Thankfully, acupuncture is gaining momentum as a safe, effective alternative to drugs and surgery for back pain. If you are thinking about getting acupuncture for back pain, this post will describe what you should expect in a typical session. Hopefully this will help you decide to give acupuncture a try!
The Clinic Setup
There are a couple of different types of acupuncture clinic in the US, and the type of clinic you go to will change your experience in some significant ways.
For example, a private practice will cost more per session, but usually offers private rooms with heated massage tables in a tastefully decorated atmosphere. Community clinics are far cheaper, but the acupuncture is done in a large, sparsely decorated room on lazy boy reclining chairs rather than tables. City Acupuncture offers something in between: affordable service on heated massage tables with dividers. This article is a more thorough breakdown of the differences in clinics, check it out if you would like more information on what acupuncture normally costs and what you get for the money.
The Check In Process
I am going to use my experience as the co-owner of City Acupuncture Fulton Street for this section, so it will be slanted toward what to expect when you go to a City Acupuncture clinic because that's what I have the most direct experience in. But no matter where you go the process should be similar. I'll make a note in places where I know there will be a significant difference depending on what type of clinic you choose.
When you first enter the waiting room you will be greeted by a receptionist who will give you some forms to fill out. Pretty typical doctor appointment type stuff, it's best to come 15-20 minutes early for your first appointment to make sure you have time to fill all this out. You'll also want to go pee before the session, so allow time for that as well!
Your acupuncturist will escort you to a treatment table (or chair, or treatment room, depending where you go) and ask you to take off any jewelry or watches. They will also ask you to take off your socks and shoes and to lie face down on a massage table.
Since you are coming for back pain, it is likely you will have to remove your shirt, so an undershirt or sports bra is a good idea. Just keep in mind that we will likely be working at the points of pain, so be sure those are accessible (in other words if your neck and shoulders are also painful, be sure your clothing allows us to physically touch your neck and shoulders). Note: if you go to a community clinic with chairs, they will most likely not be working directly on the points of pain. In these clinics most sessions are focused on points on the arms up to the elbow and legs down to the knee. It is unlikely that you will be asked to undress, as you are in a large room with other people.
Now you are lying face down on a massage table with your back exposed. Your acupuncturist will likely touch your back, both in the places that hurt and other places as well, to assess what muscles are involved with your pain. The acupuncturist may evaluate your spine or do some basic muscle testing. None of this is painful, just gently massage-type techniques to evaluate the issue.
Once your acupuncturist has a good idea of what the problem is, they will put hair thin needles into the muscles of your back. I know that doesn't sound good. But the fact is these needles are about the width of a human hair, nothing like a syringe used for shots. You barely feel them going in, and it often feels really good - like scratching a longstanding itch.
Often your acupuncturist will use some kind of heat (a heating pad or heat lamp) to help relax your muscles during the session. They may also choose to use a liniment or medicated herbal oil. These oils do not have any steroids, narcotics, or pharmaceuticals in them. They are herbal preparations specifically made for back pain. If you are very sensitive to scents or oils it is a good idea to mention that to your acupuncturist before you lie down.
Trigger Point Release
Sometimes your acupuncturist will use a technique called Trigger Point Acupuncture. This is a modern spin on acupuncture, using advanced knowledge of anatomy and physiology to actively release trigger points (muscles knots) and relieve pain. This is not always necessary or appropriate, but speaking from personal experience I can say it is often a very useful tool. Check out this article to learn more about trigger point and how it works.
This is another adjunct therapy that may be used for your back pain. It is not always necessary but man does it work. Click here to see a video demonstration and learn more!
In any case, for the most part the needling portion of the session takes 15 - 20 minutes. In private practices sometimes the practitioner stays to talk to you during the entire session but this is not the norm. Personally, I really prefer to be left alone at this stage so I can relax.
As you lie face down on the table you will feel your back get warm and a little tingly. You may feel slight twitches here and there as your muscles relax. This is most people's favorite part, the zone out. It may sound crazy but it is super relaxing to lie there with the needles in. Most people fall asleep, although for some reason I never do. I just sort of drift off into a meditative state and let my thoughts go. There is usually relaxing music playing to help you drift off, or some people choose to bring headphones.
If you are in a private room, the acupuncturist should come in the middle to check on you and make sure everything is comfortable. In a community clinic or City Acupuncture clinic the acupuncturist is always within earshot and eyesight, so as soon as I see someone fidgeting I come over to check on them. If a person is obviously sleeping I will leave them alone until it's time to come up.
Finishing the Session
After anywhere from 20 - 45 minutes your acupuncturist will come and remove the needles. You will probably be pretty spaced out but typically you will come back within 5 minutes. The acupuncturist will give you a chance to get dressed and collect all of your stuff.
At City Acupuncture we always prescribe a treatment plan at this stage. I will write another article soon explaining the importance of a treatment plan but for now it's important to say that acupuncture is medicine, not magic. Even though it is not at all like our typical experience with medicine in the US, it still is an actual medicine and as such you need to take the appropriate dose at the appropriate time in order to achieve the full effect. If your acupuncturist does not give you a treatment plan that describes how many sessions it will take to get better, ask them when you should come back and at what frequency so you have an idea of what type of commitment it will be to really use acupuncture as an effective relief for your back pain.