Needle Free if Need Be: Gentle Japanese Acupuncture Alternatives to Needles

Cupping has had a news moment lately with Michael Phelps and it has been fun to hear from many friends and patients wanting me to see that what they already know is great is being shared more widely. I wanted to take the opportunity to share back that cupping is just one of the many ways that Japanese Medicine can help that has nothing to do with needles!

When I tell people I am an acupuncturist, I often hear some variety of statement about how they've heard good things about acupuncture, but..."I'm scared of needles."

I myself was terrified of needles* when I first started going to acupuncture and there was no way I was going to drink bitter herbs!** Luckily, I was met with a first acupuncture practitioner who was open and wanted to help me based on my comfort level. She didn't mind my many questions about why she wanted me to do something or how that was going to help. Given how successful that was for me (I ended up training as an acupuncturist, after all!) I believe in working just that same way. I will meet you where you are and use the wide variety of tools at my disposal to treat you. And believe it or not, that means we can do entire treatments with absolutely no sharp objects! Perhaps that means we have an eventual goal of using needles (maybe just one?) or maybe you don't even want to put that on the table. Either is absolutely fine.

What can we use instead of inserted needles?

Well, there's moxa, fine hairs of the mugwort plant that we burn either near or above the skin (in addition to using creams that protect the skin from burns we're trained so that we do not burn you. Double protection). There is an entire aspect of Japanese medicine that uses ONLY moxa as a healing tool. No needles. And I am comfortable doing that with you. In fact, this is one of my favorite methods of practice as it is wonderful for increasing energy, immune health, and loosening sore muscles to name just a few applications.

There's cupping. I prefer the pump cups to the glass cups (fire cupping) because the pump allows me to have greater control over the level of suction so that the cups are consistent and you can tell me if anything is too strong or weak and we can adjust quickly. It feels a bit like getting a reverse massage.

I am also trained in using contact needles (meaning metal tools that resemble a short pencil; they do not pierce the skin). I use these in almost every session, even with people who have never mentioned a fear of needles because it's a great way to greet the body and begin to make change with the least effort, a hallmark of Japanese medicine.

And then of course there is herbal medicine, which I am happy to personalize for you. Both Japanese and Chinese medicine center on the idea that one condition can be stem from many causes so there isn't a herbal formula for diabetes, for instance. We figure out what's causing YOUR diabetes...or anxiety, or migraines, or pain. So with herbal medicine as with all of our methods, we need to have a conversation about your current health and history to determine a treatment specifically for you and that's the you that's presenting itself today. A week or a month from now, we'll have to reevaluate because you change in that time. You don't necessarily feel the same at the beginning of the week as you do at the end of it, do you? Phew. See why we study so hard and like to see you so often?

So whether you are extremely fearful of needles or just aren't sure you're game to try them yet, I hope you will give Japanese Medicine a try or contact me to ask more questions. This medicine offers us so much more than needles with which to help you strive for better health and wellness!

* It is not a secret that no one likes injections, which is most people's only interaction with needles before acupuncture. Acupuncture needles are super tiny, solid (not hollow) and nowhere near the same as injection needles. This did not stop me side-eyeing the idea that I should not be afraid of them. I see you doing the same thing. It's ok.

** I have since taken many herbal formulas. I was convinced to change my mind years after my first acupuncture sessions because I had a condition I could not shake that was preventing me from going to work on a regular basis. One week of herbal formula and I've never dealt with it again. Of course, I cannot guarantee a similar timeline for you, your mileage may vary and such, but that was a life-altering change that convinced me of the power of herbal medicine. That, and I discovered a way to take custom herbal powders and press them into pills. This power can be yours. It is both affordable and a lot of fun to do while watching TV or listening to music so you actually take your herbal formula. That and some formulas come in pill form already. No bitter taste!


Shawna Seth, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac. is a California state licensed and nationally certified acupuncturist focused on promoting women’s health, especially surrounding menstrual health and fertility. She uses the gentlest effective methods possible to guide her patients to balance. Shawna sees patients in her private practice on Sutter Street in San Francisco. Make your appointments online or email To learn more about Japanese medicine and the world of acupuncture, follow her blog A Cuppa Qi.

Photo credit: Shawna giving moxa and contact needle treatment by Sean Trace.