Needles- A Prickly Subject?

Acupuncture needles

As an acupuncturist, when I tell people what I do the most common response is “Ugh – needles!”, so I thought I would talk about acupuncture needles compared to the needles that are used when going to the doctor.

Unfortunately for me (and you!) the association that many of us have with needles is one filled with dread, tears, pain and fear. Hopefully as you read on you will understand that an acupuncture needle and a hypodermic needle are very different in a number of ways. I will also talk about Japanese children’s ‘needles’, which by our standards are not needles at all!

So- firstly the hypodermic needle, which is what most health providers you have come in contact with would have used.

Hypodermic Needle


This is the needle that most of us are familiar with. A couple of things to note about this sort of needle:

– It has a cartridge on the end to either administer medicine, or to collect blood
– Because the purpose of this needle is to either inject or take fluids from the body, the needle needs to be hollow to allow the fluid to pass from one  to the other.

– Because the needle needs to be hollow, the diameter of the needle is larger than an acupuncture needle, the needle most commonly used for injections or drawing blood is gauge 21 which is .8mm wide. The range in diameter may be as small as .2mm, or as large as 4.6mm.

– Depth of insertion varies, though for anything intravenous it is generally between 25-38mm.

Acupuncture Needle

– Function of the needle is to insert and stimulate the muscle/energy.

Needle is solid (not hollow) as it does not need to physically transfer anything in or out of the body

– Because needles are not hollow they are able to be a lot finer. Each acupuncturist has their own preference as to which gauge needle they use. The most common needle size used in my clinic is .12mm wide (a human hair is approximately .1mm in diameter). The largest needle used by me is gauge 27 (.4mm wide).

– Depth of insertion varies by practitioner and training style (Chinese acupuncturists tend to needle deeper, Japanese shallower- sometimes only going millimeters into the skin). I use quite shallow insertion on the majority of points as I use predominantly Japanese techniques,  generally about 3-6mm, though it depends on where the point is located on the body (generally the fleshier the point the deeper the insertion, similarly the bonier the point the shallower the insertion).

Japanese Children’s Needles

– Designed for tapping, stroking and rubbing over the skin – NO INSERTION

– Needle is solid, generally made from silver, gold, copper, titanium or stainless steel. Each metal has different properties and will create a different result.

– Each ‘needle’ is used in a number of ways, most have different surfaces which allow the practitioner to use one needle in a variety of ways, similarly a number of the needles are able to be used in similar ways. Each practitioner has favourite ‘needles’ that they will use more regularly and develop their own technique and style of treatment with.

To give you an indication of how fine an acupuncture needle is compared to a hypodermic needle check out this picture:

Image from

As you can see, the acupuncture needles are incredibly fine compared to a hypodermic needle.

Comparing an acupuncture needle to a hypodermic needle is much the same as saying “I have never had an orange, but I know I don’t like them because I tried an apple once and didn’t enjoy it” yes they are both a needle- but different in so many ways!

I use finer gauge needles, as well as gentle insertion and manipulation. I don’t believe that you need to experience a strong Qi sensation in order for you to gain results, I aim to make the experience as comfortable and relaxing as possible!

A very common question is “What does acupuncture feel like?“, it is a difficult one to answer as most people experience needles differently. Pain receptors are located in the top layers of our skin, as such, the longer it takes for the needle to get through those layers and past the pain receptors, the more painful it will be. Because of the needle technique used to insert the acupuncture needles, I describe it as not being any more painful than having a single hair plucked; you may feel a quick ‘twinge’ that lasts a second or two, but then it passes. Though sometimes you don’t even feel that- some points you may feel me finding the point, then a small tap and nothing else.
Needles are then left in for a period of time (depending on your condition usually 15-20mins), while the needles are in you may experience a variety of different sensations (not pain) that include: itchiness, heaviness, dull ache, an awareness of the point, heat, cold, or sometimes something that you can’t explain but know you are feeling.

If you are still unsure about receiving acupuncture because of a fear of needles, then please talk to me! I have methods of treatment other than needles that will still benefit you and help you return balance to your life.