Basic Components: The basic components of the needle include the following:
- Needle tip
- Presence of lubricant or not
- Tube, Plastic retainer, glue spot or friction zone
There are many types of handles on the market. Some have been designed purely for their ease of manufacture or to appeal to a certain aesthetic, others for definite clinical or practical value. In the picture below you will see the current styles of needles in the marketplace.
Aluminum alloy or stainless steel caps are placed over the shaft of the needle and are crimped in two or three locations to secure the handle to the shaft. The pipe handle is further scored to create better grip for the practitioner when stimulating the needle manually.
Pros: The aluminum alloys are lightweight and highly conductive. You can easily use moxa or electro-stimulation with these needles. The tubes are narrow and allow for precise placement.
Cons: Some pipe handles can be bulky depending on the brand. This can make the needle awkward to using in tight areas like the ear.
Plastic Molded Handles
The plastic-molded handle has become popular over the years, and while it does have some limitations, it is still preferred by a great many practitioners.
Pros: The handles are colour-coded with industry standard colours - this makes the gauge or thickness of the needle easily identifiable. With plastic handles the manufacturers are able to create a very efficient release method for the needles, making them fast and easy to use. Plastic handle needles are often higher quality needles with a micro layer of lubrication that makes insertion almost painless.
Cons: The plastic handle makes using electro-stimulation a touch more complicated. As there is no metal handle to attach your electrode to, one has to clip on to the shaft of the needle which can be, depending on the angle, a bit more challenging. Another con is that you cannot use moxa on the handle.
Wire Wound (with or without loop)
Wire wound handles are by far the most common style of handle. Once the shaft of the needle is sharpened, the handle is created by winding one of a variety of different metals around the needle shaft. The winding can be done by a robotic machine in a completely sealed airtight casing, or it can be done in an open environment by workers using hand-held motorized winding machines. The winding creates a loop at the end, which is either left or cut off depending on the style of needle being created. The benefits, limitations and characteristics are outlined below:
The Pros of a Loop handle: The Loop provides a nice catching point for moxa when using the needle fire technique, or for attaching a clip for electrotherapy.
Cons: Few. The only drawback is with tubed loop-handled needles where the tube must be a bit wider, creating an increased surface area for insertion.
The Pros of a Non-Looped handle: The Non-Looped needle allows for a narrower tube, thus minimizing the surface area for insertion.
Cons: Some practitioners may not like how thin the handle is.
Metals used for wire wound handles:
Pros: Copper has excellent conductive properties and before the creation of newer, cost-effective metal alloys, it was the metal of choice. The obvious colour aids in needle removal. Thirdly, using two very distinct metals creates a bi-metallic needle. Some practitioners prefer the needle for its electron exchange between the two metals, giving it a subtle but enhanced energetic effect.
Silver or Gold
Certain specialty acupuncture techniques use silver or gold as a method of reinforcing or sedating an acupuncture point. In this case, the whole handle and shaft of the needle is silver or gold-plated. Silver needles are considered sedating or dispersing needles for use in excess conditions, or pain conditions. Gold needles are for reinforcing or tonifying points when qi or yang is deficient.
Pros: The use of precious metals is more bio-active than stainless steel, resulting in an increased therapeutic action. Using these needles focuses your intent very clearly as to the specific effect of reinforcing or sedating on each point.
Cons: The precious metals can tarnish over time and as a result do not appear to be clean. Their sterility however is still guaranteed until the expiry date.
Aluminum Alloys or Chrome Handles
Newer aluminum alloys and chrome wire round handles are an increasingly used option.
Pros: Lightweight, highly conductive and tarnish resistant.
The shaft of an acupuncture needle is made from surgical stainless steel wire of different gauges (thicknesses). Stainless steel comes in a variety of grades:
- Inexpensive Chinese surgical steel is higher in nickel than other surgical steels. The steel is forged in an open vat and oxidizes when it hits the air, resulting in a metallurgical impurity. This can affect the smoothness and flexibility of the final needle.
- Moderately priced and higher-end needles are made from vacuum-forged surgical steel which never oxidizes. These higher end metals have a lower nickel content, which is best for patients with metal allergies, as nickel is usually at the top of the list of allergens.
The vast majority of needles are hand sharpened and as a result consistency from needle tip to needle tip will vary. Higher end needles are machine ground which makes for uniform consistency. Much research has gone into needle tip geometry. Certain angles and types of edges can separate tissue differently and require less insertion force. Each brand of needle has developed its own style, from angled to a variety of beveled tips. See each brand for details.
Some needles are coated with a lubricant, which is usually a type of bio-inert material such as silicone. There are two thousand types of FDA approved silicones. Lower-end lubricants may not adhere to the needle body completely. Methods of coating vary, and less costly methods may leave small microscopic droplets at the end of or along the shaft of the needle. The coating methods and adhesive quality of the lubricants are important considerations for practitioners to be aware of. Lubricated needles are an important part of a clinicians’ practice, so the materials used and the methods of application should be of the highest standards. Note: most lubricants can withstand the heat of indirect moxa. It is not recommended, however, to use direct flame or moxa on the needle itself.
Tube, plastic retainer, glue spot or friction zone
The use of tubes has grown in popularity over the years as they allow for a quick and easy method of inserting the needle comfortably below the surface of the skin. Tubes will vary in diameter depending on the style of needle handle and method of retaining the needle in the tube. Economy needles will use a colour-coded plastic retainer to compress the handle of the needle against the inside wall of the tube. When these are removed the needle drops down to the surface of the skin and is ready to be inserted.
Higher end needles use a glue spot between the inside of the tube and the handle of the needle. To release, one uses a mild lateral pressure towards the opposite side which breaks the bond and releases the needle to be inserted. The last retaining method involves a zone of friction created at the top of the tube between the tube and handle. These types of needles are most convenient as they are a one step method of just pressing or tapping the needle. Different manufacturers use different methods and some work extremely well, while others fall out too easily and are not reliable.
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