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Nerve conduction needles v. Acupuncture needles

In the case of pain caused by things going into your body, size matters. We acupuncturists have worked really hard to build the confidence of a population whose experience with needles is more on the order of blood draws and immunizations - both of which require the needles to be hollow for liquid to go through meaning their diameter is larger. Nerve conduction study administrators are using this work to placate worried study participants, understandably. The bad news is, however, it makes us look like fibbers and gives folks a false impression of what acupuncture is like.

I recently had a nerve conduction study that used a needle like the one in the photo with the gloved hand. It was to see whether the nerves were healthy and able to reliably transmit signals or not. The doctor administering the test proudly told me that the needle he was about to insert was “about the size of an acupuncture needle.” Being an acupuncturist, I have more than a passing familiarity with acupuncture needles. Now, the test was not unbearable but it was unpleasant, orders of magnitude more unpleasant than any acupuncture treatment I’ve ever received (even at the hands of my classmates back in the days before we knew what we were doing). Thinking that he would be giving his patients a false sense of what acupuncture needling feels like, I mentioned this.

The very nice doctor insisted that the needles were small. Now, I get that his frame of reference is medical school, not acupuncture school. And he proceeded to tell me about the size of bone marrow sampling needles as a comparison. So, I do have to say that the needle he used is closer in size to an acupuncture needle than a bone marrow sampling needle. There is also a world of difference between the needle he used and the ones used in an actual acupuncture treatment. He showed me the needle and I have to say, I’ve never seen an acupuncture needle that thick. I bet they make them but I also bet they are rarely used. And, it should be noted that technique and placement also have a role to play as well. For instance, I am never going to ask someone to flex a muscle with a needle in it whereas that's necessary for a nerve conduction study.

A quick on-line search showed several websites touting that the needles used are the size of acupuncture needles so he's in good company spreading this rumor. I get that this is to assuage people’s fears. Trust me, I understand people are afraid of needles, for good reason. Now that I’ve experienced both, however, I have to tell you a nerve conduction study will give you a false impression of what acupuncture needles and needling are like. Yes, a nerve conduction study needle is smaller than your standard hypodermic needle. That does not make it the size of an acupuncture needle nor is the technique anywhere near what a trained acupuncturist will use. If your nerve conduction study experience is what stands in the way of you getting acupuncture, give it a second thought.

1 Comment

Dec 09, 2023

I'll say that you are spot on!

I've been having acupuncture regularly for years and have had 4 EMG's. The EMG needles are so painful that I sometimes cry.

Acupuncture only hurts a bit when the needle gets to the nerve, but then my doctor stops

I should be getting another EMG but I refuse to go through that again.

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