits to actually take place, it’s important to pair acupuncture with healthy lifestyle choices to both prep for and prolong the effects.
First and foremost, managing expectations and understanding that acupuncture isn’t a one-and-done trick to achieve top-tier health and well-being is a must. “Many people come to acupuncture after exhausting more traditional medical options that didn’t help much, and they’re often hoping for a magic bullet,” Derbes says. “It’s important to recognize that acupuncture can provide immediate relief for many conditions, but it contributes to sustainable, lasting change when done regularly according to the individualized plan created by the practitioner.” In other words, plan to commit for a few months, and to stay with a treatment plan rather than expecting magical immediate results.
Beyond committing to a regular acu routine, lifestyle choices as a whole make a huge difference.“Healing can be exponentially more efficient when combined with eating healthy, staying well-hydrated, using stress-reduction techniques, and getting lots of sleep,” Sinnett explains. “If I work on someone’s digestion [with needles applied to the meridians] only to see them [not incorporating other healthy measures], the therapeutic benefits of the treatment won’t last long. The best way to prolong the effects of acupuncture are healthy lifestyle choices, herbs and supplements to continue the therapeutic benefit of the treatment and ear seeds.” (More on ear seeds below.)
How often can you get acupuncture?
After learning about the vast benefits of acupuncture, not to mention the fact that it surprisingly doesn’t hurt, you might be wondering how often you can partake in the body- and mind-altering practice. Like so many aspects of acupuncture, it’s subjectively based on your health and goals. As such, when you head in for your initial consultation, your acupuncturist will help you determine your ideal acu routine. However, as a general rule of thumb, Sinnett says that, if you’re trying to build up your health (for example, to increase your chances of getting pregnant or to help alleviate pain), you can get acupuncture treatments frequently, usually one to two times a week. On the other hand, if you’re trying to maintain health, one to two treatments a month should do it.
The perks of ear seeds
Contrary to the name, ear seeds are more like tiny earrings than actual seeds. While they were once created with plant-based Vaccaria seeds, they are now commonly made with metal balls and even tiny gems for the same effect.
“Ear seeds are part of Traditional Chinese Medicine that dates back thousands of years,” Auth explains. “In TCM, the ear is a microsystem of the whole body with dozens of pressure points ready to transform body and mind.” As such, ear seeds work by putting light pressure on specific acupressure points on the ear, which stimulates that point when pressed and subsequently affects neurological pathways. “These points have healing properties, such as calming the mind, boosting immunity, reducing pain, and more,” Auth adds.
The small studs come on an adhesive back and are stuck to specific points of the ear that correlate with other bodily and brain functions to offer instant relief and prolonged benefits of traditional acupuncture. Best of all, the high-quality adhesive is designed to be worn for up to seven days, meaning you can enjoy the perks of acu each and every day without heading into a studio. And according to a 2013 study, 19 participants who used ear seeds in specific areas that were associated for lower back pain claimed to experience 75 percent less pain than a group who had ear seeds randomly placed on their ears to help eliminate the same pain.
While many ear seeds are designed to be adhere solely within the confines of an acupuncture studio following a traditional acu session, WTHN developed an at-home kit that lets you apply them yourself anytime, anywhere. According to Auth, the creator, they can be used on their own when you’re too busy to get into the studio for an acupuncture treatment, making them especially beneficial during travel. “While wearing ear seeds, you can apply light pressure to activate the effects of the seed for an extra boost,” she adds.
Who is a good candidate for acupuncture?
In short: pretty much everyone. Since Chinese medicine is all about preventative health, it has very few restrictions. That said, Sinnett says that there are a few medical conditions that make acupuncture a no-go. Namely, if you’re a hemophiliac, you should steer clear of needles; if you have a pacemaker, you should avoid electro-acu; and if you’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs or have any infectious diseases or disorders, it’s best to hold off.
Where is it safe to get acupuncture?
Before running to the first acupuncture studio you come across and letting them stick needles into you, it’s important to ensure they’re accredited.
“The only person you should be receiving acupuncture from is a licensed practitioner,” Sinnett emphasizes. “Look for an LAC (licensed acupuncturist) or DACM (Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine).”
In addition to looking for these letters, Derbes says that you can verify licensing and credentials on your state’s acupuncture website or by visiting the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the organization that board certifies acupuncturists in most states.
Beyond certifications, you’ll want to find an acupuncturist who can hold dialogue. After all, even by the end of this article (hi, we’re finally here!), you may still have questions, and it helps to be able to feel safe and comfortable while seeking answers.