I had my first ever acupuncture session on Wednesday. For those of you already familiar with my needle-phobia this may come as a surprise, but it’s been a year of tackling fears head on and today was the day I finally went under the needle.
Acupuncture is becoming more accepted in mainstream American society as more people try it with (self-reported) excellent results, while simultaneously becoming more derided by others for its complete lack of basis in Western medical science. (The wikipedia article was clearly written by one of these skeptics!) Though there is a small but growing body of evidence supporting its effectiveness for treating chronic pain, unexplained infertility, and some pyschological conditions such as addiction and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (and more research is being done into its effectiveness for endometriosis, arthritis, and digestive conditions like IBS), conceptually acupuncture and other elements of TCM look at disease completely differently from Western Medicine and scientists have found no underlying reasons (that fit within Western medical understanding) for why acupuncture would work. In other words, according to the Western medical community it’s the world’s most widely accepted form of magical healing.
For those of you who, like me before this experience, have no clue what to expect at a TCM clinic, I’m happy to give the scoop.
Meet the Acupuncturist
My acupuncturist’s name is Dixie. (I feel so LA saying “my acupuncturist.”) (And yes, that is her real name.) I stepped into the tiny but comfortable waiting room of Tao Health Clinic, a little office tucked back in an 80s strip-mall, to find a wall of jarred herbs, brown liquids, and mushrooms. Dixie, who runs the clinic with her husband Devon (he specializes in Asian manual therapy), was working the front desk. After introducing ourselves and the requisite medical paperwork, we stepped back into a room that reminded me of a massage parlor (or a waxing parlor, however it’s no surprise, I’m sure, that I preferred to think of massages over Brazillians when mentally preparing for Attack of the Tiny Killer Needles). The room was filled with soft music and Asian decorations, and dominated by a waist-high table/bed thing. I sat down on it and Dixie answered all of my questions, numerous as they were, without ever checking the time or batting an eye about why somebody with a complete ignorance of Traditional Chinese Medicine and a fear of needles would make an appointment for acupuncture.
She explained the theory of meridians – the “channels” that our personal energy flows through – and how sometimes they get “clogged” and need help flowing freely again. I don’t really get what that means or why sticking needles in my skin would unclog my energy flow. On the other hand, I don’t get how my telephone works or why I’m calmer and more focused after praying to my ancestors, so in my experience, my comprehension is not necessary for efficacy. Heck, as a student of history who has read accounts of shamans and witches performing “miracle” cures that later turned out to backed by science and the chemical properties of the herbs they were using, I find it narrow-minded to think that if we don’t understand something through current science it must be invalid.
I will admit, though, the whole thing felt a little like I imagine heading to a witchdoctor would: fascinating, foreign, and surreal.
The actual appointment started with checking my pulse six times, three times on each wrist. According to TCM, each pulse point is connected to a different organ. (TCM is all about the interconnectedness of the whole body.) In addition, the left side of the body represents “blood” and feminine energy and the right side “chi” and masculine energy. (Apparently I have very strong chi, but my blood needs work.) Then Dixie looked at my tongue, which has to do with dietary health. According to Dixie, I have one of the healthiest tongues she’s ever seen and should keep consistent with my current diet. I KNEW all that farm-fresh organic produce and locally raised, grass-fed-and-finished meat was good for something!
Then came the needles.
Okay, so first off, when people say you can’t feel the needles – they’re lying. It’s not like horrible pain or anything (more pinchy), and the amount of it you feel is different depending on where the needle is located. There were a couple that just felt like a finger poke and a couple I didn’t feel at all – on the other hand, when she “chained” two together (and I have no idea what that means because there was no chain involved) that felt exactly like you would think a needle jabbing into your leg would feel. But over all there was nothing intolerable. Dixie explained that sometimes I would feel “pressure” and that was good because it meant that it was doing its job unclogging whatever energy was clogged.
As she put the needles in (I think I only got like 9 or 10 – I had feared a lot more!) I asked her what they did, and she started saying things like, “This is Stomach 32 and this is Pancreas 51; they work together to help with…” (I don’t remember the real numbers). According to TCM there are 400 pressure points acupuncturists choose from, and the combination of the points chosen help to move blocked energy back into its natural flow. I got pins in both legs, an ankle, near both elbows, and one on my ear as she explained what each was for.
Then It Got Weird
She put one needle on the top of my head (right at my crown chakra; apparently pressure points can correspond to chakras) and it was like I went to sleep. I mean, I didn’t go to sleep, but suddenly I closed my eyes and didn’t want to talk anymore because the world got all dreamy. I got one more needle at my third eye (above and between the brows), Dixie turned down the lights and left the room, and I was all warm and drowsy and comfortable with needles sticking out everywhere.
Backstory break. In college when I took Taekwando our instructor always ended each lesson with a third eye meditation. (I might have mentioned before on this blog that I seriously suck at meditating.) He said that when you are meditating, you should be able to see a colorful dot that represents your “soul” (again, Eastern philosophy is so far outside my realm of experience that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m just reciting what happened). When we saw the dot, we were supposed to focus on that. Unless you count the occasional flash of color that remains on your eyelids after exposure to bright lights, I never saw any dots, though I gamely tried every time. But then again, the whole concept of “clear your mind” is incomprehensible to me (somebody told me to empty my mind, like a teacup pouring its contents, and I spent five minutes picturing what kind of tea cup my mind would be and the next few minutes wondering where the tea went when it poured out, ‘cause it seems like that would be on my lap). Meditation and me are a fail.
Fast forward to the acupuncture session. Dixie left me in semi-darkness with the needles, and I took two deep breaths and this big green and blue dot that rippled and flamed like a friendly Eye of Sauron appeared in front of my vision. It was really pretty! And I remembered the soul-dot I was supposed to be seeing all those years ago in Taekwondo, and I had a feeling that this must be what he was talking about. I was seeing my soul-dot! It was easy, and it made me strangely joyful. As I focused on the pretty watery blue-green thing, I thought of Odin, the wild god of the mad poet, and how his laughter must be off-kilter as it touches something deeper than physical human experience. And even that was comforting.
Then my phone vibrated, and the moment disappeared.
The Less Weird Half
I waited for my phone to quit, a little disappointed. I never got that feeling back, but still spent the next ten minutes sleepy and comfortably stretched out on the table. After awhile Dixie returned, pulled the pins, and had me take off my shirt and roll over. After a short massage (yay!), I got more pins on my lower back and one in my ankle. Again, nothing painful, more slightly irritating. Again she left and I rested. No strange visions this time. After insertion, I couldn’t feel these needles at all until I rolled my shoulders back, at which point my lower back started aching just like she’d described would happen when the needles were “pushing clogged energy.” I kept my shoulders rolled back until, for reasons unknown to me, my left calf started cramping. I relaxed my shoulders and immediately the threatening Charley horse vanished.
A few minutes later Dixie came back in and removed the pins. To my surprise, she pulled a pin out of my left calf, exactly where the cramp had centered. I hadn’t realized I had a pin there.
Dixie left, saying I could meet her in the front whenever I was ready but to take my time. After a few minutes I was back in the reception facing the herb jars, and Dixie and I were talking about vitamins, doctors, and other mundane things I’m used to hearing at a health clinic. At Tao Health they believe that Western and Eastern medicine each have strengths and weaknesses, and should work together. I can agree with this philosophy.
I stepped out of the clinic and sat down at a coffee shop, green tea in hand, to compose this, so I don’t yet have a long term perspective on the situation. Overall, though, my dive into Traditional Chinese Medicine was fascinating. Definitely a different medical experience than what I’m used to – partially in terms of the medical treatment, but also in terms of the practitioner’s unhurried willingness to sit and talk to me, to consider multiple causes for a problem, and to not hand me drugs to solve all my problems. (My mistrust of drugs is, in fact, my main impetus for trying alternative medicine to begin with.)
Would I go again? Yeah. I would. I don’t have a sense yet for whether it “worked,” but then the least invasive solutions to a problem (my favorite kind) are usually slow to show results. It is my plan to continue trying TCM with an open mind and see how it goes. In the end, I figure “what works” is more important than “what I understand,” and just because something is out of the realm of my normal world purview doesn’t diminish its potential as a viable solution.
Oh, and I looked in the mirror when I got home, and I gotta admit, I do have a beautiful tongue. 😉
Anybody out there have experience with acupuncture, TCM, or other forms of alternative medicine? I’d love any advice or just to hear somebody else’s experience!
+ Featured image in the public doman; pulled from wikimedia commons