Depending on your specific complaint and your individual symptom pattern, the acupuncturist may use only a few needles or as many as 20 or more. Acupuncture needle sizes are typically 32- to 36-gauge, which means they are about ¼ mm in diameter, much smaller than a hypodermic needle. Unlike hollow hypodermic needles, acupuncture needles are solid, which allows them to penetrate the skin easily and relatively painlessly. Acupuncture needles may produce a mild pricking sensation when inserted, but sometimes you will feel nothing at all as the needle is inserted. The needles are generally inserted to a depth ranging from a few millimeters to ½ inch or so. Insertion depth is deeper at the more fleshy areas of the body, such as the thighs and buttocks.
Acupuncture needles are typically inserted through a plastic tube that guides the needle into the skin. This is a fairly modern needle insertion technique. Traditional freehand insertion is also used; most acupuncturists are trained in this method. Virtually all acupuncturists in the United States now use pre-sterilized, one-time-use disposable needles, which eliminate any risk of cross-infection.
The acupuncturist may twirl the inserted needles and ask you to say when you feel a mild achy, heavy sensation; or the area may feel slightly numb or tingly. These sensations, described in TCM as the arrival of Qi, are regarded as a positive response that will enhance the effectiveness of the treatment.
Whatever you feel, the sensation should be mild, not overly unpleasant, and should subside within a few minutes. If any needles are genuinely painful, inform the practitioner so he or she can adjust the depth or remove the needle altogether. The needles are generally left in place for 20 to 30 minutes. During this time, you should feel comfortable and relaxed, and you may fall asleep.
Acupuncturists may also employ a technique known as electroacupuncture, in which electrodes are attached to the needles and a mild current is applied. This is intended to increase the stimulation of the needle and is generally used for more painful conditions. Electroacupuncture produces a tingly, pulsating sensation. The acupuncturist can control the intensity and adjust it to a level that is comfortable for you.
Traditionally trained acupuncturists often use heat as well as needles to stimulate acupuncture points with a procedure called moxibustion, which involves a mixture of herbs rolled into a cigar-like shape. The roll is lit, and the burning end is held over the skin, allowing the heat to penetrate the area around the acupressure point. The moxa roll never touches the skin, so you will not be burned. The acupuncturist will ask you to let him or her know before it gets too hot. Moxibustion is generally quite pleasant. It is regarded as a "tonifying" treatment, which means it is intended to strengthen function.