(tip o' the hat to jessicaj)
Acupuncture is a great, effective treatment for many issues. I've known of people who got great effects from using it for arthritis. I've been to a group session of "acupuncture for relaxation" which was tremendously powerful for me. And yet, I know plenty of people who are terrified of trying it because of ALL THE NEEDLES.
I'm not terribly experienced with acupuncture. But I can give you a basic idea of what is involved, and what you might experience as you wade farther out, into the world of acupressure.
Just as with any doctor's appointment, when you start working with a new practitioner you'll go through an intake session. The details vary by practitioner and modality. I currently go to Dr. Joan Margaret, in Oakland, once a month. Her intake sessions go for a whopping 75 minutes, which make them quite expensive by my standards. It's worth every second, though, because the intake is so thorough, and because she begins treatment during the session. (My only real comparison, mind you, is the intake/evaluation session I've had with therapists, which has sometimes cost money, should always be free, and has never included treatment no matter how long we've talked!)
In this case, I completed several forms. There was one where I could circle different parts of the human body to indicate anywhere that I had problems, tension, or pain; one where I could evaluate whether I had a series of different physical and emotional problems, on a scale of 1 to 5, and indicate the five most urgent to me; and another one I don't remember, possibly a list of potential allergies and medications. Then I went in and Dr. Margaret explained to me what she thought was going on with me based on the different symptoms I was experiencing. (I had said that I thought I had hypothyroidism; she suggested that it sounded like it was actually a problem with the endocrine system, possibly the pituitary gland, and that's proved out since then.) She tested me for a long series of potential allergens, and began treating the most basic ones right then.
What I get with Dr. Margaret is a specific flavor of acupressure called Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique (NAET). I've read that some do it as acupuncture; there aren't a ton of practitioners, so to some extent you're limited by which method the people in your area use.
NAET uses a specific sequence of acupressure points developed by Dr. Devi Nambudripad to, essentially, convince the body not to freak out when it encounters something it's perceived as a danger. We now know that allergies are a matter of the body perceiving a particular substance as an invader and deploying the immune system to attack it. This overreaction is annoying at best, life-threatening at worst, and it's bad for the body (and especially the immune system) to be inflamed and on high alert so much of the time. We know that allergies often stem from trauma, too. That when a young body is traumatized, it looks for something to attribute the attack to, and may begin overreacting to something else that was present at the time, like dust or grasses.
What I like about it is that it's not limited to what we traditionally think of as allergies. NAET practitioners will describe people as being "allergic to cold", for example, or to, say, vitamin C. They don't mean it in the same way that Western medicine means "allergic," which technically only refers to really serious histamine reactions. NAET focuses on the body's overreaction, which means that it can also treat the trauma that we hold in our bodies.
Personally, I'm happier with acupressure than acupuncture, and it seems to work just as well. From what I've read of acupuncture versus acupressure, in general, they work equally well. Acupuncture is less hands-on. Some people prefer that; some people prefer a hands-on technique, or prefer not to have to face the tiny super-thin little needles.
I'm also used to something called EFT, or Emotional Freedom Technique. I'm a practitioner of it, actually. EFT is even more hands-off, despite being a form of acupressure, because the client is able to do it on themselves. The practitioner just coaches them through the different acupressure points to tap lightly with the tips of their own fingers, and gauges what aspects of their problem would be most fruitful to focus on next.
With traditional acupuncture or acupressure sessions, you will talk to the practitioner briefly about what issues you want them to focus on, and perhaps what you have experienced since your last session, and then let them do their thing. It's kind of like getting a massage in that way. With acupuncture, you're likely to get needled and then just chill out while the needles do their thing; acupressure is often more like a shiatsu session, more hands-on throughout the session.
With EFT, you'll talk about the physical or emotional issue you want to work on. The practitioner will suggest a phrase to "tap on," like "This pain in my leg" or "This fear that I am going to die in a horrible car crash" or whatever. They'll ask you to rate the feeling from 0 (doesn't bother me at all) to 10 (super horrible terrible intense pain). Then they'll guide you through a cycle of tapping the different points on that phrase, and rate it again. Often new ideas, feelings, or images will come up during this process which reveal new aspects or causes of the problem, so you can get to the source of the whole thing. Sometimes you'll have to "chase the pain" for a while: the pain in your leg will disappear but then your eye hurts, that disappears but then your shoulder aches, et cetera. But a skilled practitioner can help pin down what's really bothering you and help you release it. You may go through a couple of cycles of tapping before the intensity starts to lessen. The goal is usually to get it down to at least a 3, although lower is always better. You may also be given homework, in the form of different phrases or images to tap on or different EFT tips and tricks.
With NAET, you'll again talk briefly about what you've been experiencing and what you'd like to focus on first. You may also have a series of different allergies/sensitivities that you are working through. Often the practitioner will start by testing you to see if you still have a reaction to the triggers they cleared you for last time, because the point of NAET is supposed to be that it cures allergies. Then they move on to the next thing. A treatment consists of lying on a massage table while your practitioner taps different points; mine has a handy machine that can tap rapidly for her, which is nice. I have to breathe in specific different ways while she goes over the points several times. Then she does something I don't understand with a laser. Seriously, I do not care what she is doing as long as it works. I used to interrogate her about it while she worked because I found it all so weird and fascinating, but sometimes I just want to lie around and let her do her thing. Then I get to chill out, holding the various things she's treating me for (where applicable), until her timer goes off, after which I am not supposed to come into contact with them for the next 25 hours. (It doesn't necessarily take 25 hours for a treatment to "take"; it varies with the person and the allergy. The practitioner can also test to see how long you really need, but I don't bother because I can't afford more than a 30-minute session and I'd rather have her use that time to treat more things. It also varies by what the thing is; sometimes there's nothing to avoid, like when you're being treated for physical or emotional trauma.)
A good practitioner can often treat several different things in a session. For example, last week I went to my NAET appointment and asked her to see if I was allergic to onions. We hadn't tested them before that I could remember, but every time I try to peel or chop an onion my eyes water so badly that I end up chopping it with them closed, WHICH IS GREAT. Super-safe, you guys. I normally can barely get through peeling it before I start having a reaction. I know it's normal for onions to make your eyes water, but this really seemed extreme. I see people chop onions on cooking shows all the time without having to run out of the room every few seconds.
She tested it and found that indeed I was. I had also brought a plastic bag holding a dust-saturated paper towel that I had used to wipe down the bedroom blinds, because I knew I was allergic to dust and I knew that she had mentioned needing to test me on the actual dust I'm exposed to. And for a hat trick, I had an emotional issue I wanted her to treat. Ever since I had gotten married, and maybe before, I had had recurring fears about which of us would die first, what I would do if she died, what she would do if I died, what if I died early, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It had gotten particularly bad lately; I had lain in bed a couple of nights listening to see if my heart was still beating and imagining what it would be like if it stopped, which is no way to go to sleep! I knew this had some connection to the abuse I had experienced as a very young child, and that sense you have that you might die at any time when something like that happens to you. But I wanted her to fix it.
She might not have treated all three in half an hour for just anybody, but she's worked with me for several years and she knows that I can handle it. Some people have strong reactions to treatments; her office manager calls it "treatment whammy", a potent combination of disorientation and exhaustion from the changes going on in your body. I almost never experience any of that, so she didn't worry about treating three problems at once.
The result: For the first time, that night, I lay in bed breathing clearly, not getting congested. I chopped an onion a day or two later, and could actually enjoy the scent of the onion and chop the whole thing with no problem. And I feel at peace with the fact that one of us will die first, that we are connected at the heart and will be together forever, and that death is just a transition to the next phase of being. (Your beliefs may vary; I already knew these things were true in my mind, but I could no longer peacefully accept them.)
It was a pretty frigging good deal for ninety dollars. Other benefits I've accrued over the years include that I don't get sugar highs and crashes from eating sweets, which in NAET terms was because I was "allergic to sugar"; instead of bleeding and aching like a stuck pig whenever my body decides it's time to menstruate, I get barely any cramping (sometimes none) and barely any bleeding by comparison (this was part of my pituitary thing, and partly from pills that she recommended for me); and, oh yeah, I CAN EAT WHEAT. This is a fairly big deal, as anyone who is gluten-intolerant will tell you. I ate so many brownies and cookies and croissants and things to test it, and nothing. Still nothing, even months later. It used to be that I would get sinus headaches and aches and pains and just generally feel horrible after eating wheat. Now I can eat whatever I want to. I know, you other gluten-intolerant humans probably think I should have led with that! IT WAS PRETTY COOL GUYS.
One hallmark of the world of "alternative" medicine is that it often attracts practitioners who are eager to make it accessible to all income levels. The acupuncture session I attended was a free several-times-a-week affair aimed at recovering (or possibly all) addicts. One could choose either the relaxation flavor or the detox flavor, and would receive the appropriate punctures, and then sit or read quietly with them in a darkened room, in a circle of other quiet clients. You do intake paperwork here, too, in a separate room before your first session, and talk to a staff member so that they can go over it with you and make any helpful referrals they can think of. In my case, this was brief, but I imagine they get a fair number of people who are in crisis and really need to talk.
It was insanely relaxing. I highly recommend it. The punctures did not hurt at all, except for one in my unicorn spot. (Around where I would have a horn if I were a unicorn. What?) I believe the explanation I've received is that it may sometimes hurt to get acupuncture if a particular point needs a lot of work, possibly because your body will be very tense there? I'm totally making that reasoning up.
It was no problem at all, at the time, for me, to be getting acupuncture in a room full of other people. It was very comfortable, dark, and quiet. This is important, because there are tons of low-cost acupuncture clinics all over the place that operate in that general manner. You're not limited to "relaxation or detox"; you can get acupuncture treatments for whatever you want. But you do get it in a room with, usually, up to 7 other people. Think of it like a pedicure: luxurious, in comfy chairs, with quiet time, and fantastic self-care, and cheap for what you get.
You can look for one near you at the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture; if there is none associated with them, try searching for your location plus "community acupuncture" or "low-cost" or "sliding-scale" acupuncture. The cost through a POCA clinic is $15-$50, usually based entirely on what you think you can pay; the intake appointment may cost a little more because it is longer. Some clinics within the organization have slightly different pricing; $35 seems to be a common rate.
EFT you can at least learn to do on yourself. NAET not so much; it is insanely complicated. On the other hand, my practitioner has a cheaper intern now, so there are no doubt deals to be found. But no matter what you manage to pay, all of it is worth it.