Background Traditionally, acupuncturists manipulate needles to enhance sensations referred to as de qi or 'acupuncture needle sensation'. Acupuncture needle sensations are complex and quantifying the experience has been difficult. The aim of this crossover study was to measure self-reported needle sensation during deep and bi-directional rotated needling in 15 healthy volunteers. Methods Each participant received an experimental intervention consisting of superficial needling followed by deep needling and then deep needling with bi-directional rotation. The control intervention consisted of superficial needling, followed by mock deep needling and then mock bi-directional rotation of the needle. The intensity of overall needle sensation was measured using a visual analogue scale (VAS). The subjective acupuncture sensation scale was used to capture component sensations. Results VAS scores were higher during 'deep' needle penetration when compared to superficial needling with mock deep insertion (p=0.0002). VAS scores were also higher during deep needling with bi-directional rotation compared to superficial needling with mock bi-directional rotation (p<0.0001). There were higher scores for total component sensation scores and for the sensation of throbbing during the deep needling with bi-directional rotation (p=0.001) when compared to superficial needling with mock bi-directional rotation. Tentative evidence that bi-directional needle rotation generated stabbing, tingling, heaviness, soreness and aching was also found. Conclusion Bi-directional rotation of a needle inserted into deep soft tissue produced higher acupuncture needle sensation intensities when compared to superficial needle insertion with mock deep penetration and bi-directional rotation.