Acupuncture: What to Expect

An appointment with an acupuncture practitioner frequently includes a blend of traditional Chinese practices and modern medicine. Practitioners come from a variety of backgrounds, which influence their approach to treatment.

An acupuncture practitioner who emphasizes the treatment's roots in Asian medicine is likely to take a holistic approach, viewing the pain as a sign that the body as a whole is out of balance. The practitioner may discuss the life force of the body, or qi (pronounced "chee"), and explain that the optimal flow of qi is the key to good health.

See Acupuncture for Pain Relief

Physician acupuncturists generally explain the acupuncture process in medical terms, such as the effect on parts of the body.


Thorough Exam Likely

An office visit for acupuncture may vary in other ways from a standard office visit. After discussing medical history and questions about sleep and other daily habits, the practitioner may examine the tongue, observing its shape, color, and coating.

Pulse strength and quality may also be checked, and there may be additional examinations, depending on the nature of the symptoms.

An acupuncture appointment may take significantly longer than a standard medical appointment, and other types of stimulation, such as massage or heat therapy, may also be provided. Hour-long appointments are common.

Acupuncture Needle Insertion

If treatment will be on the hands or feet, wearing loose clothing to allow access to these areas is advised. Otherwise, a hospital gown may be provided for modesty before treatment starts. Once the person lies down on a padded table, 1 to 20 metallic needles are inserted into the body.

The needles may barely break the skin or be inserted several inches into the body. Deeper needles are typically used to treat painful areas surrounded by deep muscle or fat, as with sciatica.

Insertion of the ultra-thin needles may cause a tingling sensation. Acupuncture typically causes little or no pain. The depth of the needles and the duration of the treatment vary with the medical problem and the individual's comfort level. Needles may be used for a few minutes or up to about 50 minutes.

Acupuncture needles come in different sizes and shapes and can be moved or turned once they are placed. Mild electrical pulses are sometimes used between two needles (called electro-acupuncture) to expand the area of pain relief.

Acupuncture needles are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as medical devices and are required to follow certain standards. They must be sterile, nontoxic, and are approved for only one use by a qualified acupuncture practitioner.

While acupuncture may be best known as part of traditional Chinese medicine, it has a long history in other parts of Asia as well. Japanese and Korean acupuncture generally use shallower needles. Asking about the practitioner's approach to acupuncture may be helpful.


Safety of Acupuncture

Generally considered safe when provided by an experienced practitioner, acupuncture has some safety concerns, as is the case with all invasive medical procedures.

For more information, see Acupuncture Considerations on

Minor bleeding, bruising, or soreness where needles were inserted may occur. Rare but serious risks include, but are not limited to, infection, collapsed lungs, bleeding, punctured organs, and damage to the central nervous system.

If swelling, redness, or other signs of infection appear at the site where a needle was inserted, medical help is advised.

Acupuncture may not be recommended in some cases for those who are pregnant or taking blood thinner medications, such as warfarin (brand name Coumadin). Electro-acupuncture is generally not advised if a heart pacemaker is used.

Checking with a doctor before having acupuncture and reminding the acupuncture practitioner of health conditions is recommended.

For more in-depth information, see Acupuncture: An Ancient Treatment for a Current Problem on