Like bone broth, acupuncture is an ancient remedy that many wellness experts swear by to treat the aches and pains brought about by the physical and mental stresses of modern life. Many women also seek it out — and sing its praises — as a treatment for the symptoms of menopause, from hot flashes to low libido. But how does it work? (Does it work?) And should you be scared of becoming a human pin cushion?
I stopped by luxury wellness center Modrn Sanctuary in New York City — where many other healing modalities, such as reiki and hypnosis are also offered — to get the 411 and try it for myself.
How Does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture is a practice born out of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a system of holistic healing that’s been around for thousands of years.
The underlying philosophy emphasizes internal connections between the mind, body, and spirit and an individual’s external connection to nature. At the core of this is the concept of qi (pronounced chi), an energy that flows through the body and all around it.
“From a Chinese medicine perspective, when your qi and blood are moving smoothly, you don’t have symptoms, you have a state of well-being,” explained Ayla Lavin L.Ac., MSI, an acupuncturist at Modrn Sanctuary. “Qi and blood stagnate, though. You have too much in one place and not enough in another, and acupuncture regulates the flow.”
To do that, practitioners place needles on specific points along 12 meridians of the body that correspond to various organ systems to stimulate and balance blood flow, therefore clearing the blockages that are causing physical symptoms.
Western medicine, of course, does not recognize the existence of qi. Rather than focusing on how acupuncture works, scientists have done extensive research on whether it works. Though there are still doubters (many of whom point to placebo effects), the overall body of evidence suggests acupuncture can be effective at helping people with a wide range of physical symptoms.
The strongest evidence shows it can treat arthritis; migraines; and chronic back, neck, and shoulder pain. A new study shows it can also relieve wrist pain from carpal tunnel syndrome. “Most of my day is spent treating neck and back pain,” Lavin says. “Those are really the major things people come in for and that acupuncture really does excel at.”
Time to yourself, in stillness, is part of the experience of acupuncture. Science shows that incorporating those kinds of moments into your day reduces stress hormones.
Lavin says gynecological issues are the next most common reason women come to see her, including infertility and symptoms of menopause. In fact, studies have shown that acupuncture may reduce hot flashes and improve quality of life for women going through menopause.
The best part? “Every single acupuncture treatment has a component of stress reduction,” Lavin says. “We’ve found acupuncture actually alters brain chemistry and increases hormones in the body that stimulate a sense of calm.”
What It’s Really Like
Getting acupuncture should be like a relaxing, fulfilling version of a doctor’s appointment. Choose a trusted facility with a licensed practitioner (and ideally essential oils and soothing music).
Expect to fill out paperwork that includes questions about your medical history, prescriptions, diet, and lifestyle. The acupuncturist will discuss your history with you and ask detailed questions about whatever is bothering you before creating a treatment protocol. Because of the intake, your first appointment will be longer than subsequent ones. At Modern Sanctuary, the first appointment lasts 90 minutes; subsequent appointments last 50 minutes.
When it’s time to get poked, you’ll lie on a massage table and the acupuncturist will start to place the needles. If you’re freaked out, ask to see one, and your fears will likely dissipate. They’re super tiny and bendy — some as thin as a hair. They’re nothing like sewing needles or the ones used for shots, trust me.
Because I had complained about wrist and elbow pain, Lavin felt around on my arms and back to where she said she could feel the stagnated qi and gave me a sort of mini massage before placing the needles. Then, she placed 10 needles along my neck, back, and the backs of my arms. The prick of the needle barely registers as a sensation, but I felt a dull ache radiating outward as she placed each one. On some points the ache was subtle; on spots on my back that were particularly knotty, it was pretty uncomfortable for a moment. Lavin said that was normal.
Then I lay there for about 15 minutes before flipping over so Lanvin could place the needles on the front of my body. The next 15 minutes were like a long savasana.
Throughout the treatment, I took deep breaths and tried to picture my qi flowing fast and free like a mountain stream. I thought about the placebo effect and wondered if picturing my qi might make me think it was flowing when nothing had changed. I worried that I might get an itch on my nose and forget about the needles and stab myself in the eye scratching it. I made a mental note to stop at Rite Aid for dog food. I tried to reign in my thoughts and get back to that whole qi visualization thing.
I tell you all of this to say that this time to yourself, in stillness, is part of the experience of acupuncture. Science shows that incorporating those kinds of moments into your day reduces stress hormones, so acupuncture seems worth it on that front alone.
My elbow is feeling noticeably better, by the way, but it’s too soon to declare the pain gone. Plus, Lavin says to see real results, you’ll almost always have to get multiple treatments, maybe three to five. I think I’ll sip some bone broth on my way to the next appointment.