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What does acupuncture do, exactly?

An acupuncture practitioner treating a patient.

Jennifer was a new client of mine who was suffering from anxiety, trouble sleeping, racing thoughts, palpitations, and fatigue. It all started nearly a decade ago after she experienced a traumatic life event

As she sat in my office, slumped on the chair after doing our initial intake, I could tell that she needed a healthy dose of relaxation. But trying to “think” her way toward a state of calm, or relaxation, wasn’t working.

The mental aspect of relaxation is of course very important, but the somatic experience (relating to the body) is just as crucial. Many of my clients have been in a chronic fight-or-flight state, so body relaxation feels more like a distant memory rather than an everyday experience.

I asked Jennifer if she’d be open to trying acupuncture to help with her panic attacks. She agreed, although it was mostly out of desperation.

During our first session together, I began by feeling for her pulses, which were weak. I then noted the color of her tongue. Through my observations, I was able to determine that she was chronically qi deficient, which was common in those suffering from PTSD and anxiety.

As I went on to insert several small needles into various relaxation points along her ears and other parts of her body, I noticed her breathing became deeper. The guarding of tension in her body also seemed to soften.

Once we were finished, she left my office feeling a new sense of lightness in her body—a physiological state of calm and clarity that she hadn’t experienced in years. 

What is Acupuncture?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar, acupuncture is an ancient healing practice from China, which stipulates that disease is caused by abnormal flow of qi (pronounced “chee”), or energy. Using thin needles placed into various points of the body, the qi is manipulated to enhance, strengthen, or downregulate the organ system meridians. 

Application of the thin needles is generally light and painless, with clients reporting that it feels similar to a quick prick. Minor side effects can include bruising or soreness at the site of insertion as well as temporary fatigue. 

What Does Acupuncture Treat? 

Acupuncture has been used to manage many different conditions such as chronic pain, sciatica, insomnia, hot flashes, PMS and to help relieve stress. It can also be used to treat other atypical conditions like headaches/migraines, nausea, vomiting, and to induce labor. 

In addition to being used to help treat a variety of different conditions and as a stress management option, acupuncture has been shown to be effective in stimulating the immune system, promoting circulation to the area, and helping to modulate pain. Although the mechanism of action in psychiatric illness such as PTSD is unclear, acupuncture may have an effect on neurotransmitters and other biomarkers. 

What Can You Expect?

During your first acupuncture session, you can expect to be asked about your symptoms and various aspects of your lifestyle and habits. Your practitioner may also examine your pulse, tongue, face, and any parts of your body where you’re feeling symptoms. This information will help them identify which acupuncture points that need to be targeted.

You may be asked to undress and use a gown or sheet while lying down on a table during your acupuncture sessions. Very thin needles are then inserted into specific areas of your body at different depths. They’re typically left in place for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Insertion and removal of the needs should be painless. You may feel relaxed, energized, or no different at all immediately after a session. It can sometimes take a few weeks of treatment before you start noticing improvements in your symptoms. 

How Long Do the Effects of Acupuncture Last? 

Generally, the effects of acupuncture can last from a few days to a week. In my experience, clients I’ve worked with who’ve been experiencing chronic pain and PTSD have reported feeling calm and more relaxed several days following a treatment. With PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, acupuncture is typically part of a comprehensive integrative treatment plan that includes nutrition, herbs, counseling, and sometimes medication. 

Who Should Avoid Acupuncture? 

Although acupuncture has very few side effects, it’s not suitable if: 

    • You have a bleeding disorder  
    • You’re on blood thinner medication or anti-coagulants
    • You use a pacemaker to control your heartbeat (It’s best to avoid acupuncture with electrical stimulation)
    • You’re pregnant (Certain points can stimulate labor) 

Find an Acupuncture Practitioner Near You

Acupuncture is an ancient healing therapy that’s still very relevant and beneficial today. Whether you’re looking to reduce stress, manage pain, or find relief from symptoms related to other conditions, you may find that acupuncture really helps—either on its own or in combination with other healthy lifestyle changes or treatment plans.

Interested in giving it a try? Browse our directory to find an acupuncture practitioner in your area.

About the author

Vanessa Ruiz, ND, RN-BSN, is a naturopathic physician and registered nurse. After experiencing health issues stemming from burnout as a nurse, she began studying integrative ways to help herself heal. This led her to earn her Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) degree at Southwest College in Arizona, with a focus on mental health, trauma, and complex PTSD. She is a public speaker on functional medicine and mental health who teaches behavioral health professionals around the world. In addition to her clinical practice, she founded Nurses for Natural Health, an organization dedicated to empowering and educating nurses about natural health and burnout recovery.