These are just some of the common questions people ask us when they’re in the clinic for their first acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture is getting more and more commonplace nowadays but it’s still a pretty new thing for many, many people here in the Nova Scotia.
So, what really happens during an acupuncture appointment?
If it’s your first time, you’ll take a seat in a comfy chair, and then we’ll start out with your typical doctor’s office boredom. Yep, paperwork. Acupuncturists in Nova Scotia are registered with the a legal Acupuncture a, which means we follow many of the same rules and regulations as any other doctor’s office.
One of the reasons people love getting acupuncture is that they’re not used to a medical practitioner actually taking the time to really get to know them and their health story. During your first treatment we’ll easily spend up to 30 minutes chatting about your medical history, your current symptoms - we even want to hear about your diet, sleep, stress, and anything else that might be affecting your health.
We’ll take a look at your tongue and feel your pulse. No, we’re not counting your pulse rate - although we will make note if it’s especially fast or slow. When we’re feeling your pulse we’re actually feeling for the quality of your pulse. Does it feel taut like a guitar string? Or soft and squishy like a sponge. There are tons of variables that I’m feeling for when I take your pulse - all of which give us even more diagnostic information.
Same goes for looking at your tongue. (And no, please don’t scrape your tongue before an acupuncture treatment! That coat means something to us! We look at tongues all day long - no need for embarrassment here.) The shape, color, and texture all tell us things! Just from looking at your tongue, we can tell how you’re pooping, how you’re sleeping, or how stressed out you’ve been feeling!
After the interrogation (oops, the interview and tongue/pulse diagnosis), it’s #needlenap time!
We generally ask patients to either wear loose clothing or to bring a change of shorts/t-shirt with them so we can have easy access to elbows and knees. (Lots of great acupoints around those elbows and knees!) Then you’ll lie down on a super comfy, heated massage table (yep, you read that right, this is the ultimate adult nap-time) and the fun gets started.
The treatment itself consists of ultra-thin, sterile, disposable needles inserted gently by your well-trained acupuncturist into specific areas of the body. We generally explain to people that the insertion feels like a tiny mosquito bite - nothing like a shot from a doctor! The needles are very, very thin (thinner than a dog’s whisker) and incredibly comfortable.
Once the needles are in, there are a range of sensations you might feel. We’ve heard everything from “I feel light - like I’m floating,” to “My arms are like a ton of bricks right now.” Amy’s favorite was when a patient told her that it felt like “water bubbling from a stream.” Seriously! How freaking awesome is that? Please know that if any of the needles feel painful or uncomfortable, let your acupuncturist know right away and they’ll take it out and re-do it. There’s no reason that you should feel any discomfort in your treatment.
Once you’re all set, you can lie back and relax. And don’t worry - even though you have needles in, you don’t have to be perfectly still. If you have an itch - scratch it! We don’t want you hopping off the table with a bunch of needles in you, but shifting your weight around to get more comfortable or scratching an itch on your nose is really no big deal. Your comfort is key. You may even doze off a bit! This deep sense of relaxation really helps stimulate the body's innate ability to heal.
What happens after an acupuncture treatment?
After you’ve been resting (or napping/meditating/counting the slats in the ceiling) for about 25 minutes you’ll be gently woken up and have your needles taken out. Everyone always proclaims how much more relaxed they feel right away.
After you’re up and back to reality, we might have you drink a glass of water (and remind you to keep drinking more after you’ve left) and go over your treatment plan with you. The frequency of your appointments is totally dependent upon your specific situation. In some acute cases more treatments in a shorter amount of time is necessary, while in more chronic conditions, a longer treatment plan that includes herbs might be recommended. In general it’s good to plan on coming once a week for a month to “build up your dosage” and to help the treatments last longer. As your symptoms become less noticeable I’ll scale back the frequency to fit your body’s needs.
As for how you’ll feel later in the day - everyone reacts differently to their first acupuncture treatment. Some people feel a bit zoned out (almost as if you've had a couple at happy hour!) while others get a boost of energy. How you personally react will tell me a lot about your constitution and how we’ll proceed in future treatments. So always feel free to email us the next day with updates on how you’re feeling.
Either way, whether you feel relaxed or energized, we recommend you avoid vigorous exercise after treatment. Even though you might be thinking, "All I did was lay on a massage table and take a nap!" your body was working hard that whole time - moving a lot of energy and doing a lot of healing - all of which can be a little tiring. If you're determined to get in some exercise after your appointment, we suggest something gentle such as restorative yoga, tai chi, or a nice walk.
So there you go! An acupuncture appointment deconstructed. That’s not so scary after-all, right?
Do you feel like you have a better idea now of what goes on in a session? Do you still have more questions? Reach out and ask - we’re happy to answer.
A common question we hear from patients at their first appointment is: How often do I need to come in for treatments?
Well, of course there's no one-size-fits all answer to anything when it comes to health - and each patient gets a treatment plant for their exact needs - but we can give you a general overview of what we've seen work best for our patients.
There are three common levels of care in acupuncture - each with their own treatment frequency. Your acupuncturist will first figure out where you are on this spectrum, and then come up with a treatment plan customized specifically for you.
Wondering how often you need acupuncture? First, find out what stage of care you're in.
Acute care focuses on the here and now - mainly dealing with more recent conditions or shorter term care. Here's a few examples where you would need acute care treatment:
You've suffered a recent injury or are dealing with a short term ailment. Maybe you sprained your ankle in the last few days, came down with travelers diarrhea, or recently got pregnant and are dealing with morning sickness.
You're having an acute flare-up of a chronic condition or a condition that was previously in remission.
You've been dealing with your symptoms for a long time, but you're new to acupuncture.
In the acute care phase your treatment plan will be a little more aggressive. You can expect to come in for acupuncture at least once or twice weekly for the first two weeks. (This is exactly why we offer acute care packages in our clinic.)
Your course of treatment will depend on how your symptoms react to acupuncture. Someone with an acute injury will need more frequent treatments for a shorter period of time. Whereas someone working on a chronic condition might have their treatments spaced further apart, but can expect to commit to a longer process.
Don't forget, it's usually taken years for our symptoms to manifest in the way they do now. We can't expect them to disappear in one or two treatments.
Something people don't know about acupuncture, is that the effects are cumulative. It's better to build the positive effects of each treatment on top of each other instead of playing a constant game of catch-up between further and further spaced out appointments.
The acute care phase lasts until your symptoms are relieved or your health goals are met. Then we move on to the transitional care phase.
So at this point your symptoms have improved to the point that you've met your health goals.
Now what? You can't just quit cold turkey, right? Right.
In the transitional care phase, we start to spread the appointments further out - but not so far that the symptoms start to come back! If that happens, it means that your body can't go that long between treatments right now.
We'll keep pushing your appointments out further and further until we find your sweet spot. Then you've move on to the third level - maintenance care.
Maintenance care is continued care within your specific sweet spot. What's your sweet spot? It's the time that you can go between appointments before your body gets out of balance and trouble arises.
Everyone's sweet spot is going to be different. A lot of our patients' do best when they come in for monthly treatments, others can go 6-8 weeks between treatments, and for a few folks only need to come in once every 3 months in order to feel great!
We use this analogy a lot in clinic: Most of us take pretty good care of our cars and bikes. We're conditioned to remember to get oil changes every 3,000 miles on our cars and tune-ups on our bikes at the change of every season.
But when do we, as humans with bodies, get our own tune-ups?
Acupuncture is a great tool to treat so many various conditions. But where it really excels is in keeping you healthy! Using acupuncture as preventative medicine and self care can save you lots of time, money, energy, and pain in the long run.
Using acupuncture as preventative medicine can save you lots of time, money, energy, and pain in the long run.
Many patients visit our clinic as a last ditch effort for their health. They've seen their primary physician, one or many specialists, and possibly other integrative care practitioners before they decide to give acupuncture a shot. By this time, their symptoms may have been present anywhere between 6 months to several decades. At this point, their condition is clinically considered "chronic".
Acupuncture isn't a magic pill. There are times when it can produce almost miraculous results - we’ve seen it ourselves as practitioners and patients - but those are generally the exception, not the rule. You can't expect a chronic condition of several years resolve in one or two sessions. Acupuncture works cumulatively - just like strength training or learning a new language. As discussed in this blog post, the frequency and length of treatment varies from patient-to-patient. And while the primary symptoms might not abate in the first few treatments, there are other markers you can look for to know when acupuncture is working for you.
Signs that acupuncture is working:
You're less stressed.
Stress wreaks havoc on our bodies. Research on the relationship between mental/emotional stress and physical health has shown that increased emotional stress can result in varying issues from poor surgical outcomes to a decrease in immune system functioning. (i)
Stress relief is one of the first noticeable side effects of acupuncture treatments. Patients often exclaim how relaxed they feel after a treatment, or how stress related ailments such as TMJ (jaw) pain or anxiety are greatly reduced after visiting my office. The majority of ailments we see in the clinic are exacerbated by stress - therefore lowering the patient's stress level often brings patient's pain levels down drastically.
You're sleeping better.
This is a fan favorite sign that acupuncture is working. Often, new patients report that their sleep is "just fine" in their initial intake, only exclaiming a few treatments later that they're "sleeping so much better!" They are so used to their poor sleeping pattern that they don't even realize that a quality night's rest is available to them.
Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. When we are sleeping our bodies regulate our hormones, repair damaged tissue, form new pathways in our brain, and trigger growth and development. Research has shown that persistent sleeplessness can lead to chronic disease later in life. (ii)
You're more energetic.
This one goes hand in hand with better sleep. When we spend more of our nighttime hours enjoying quality, restorative sleep, we wake feeling more refreshed and have more energy to go about our day. Fatigue is rarely a patient's #1 reason for coming to the clinic, but it's one of the most common complaints heard from new patients.
While acupuncture is naturally relaxing (many patients take a needle nap on the treatment table), it's normal to feel a surge of energy in the days following treatment. This energy isn't' like a caffeine buzz, it's more of an awareness in your body and increased motivation to complete tasks.
You're digesting better.
Acupuncture is all about creating movement. Illness arises when substances such as blood, lymph fluid, and qi (energy) become stagnant within the body. By increasing the circulation of those substances, the body has the ability to nourish all of its organs and tissues and can begin the process of healing.
So while acupuncture treatments are geared towards moving things within the body, things, well, tend to move. If your digestion tends to be a bit sluggish you might find that you bowel movements happen on a more regular basis (pun intended). Conversely, if your digestion tends to be on the more frequent or erratic side, you might find that acupuncture relaxes the smooth muscle in your colon, resulting in less spasms, pain, and frequent trips to the bathroom.
Acupuncture at work
Noticing these positive changes in your body means that acupuncture is working for you. Stay strong and stick with your treatment plan. Complying with any homework assignments such as dietary therapy, herbs, supplements, or lifestyle modifications that your acupuncturist has prescribed for you will help accelerate the healing process and get you back to optimal health before you know it.
How acupuncture can help you:
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine is incredibly versatile and has been shown to treat a wide range of health concerns.
Relieve body aches, pain: reduce tension and discomfort, joint swelling and inflammation, while promoting healing from injuries and surgeries
Lessen anxiety, depression, stress, and insomnia: calm the nervous system, help regulate and release emotions, promote a calm mind and spirit, improve quality of sleep
Improve headache symptoms: reduce the severity, frequency, and intensity of tension headaches and migraines
Enhance digestion: promote regular bowel movements, reduce abdominal pain and discomfort, reduce nausea, indigestion, bloating, and gas
Reduce cold symptoms, manage asthma and allergies: reduce sinus and chest congestion, lessen coughing and wheezing, support healthy lung function, support the immune system
Treat skin conditions: reduce severity, frequency, and intensity of skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, and eczema
Support reproductive and sexual health: promote regular menstrual cycles, address OBGYN conditions, reduce PMS and menstrual cramping, reduce menopausal symptoms, regulate libido, support sexual function
Pregnancy and postpartum support: promote a healthy pregnancy, help prepare for labor, support recovery postpartum, promote lactation
Support gender-affirming practices and procedures: manage side effects from hormone therapies, promote healing and comfort after gender-affirming surgical procedures, reduce physical discomfort from binding, tucking, or other gender-affirming practices
Manage complex and chronic health conditions: support the physical and emotional experience of living with ongoing health concerns
Support maintenance care and prevention: enhance general wellness, improve energy levels, help prevent the aggravation of old symptoms and the development of new symptoms