What is Acupuncture? Myths and Misconceptions

by Mark Whalen

Have you always wanted to try acupuncture but were concerned that it was too mysterious and ‘weird’ for you? Do you worry that you must have a certain belief system for acupuncture to work? Are you afraid of needles? Are you afraid it will hurt?

Despite a foundation of a few thousand years, Acupuncture is not well understood in the West. Part of that, I believe, is due to the language used to explain key concepts of the medicine. I hear from patients that they were concerned about trying acupuncture because considered it to be to ‘new age-y’.

Good news. I’m here to dispel the myths about acupuncture and help you understand what it is and what it isn’t.

Myth #1  I have to believe in Acupuncture for it to work
I hear this question a lot- do I have to believe in Acupuncture for it to work? No you don’t. Acupuncture can work whether you believe in it or not. If it only worked when you believed in it, then acupuncture would be nothing more than a placebo. This is most definitely not the case. While all medicines elicit some placebo response, acupuncture's effects on the body are being confirmed by modern technology.

The next two myths focus on incorrect definitions of key terms: Qi (pronounced chee) and meridians.

Myth #2 Qi means energy
In the west Qi is commonly understood as a life force or energy. I’ve often compared this explanation to ‘the force’ from Star Wars. (the video will explain why)  The Force

While I would love to be a Jedi-knight, this explanation of Qi does nothing for me. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the meaning of Qi was misinterpreted. The original Chinese character for Qi is a symbol for vapor, air and breath-referred to as vital air. It is representative of air from the atmosphere (inhaled oxygen) and exhaled breath (Carbon dioxide).

Understood in this way, yes Qi (as oxygen) is responsible for life in all living things.

Myth # 3Meridians are invisible pathways
Meridians are described as the invisible pathways in the body that the Qi flows on. Ugh. This definition is another unfortunate mistranslation. The original term for meridian in Chinese medicine is Mai, or vessel. The original description used the term ‘distribution vessels’.

Meridians are not “invisible pathways”, they are the vessels – your arteries and veins-which make up the vascular system and distribute blood throughout the body.

As you can see, the actual meaning of Qi and meridians take this medicine out of the realm of science fiction and into a healing system based on concepts easily understood today.

Acupuncture influences the flow of blood in the body. The blood carries life giving oxygen, nutrients and hormones throughout the body. In essence, Acupuncture acts a stimulus to promote the body’s own self-healing abilities.

Myth # 4: The needles are painful
Acupuncture needles are thin (like hair), pre-sterilized, single use only. As soon as they are used and removed from your body, the needles are placed in a biohazard container.

There are many different sizes of needles and which one is used depends upon the patient’s size, sensitivity, and area of the body being needled. Unlike hypodermic needles, an acupuncture needle is solid- there is nothing in or on the needle. The experience is quite different from getting blood drawn or getting a shot. Keep in mind, are the width of a human hair.

When the needle first goes in, you may feel a quick pinch. Some areas you feel more sensation than others. Once the needles are in, you may experience: itching, warmth, tingling, pressure or a dull ache at the needles. There should be no pain- if something is painful, speak up and your acupuncturist will adjust or remove the needle.

When a needle is removed, there may be a small drop of blood. There is no hole left and no visible indication will be left that you were needled. The worst side effect is an occasional bruise at a needle site.  It's no different than bumping into a table.

What you need to know
•Acupuncture is a system of medicine that utilizes the body’s own resources to promote self healing.

•Regardless of whether or not you believe in acupuncture as a science based medicine or as an ‘energy’ medicine is irrelevant to whether or not it can work for you. Most patients go to an acupuncturist after trying everything else, and many don’t expect it to help, but they are pleasantly surprised with acupuncture’s positive results!

•Before booking an appointment to an acupuncturist, you want to make sure they are licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Medicine. You may see the abbreviation Lic. Ac. on websites and business cards.

•Licensed acupuncturists are well trained; as we must complete 1905 hours of classroom and hands on training in acupuncture before sitting for licensing exams. Part of our curriculum involves courses in western medicine, anatomy & physiology and biology.

•If your acupuncturist practices herbal medicine, they should be certified by The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. (http://www.nccaom.org/national-registry). They will also have passed the national licensing exam for chinese herbal medicine.

•Don’t hesitate to call an acupuncturist and ask questions first- how long have they been in practice? Where did they do their schooling? Do they accept insurance? (coverage is spotty but improving)
Hopefully I've helped clear up some misconceptions about Acupuncture for you.

I offer free consultations over the phone or in person. Call today 781-944-3000 to ask about how acupuncture can help you!

-Mark Whalen
Owner-Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness

Mark Whalen is a Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist and the founder of Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness in Reading, MA.

Mark Whalen – who has written posts on Acupuncture Reading MA - Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness.


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Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness
20 Pondmeadow Dr #107, Reading, MA 01867
Phone: (781) 944-3000


Serving Reading, North Reading, Wakefield, Burlington and the surrounding Middlesex County, MA areas.

Zip Codes: 01730, 01810, 01867, 01880, 01821, 01803, 01864, 01876,
01887, 01915, 01923, 01940, 01949, 01960