So. What is acupuncture? Does it work? Or is it just another hoax designed to separate hopeful rubes from their money?
Acupuncture is, according to Wikepedia, “the procedure of inserting and manipulating fileform (cylindrical, filament-like) needles into various points on the body to relieve pain or for therapeutic purposes. The word “acupuncture” comes from the Latin acus, ‘needle’ and pungere, ‘to prick.’”
Also from Wiki: “According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture points (on the human body) are situated on meridians along which qi (or ‘chi’) (a “life energy”) flows.”
Does acupuncture work? One practioner, Bill Reddy of the American Association of Acupuncture, opines on the website Opposing Views (http://www.opposingviews.com/questions/does-acupuncture-work) that “1.3 billion Chinese are hard to argue with. The system of healing would not last over 5000 years if it weren’t effective.”
Arguing against acupuncture’s efficacy is Steven Novella, MD, a member of the New England Skeptics Society. “Proponents often cite acupuncture’s ancient heritage as a virtue, but I see it as a vice. Acupuncture was developed in a pre-scientific culture, before anything significant was understand about biology, the normal functioning of the human body, or disease pathology. The healing practices of the time were part of what is called philosophy-based medicine, to be distinguished from modern science-based medicine. Philosophy-based systems began with a set of ideas about health and illness and based their treatments on those ideas. The underlying assumptions and the practices derived from them were never subjected to controlled observation or anything that can reasonably be called a scientific process.”
Yet according to the NIH consensus statement on acupuncture (http://consensus.nih.gov/1997/1997Acupuncture107html.htm ), “Many studies in animals and humans have demonstrated that acupuncture can cause multiple biological responses. These responses can occur locally, i.e., at or close to the site of application, or at a distance, mediated mainly by sensory neurons to many structures within the central nervous system. This can lead to activation of pathways affecting various physiological systems in the brain as well as in the periphery. A focus of attention has been the role of endogenous opioids in acupuncture analgesia. Considerable evidence supports the claim that opioid peptides are released during acupuncture and that the analgesic effects of acupuncture are at least partially explained by their actions. That opioid antagonists such as naloxone reverse the analgesic effects of acupuncture further strengthens this hypothesis. Stimulation by acupuncture may also activate the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, resulting in a broad spectrum of systemic effects. Alteration in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones and changes in the regulation of blood flow, both centrally and peripherally, have been documented. There is also evidence of alterations in immune functions produced by acupuncture. Which of these and other physiological changes mediate clinical effects is at present unclear.” (my emphasis)
So the answer to the question “does it work?” is rather amorphous. Since it seems that stimulating acupuncture points does cause the release of beneficial, analgesic-like chemicals in the brain, one could argue that it does – or at least, that it can. And yet it seems there have been no conclusive studies thus far, so even the U.S National Institutes of Health would rather not give acupuncture a strong thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Yet they do encourage its practice for the relief of pain and for therapeutic purposes.
My first experience with acupuncture – an unplanned, rather spontaneous event – was very positive. I can say without hesitation that yes, for me it worked. I’m not really the woo-woo type, so I started out skeptical. I was interested in it and intrigued by its claims, but I put acupuncture on the same woo-woo list as crystals, dream catchers and faith healing. By the time I left the acupuncturist’s office, it was off that list.
My second experience was today, roughly 15 years later. Did it work? The jury is still out. It was quite different from the first. My acupuncturist, Adina, practices “community acupuncture,” which places patients in a group room and allows her to treat several people at once, rather than one at a time. She charges clients for her expertise on a sliding scale between $15 to $40, rather than a higher, single price for one-on-one sessions. What her clients pay for each session is up to them – basically, it’s whatever they can afford. Here’s the link to her website.
It was reading about this relatively new way of offering acupuncture to the public over at sarahketurah’s Gentle Hugs Café blog – she wrote about her experience with a local acupuncturist – and that got me interested in trying it again. While I would have liked to continue acupuncture treatments after my first experience, the cost, at $60 per session, was prohibitive for a small-town journalist like myself. The acupuncturist back then explained that the effects of the technique built over time, so I’d have better results if I could take treatments at least once a week for a period of time. Unfortunately, my medical insurance didn’t cover acupuncture and I simply couldn’t afford it.
Now, with rates as reasonable as these, I can. Adina welcomed me with a smile and led me to her treatment room, where there were four comfortable, reclining chaise lounges. Understated Chinese and Buddhist decorations and statuettes gave the room a serene ambiance. Soothing music issued quietly from a small CD player. She explained that for this first treatment, she wanted to be conservative and use a small number of needles at various points on my hands, lower arms, calves and feet. “We’ll see how this first session goes and how your body reacts, and then in later sessions we’ll make changes as necessary.”
I had no objection to that. I’d worn a T-shirt to make access to my hands and lower arms easy, so now I took off my shoes and socks, pushed my pants legs up to my knees, and sat down on one of the lounges. Adina put a soft pillow on my lap to rest my hands on. The room was pleasantly warm. She took a small tray filled with acupuncture needles, each one in a sterile, protective sleeve, from a table and knelt down next to me.
“This shouldn’t hurt, or if it does, only a very little,” she said, “but everyone has different tolerance levels for pain. If it hurts, please tell me. I can try a different spot or manipulate the needle to lessen any discomfort.”
She got started. There seems to be a difference in the manner in which the practitioners insert the needles. My first acupuncturist sort of “tapped” the needles into my skin – meaning that I also felt a light pat from his fingers at the same moment the needle penetrated. I believe the “pat” was what I registered as a sensation, rather than the small sting of the needle, and so it was painless. Adina, on the other hand, just placed the needles, no accompanying pat. She was very confident and very gentle, but this time there was a little discomfort. Nothing awful – there was perhaps one needle that stung and even ached a little for awhile. After that, nothing. The rest were just tiny stings that faded almost instantly.
I ended up with seven needles in various places on the top of my right hand and one on the top of my forearm, near the elbow; and five in the top of my left hand and one in the top of that forearm. Another needle was inserted in each calf near my knees, and then four (I think, because I couldn’t see down there) in various spots on both feet. As I said before, only one of the needles continued to hurt past the initial, tiny sting. It was the one that was placed on the large knuckle joint of my right index finger, but it didn’t hurt enough to make me ask her to remove or reposition it. When I mentioned it, she said it might be because the knuckles on that hand were tender and swollen – and indeed, they were.
Another difference was that the first acupuncturist had continued to manipulate the needles after they were placed, twisting them very lightly now and then. He also connected a couple of the ones in my feet to a machine that sent very, very light electrical pulses through the needles. Again, painless. There was almost no sensation. Adina didn’t do either, but she did tell me she was being conservative for this first session.
Once all the needles were placed, she made sure I was comfortable – I was – encouraged me to relax, and left the room. I listened to the music. Closed my eyes. Decided to try meditating. Gazed at the needles sticking out of my hands and felt very calm. None of them hurt. I was even a little bored.
A few minutes later she came back in with another patient, an older woman. A. got her comfortable in one of the other lounges and went about placing needles, whispering to her client as she did. I closed my eyes again, not wanting to intrude on their privacy. She left again.
When she returned, she came over and crouched next to me. “How are you doing?”
“It’s been about 40 minutes,” she whispered. “Can you go a little longer?”
I was surprised it had been that long. It surely didn’t seem like it. “Sure,” I said.
She gave me a big smile. “I’ll be back in a little while.”
And then it was over. Adina removed all the needles. It was painless. I put my socks and shoes back on and followed her back out to the lobby. The clock on the wall showed that an hour had passed since I’d arrived, and frankly, I was a little disconcerted. I’m sure I didn’t sleep – I had during that first, long-ago session, in spite of myself. But perhaps I did this time, too. How odd. I felt like time had folded in on itself.
She asked how my hands were.
“They’re a little sore,” I said. It was true; since she’d removed the needles, the old ache was back. “Maybe even a little worse.”
She nodded. “That does happen sometimes. Sometimes people have an increase in symptoms for several hours, even up to a day or two. That’s why we like to have you come back – the treatments are cumulative, over time. And eventually you should notice an improvement.”
This went along with what I’d read recently, so it wasn’t unexpected. Naturally I’d hoped that I’d walk out with the same or better results than before, but I wasn’t disappointed.
I thanked Adina, paid her for the session, made another appointment for early next week, and went on my way. Since I’ve been home, my hands have continued to be sore and sensitive, but not any worse than most other days. My right hand is considerably more red and swollen than the left. The needles in my feet and calves seemed to have no effect at all; it’s as if they weren’t even inserted there. And none of the needles left any mark at all on my skin.
I experienced no euphoria today. No lightheadedness. Is acupuncture a hoax? While I’m sure there are unscrupulous practioners out there, I don’t think so. I believe that like many treatments for RA in both Western and alternative medicine, acupuncture may be helpful to some people and not to others. It’s an individual thing.
Finally, will acupuncture successfully lessen my pain? I don’t know. Time will tell. But I have no qualms at all about continuing it long enough to give it a sporting chance. It was a pleasant, very relaxing hour out of my day, and even if that’s all I get out of it, I’ll be happy. If acupuncture does, indeed, reduce the amount of pain I feel from day to day in my wrists and hands, I’ll be ecstatic. I’d much rather be stuck with needles than take pain medications anyday.
And that’s saying something.