Understanding Acupuncture A Beginner’s Guide

by | Feb 7, 2023



    Acupuncture, a crucial component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), has been practiced for over 2,000 years. This ancient form of therapy involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points, to alleviate pain and treat various physical, mental, and emotional conditions​1​.


    But what exactly is acupuncture? How does it work? What can it treat? In this beginner’s guide, we’ll demystify acupuncture and help you understand its potential benefits for your health and wellbeing.


    The Basics of Acupuncture


    Acupuncture is fundamentally underpinned by the philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which emphasizes a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. Central to this philosophy is the concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”) or life energy. Qi is viewed not just as a life-sustaining force, but also an essential element that links the body, mind, and spirit.


    Qi is said to circulate through our bodies along specific pathways known as meridians, much like how blood flows through our veins. Each meridian corresponds to a different organ system, and they function as the body’s energy distribution network. They connect our organs with the rest of our body, facilitating communication and coordination between different parts of the organism.


    Traditional Chinese Medicine proposes that health is a state of balance, where Qi flows freely along these meridians, supplying our organs with vital energy. Illness, pain, or disease is perceived as a disruption or imbalance in this flow of Qi. Various factors such as emotional stress, physical trauma, improper diet, or environmental changes can block or unbalance the Qi flow.


    Acupuncture, as a key therapeutic technique in TCM, aims to restore this balance. It does so by inserting thin, sterile needles into specific points along the meridians, known as acupuncture points. By stimulating these points, acupuncture can unblock the obstructions and rebalance the flow of Qi.


    The desired outcome of an acupuncture treatment is the restoration of harmony and equilibrium in the body’s energy system, thereby promoting healing and overall wellbeing. As Qi flow is restored, symptoms dissipate, and health is reclaimed.


    By understanding the basic principles of acupuncture, one can appreciate why it’s been an integral part of Eastern medicine for millennia and why it continues to gain recognition in Western medicine today. Not only does acupuncture offer a unique perspective on health and disease, but it also provides a pathway to wellness that is non-invasive and emphasizes the body’s inherent ability to heal itself2​.


    The Procedure


    When embarking on a course of acupuncture treatments, your experience will begin with a comprehensive health assessment. This assessment is a crucial element of the process as it allows the practitioner to understand your unique physical condition, symptoms, and overall health status.


    During this assessment, the practitioner may utilize various diagnostic techniques unique to Traditional Chinese Medicine. They might examine your tongue, which, according to TCM principles, can provide vital clues about your internal health. The color, shape, coating, and texture of your tongue can reflect the state of your organs and blood.


    The practitioner may also check your pulse at various points on your wrist. In TCM, pulse diagnosis is not merely about counting beats. It involves assessing the pulse’s depth, rhythm, and quality, providing insight into the state of your Qi and the health of your organ systems.


    Furthermore, the practitioner will likely ask about your health history, lifestyle, diet, sleep patterns, emotional states, and any specific symptoms you may be experiencing. This detailed dialogue helps the practitioner develop a holistic understanding of your health and tailor the treatment plan to your specific needs.


    Following the assessment, you’ll move on to the acupuncture treatment itself. This involves the insertion of very thin, sterile needles into your skin at particular acupuncture points. These points are carefully chosen based on your health assessment, and each one corresponds to specific meridians in the body.


    The insertion of the needles is typically gentle and precise. While the sensation can vary from person to person, it’s often described as a tiny prick, followed by a unique sensation, which could be warmth, tingling, or a mild ache.


    Once inserted, these needles are usually left in place for 10 to 20 minutes. During this time, you might experience a sense of relaxation or even a mild euphoria, as the acupuncture works to rebalance your Qi flow.


    After the designated time, the practitioner will remove the needles carefully. It’s normal to feel a sense of calm and wellbeing after a session, though individual experiences can vary. Depending on your specific condition and response to the treatment, the practitioner may recommend a series of sessions to achieve the best results.


    In essence, the acupuncture procedure is a thoughtful, personalized process, designed to optimize your health by restoring balance to your body’s energy flow3​.


    Does Acupuncture Hurt?


    While the mention of needles can indeed be daunting for many, it’s important to note that acupuncture needles are far different from the hypodermic needles typically used for injections or blood tests. Acupuncture needles are exceptionally thin, often compared to the thickness of a human hair. This small diameter makes their insertion into the skin considerably less painful than what most people associate with needle use.


    In fact, most people find acupuncture to be a relatively painless experience. When the needle is inserted, you may feel a slight prick, akin to a mosquito bite. However, this sensation is often fleeting. It’s important to communicate with your practitioner throughout the procedure. If any discomfort is felt, they can adjust the needle accordingly to ensure your comfort.


    Following the initial insertion, many individuals report a variety of sensations, including tingling, warmth, heaviness, or a dull ache around the insertion site. Some people may also feel a spread of sensation along the path of the corresponding meridian. These sensations are often described as “Qi sensation” or “De Qi” in acupuncture terminology.


    “De Qi” is considered a desirable response in acupuncture, as it signifies the activation of the body’s Qi at the acupuncture point. This unique sensation is integral to the therapeutic effect of acupuncture and is generally not perceived as painful. Instead, it’s often described as a moment of connection between the mind and the body, a sensation that is distinct but not uncomfortable.


    After the needles are in place, these sensations typically subside, and a deep sense of relaxation often ensues. Some people even fall asleep during the treatment, which speaks to the generally calming nature of the experience.


    So, while the thought of needles might initially be intimidating, the actual experience of acupuncture is usually characterized by comfort, unique sensory experiences, and relaxation. Understanding the nature of acupuncture needles and the sensations involved can alleviate any apprehensions and help you approach your first acupuncture session with confidence and ease4​.


    What Conditions Can Acupuncture Treat?


    The World Health Organization (WHO), a leading global authority on health, recognizes acupuncture as an effective treatment for a broad range of conditions. This acknowledgment is significant, given that the WHO sets international health standards and promotes evidence-based approaches to healthcare.


    Among the conditions identified by the WHO, migraines and tension headaches are notably prominent. These are common neurological disorders that can severely impact quality of life. Acupuncture, through its balancing effect on the body’s energy system, can help to alleviate the frequency and intensity of these headaches, offering relief to sufferers without the side effects often associated with conventional medications.

    Lower back pain and knee pain, two conditions that are frequently linked to musculoskeletal problems and aging, are also on the list of conditions that can be treated effectively with acupuncture. By targeting specific points on the body, acupuncture can help relieve chronic pain, reduce inflammation, and promote mobility. Similarly, osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease, can also be managed with acupuncture, providing a non-invasive and drug-free option for those seeking relief.


    Beyond pain management, acupuncture is also used to help with various functional disorders. Digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic constipation, and gastritis, can respond well to acupuncture treatments. By rebalancing the body’s energy flow, acupuncture can help regulate digestive function and alleviate discomfort associated with these conditions.


    Insomnia, anxiety, and depression — conditions that are linked to mental health — are also areas where acupuncture can provide benefits. These disorders often have a complex interplay with the body’s physical health, and acupuncture’s holistic approach can offer unique advantages. By helping to restore balance to the body’s energy system, acupuncture can promote relaxation, enhance mood, improve sleep quality, and contribute to overall mental wellbeing.


    In essence, the recognition of acupuncture by the World Health Organization underlines its versatility and effectiveness as a therapeutic intervention. Whether you’re dealing with chronic pain, digestive issues, or mental health conditions, acupuncture offers a time-tested, holistic approach that can complement conventional treatments and contribute to overall health and wellbeing5​.



    Acupuncture, with its origins dating back thousands of years, is a time-tested therapy deeply rooted in the traditions of Chinese medicine. It embodies a holistic approach to health and wellness, considering the individual as a whole – the interplay of mind, body, and spirit – rather than merely focusing on isolated symptoms or specific diseases.


    This holistic approach empowers acupuncture to address the root cause of health issues, providing a deep and lasting impact on wellbeing. While it’s not a panacea that cures all ailments, acupuncture can be a powerful tool in managing various conditions. From pain relief and stress reduction to improved sleep and digestive health, acupuncture can play a significant role in enhancing your quality of life.


    It’s crucial to recognize that if you’re considering acupuncture, the treatment should be sought from a licensed practitioner. A licensed acupuncturist has undergone extensive training and understands the intricate network of meridians and acupuncture points in the body. They adhere to strict safety standards, ensuring the needles used are sterile and the procedure is performed correctly. This commitment to safety and professionalism helps ensure that the treatment is not only effective but also safe.

    As with any new treatment, it’s essential to discuss acupuncture with your healthcare provider. Even though acupuncture has a high safety profile, it’s important to consider your unique health circumstances and ensure it’s suitable for you. Your healthcare provider can provide valuable guidance, considering your overall health status, existing conditions, and current medications or treatments.


    Embracing the journey towards understanding acupuncture means opening yourself to a different perspective on health and wellness, one that emphasizes balance, harmony, and the body’s inherent ability to heal. This journey involves not only learning about acupuncture but also experiencing it firsthand, exploring its potential benefits for your wellbeing, and integrating it into your personal health journey.


    In a world where healthcare is often dominated by quick fixes and symptom-focused treatments, acupuncture offers a refreshing, holistic alternative. It invites you to participate actively in your health, fostering a deeper connection with your body and promoting a sense of overall wellbeing.



    1. Mayo Clinic. (2022). Acupuncture. Link
    2. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2022). Acupuncture. Link
    3. WebMD. (2022). Acupuncture. Link
    4. Healthline. (2022). What Does Acupuncture Feel Like? Link
    5. World Health Organization. (2022). Acupuncture: Review and Analysis of Reports on Controlled Clinical Trials. Link


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