Acupuncture 101: What It Is, How It Works, and What It Benefits

You’ve seen it before: Someone with dozens of tiny needles stuck on their face, back or other body part. To some, it looks cringy and painful. To others, it’s the epitome of zen. Some even go so far as to say that acupuncture is a form of therapy. But, what is it exactly? By definition, acupuncture is the Chinese practice of inserting thin needles through the skin at specific points to cure disease or relieve pain.

How does it work?

Rooted in Chinese medicine, this method focuses on balancing the “yin” and “yang” (called “qi” in Chinese) within your body. With this belief, illnesses — like headaches, blood pressure problems and body aches — are the result of an imbalance. The “qi” flows through pathways in the body, which outline the 350 different acupuncture points. By inserting thin needles into the surface of the skin in these spots, the goal is to regain balance by having energy flow evenly throughout the body.

When you book an acupuncture session, it’s important to share the areas of your body that need extra attention (annoying lower back pain, for example). If it’s your first time, you might be taken aback by the extra personal questions that they’ll ask about your health history. (Fair warning: Bowel movements will be discussed.) Once the acupuncturist has a better understanding of your needs, they’ll ask you to lie down on your back, front or side, depending on where the needles will be inserted. One by one, they’ll insert the needles and let sit for anywhere between five and 30 minutes. And if you’re worried about the cleanliness of the needles, they’re all single-use so they’re for you and you alone.

Okay, but does it hurt?

Not exactly. It does take a little bit of time to get used to the sensation, however. As each needle is inserted, you might feel a very brief sting or tingle — but it’ll quickly subside. If performed correctly, at the very most you’ll feel a dull, almost absent, pain.

What does it help with?

Scientists may still be debating the benefits of acupuncture, but let’s just say that the success stories speak for themselves. In 2003, the World Health Organization released a list of conditions where acupuncture has been proven effective, including: high and low blood pressure, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, gastric conditions, menstrual cramps, dysentery, allergic rhinitis, facial pain, morning sickness, rheumatoid arthritis, sprains, tennis elbow, sciatica and dental pain. Along the same vein, the World Health Organization says that acupuncture might benefit those suffering with fibromyalgia, neuralgia, substance abuse, spine pain, stiff neck, vascular dementia, whooping cough and Tourette syndrome.

Ready to book your first acupuncture session?

Well, you’re in luck because you can actually book a session through ClassPass. Along with other popular wellness offerings like cryotherapy and massages, acupuncture is available in most major cities including New York City and Los Angeles. The best part? You’ll get it for a fraction of the price (sessions typically cost between $20 and $135) and you can relax knowing that you’re going somewhere legit, because we test ‘em out before you go.

Amanda Garrity is a commerce editor and content producer living in New York City. She finds every excuse to go on an adventure, whether it's in her own backyard or across the country. She enjoys hiking, pretending she's a prima ballerina and drinking an abundant amount of coffee. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.