What Does Acupuncture Feel Like?

It’s the biggest question I get at the clinic: What does acupuncture feel like? Does it hurt?

The short answer is that it feels amazing, in a variety of ways—and more than 95 percent of the time, no, it doesn’t hurt. But after answering this question time and again, I realized people wanted to know more about the physical (and emotional!) experience of acupuncture so that they would feel comfortable coming in for their first appointment.

There are a progression of sensations associated with acupuncture, so I’ll take you through them.

When you come in for your first appointment we do very gentle needling to test how sensitive your skin is—and about 95 percent of people aren’t sensitive at all! The needles we use are completely different from the shots you’ve experienced in the doctor’s office—we’re not injecting anything, so the needles are very thin. They’re only as thick as a couple of hairs—more like a tiny bristle than anything. This makes them much more comfortable than the needles you’re used to for vaccinations or blood draws.

When we insert the first needle, you may be surprised that you don’t feel a thing. If anything, you might feel a tiny pencil poke. But here’s the upside if you happen to be that small percentage of people who experience tenderness: It generally means your body will respond really, really well to treatment, plus we can use fewer needles and do less acupuncture to get fantastic results. And remember that most people who come and see us have never had acupuncture before, so we are great at determining how well you will respond.

Once the needles go in, you might feel a variety of sensations. Some people feel a mild aching. Or maybe a little bit of heaviness, a feeling of distention, or warmth. Any of those are really good signs—it means we’re stimulating the body correctly by activating nerves and connective tissue. But these should be comfortable sensations, or ones that you can relax through. If not, we can adjust the needles to decrease the amount of sensation you feel.

Once you’ve been lying on the table a few minutes and your qi begins to adjust, you will notice some other sensations, and that’s when it gets really interesting! You might feel a buzzing sensation that zips from point to point. Sometimes, people will feel a rushing feeling—like a release of tension or emotional stress that’s been bottled up. Or you might have a lovely, heady feeling. Sometimes people even feel like they are floating or looking down on themselves on the table.

When I’m working on a patient with digestion issues, sometimes he or she will feel things moving in the abdominal area. Your stomach can start gurgling or rumbling. A lot of patients have described this feeling to me as their abdominal area “waking up.” Like a chef who might take a good belch as an ultimate compliment, I love if someone’s stomach starts growling during a treatment. It’s a great sign that your body is going to get great results.

If you are thinking about coming in because you struggle with chronic pain, know that many of our patients experience a major decrease in pain within minutes. It’s common to see it drop in half—or more. Many people come to us with a pain level of 8 out of 10 and it drops to a 4 or even a 2…or sometimes it completely disappears. Same goes for anxiety—many people feel calm very quickly.

As your qi is adjusted and your body responds, you’ll start to feel settled or deeply relaxed. Very often, my patients fall asleep. Sometimes they are super ramped up when they arrive at the office and say, “I’ll never be able to lie here for twenty minutes,” but that’s often their last thought until I come in to wake them up!

Afterward patients usually relaxed and happy, sometimes to the point of being blissed out. Other times they’ll leave feeling bright-eyed and energized, depending on what we’ve been working on.

We never really know what sensation someone will feel once acupuncture starts to activate your body. Sometime it’s profound, sometimes it’s not a big deal, sometimes it’s nothing at all—but it’s always fascinating! If you’ve done it before, let us know what your best experience was like in the comments!