What is it?
Acupuncture is a therapy that uses needles to regulate the flow of channels, a.k.a. meridians in order to influence the health of our physical bodies. This is at minimum an energy medicine, however research has shown many observable benefits to acupuncture.
What does it do?
It keeps us happy and healthy by ensuring that our bodily resources are available to meet to our daily needs. This means we are emotionally, physically, mentally and ultimately-spiritually prepared for whatever life throws at us.
Does it hurt? The function of a needle determines its shape, which affects how painless they are. Filiform needles, the ones acupuncturists use, are thin and flexible. This is different from Hypodermic needles which are used to give injections or draw blood. Hypodermic needles are meant to get into the blood vessels and direct flow of blood or fluid; so these needles have a small flattened razor's edge at the tip and are relatively large. Filiform needles on the other hand are primarily meant to draw attention and energy to a part of the body, so these needles are pointed and stealthy compared to their Hypodermic counterparts.
Some acupuncture points on the body are inherently less comfortable than others and may even have potential to hurt, but fortunately the majority (we're talking 85-90%) are quite painless. Once a filiform needle is removed, the collagen of the skin, unharmed, closes back over the entry site. Like a sewing needle passed through clothing, most of the time you won't even know where the acupuncture needle was.
How does it work?
This is a big question so I will cover a few of the ways I can see it being asked. The first is to examine the "Why does it work?" angle:
I like to say that acupuncture activates parts of the body and brain that have been left to collect dust over the course of our lives. In the body these dark zones look like muscular knots or fascial adhesions. It brings you back into your body and out of your head.
Another frame that I rather enjoy is seeing the needles as traffic cops that regulate the vascular and electrical highways of our body.
There are many different ways to frame how acupuncture works, and you'll only know yours best after you've given it an honest chance. On this point let's look at the "When does it work?":
Acupuncture is not a once and done therapy, though truthfully I know of no such thing. As you can see above, needles increase blood flow to the point of insertion. Blood is the life of all tissue and restoring its presence to undersupplied zones requires some time before enough rejuvenation can occur to notice the difference.
If you were to sprain a muscle, or break a bone, you would not expect that these injuries recover immediately, no matter what you apply to it. So be prepared to give the therapy as little as a couple weeks, to a few months depending on severity (ask your acupuncturist for the estimate).
Is it right for me?
How badly do you want to see improvement within your life? What are your goals? Are you looking for a quick fix? The "quick fix" is not a great health goal if you ask me, but there are some issues that I have seen resolve quickly. Just be prepared to move quickly from the "quick fix" mentality to the "long-term approach" if you every want to see meaningful healing.
I'm afraid of needles!
Acupuncturists are trained to do much more than just use needles. Massage, Nutrition therapy, and Herbal therapy are also basics that every acupuncturist is trained in! Most of my patients are surprised by what is possible without even using a needle!