As a chronic pain patient, my pain management specialist suggested I try acupuncture. I resisted for years, mostly because my insurance doesn’t cover any part of it. That objection broke down when I realized my insurance doesn’t cover much of anything anymore. With a $2,000 deductible, and all kinds of convenient loopholes to avoid applying the full amount of any appointment toward it, all I really have insurance for is the possibility of a catastrophic event involving the ICU.
I also heard mixed reviews from people who have tried acupuncture. For some, they felt it did nothing. For others, it helped, but was not a primary tool in their pain management regimen. A few said it made a dramatic difference.
I’ve been going to acupuncture for 10 months now, and I want to give you more information to help you decide if it’s for you.
First of all, the needles don’t hurt. Before you’re used to them, they might itch a little while they’re in. The needles are not much thicker than a human hair, and they tend to slide between the nerve endings. Now and then, Rand, my acupuncturist, hits a surface nerve and I yelp, and she takes it out right away. She’s very skilled, though, and almost always nails the right location on the first try. I was surprised to find out that some of the needles penetrate to about half an inch; it doesn’t feel like that much piercing is going on. I get about 30 to 40 needles in a treatment.
One thing I didn’t know about before I went for the first time was “e-stim,” electronic stimulation between needles. I get this in my damaged ulnar nerve. Two needles target the nerve on both sides of the reattachment site, and Rand places tiny alligator clips on the needles and passes a mild electrical current between them. This forces the current to find a path through the scar tissue that is then available for nerve impulses to travel. This has slowly reduced the numbness in my hand and given me some hot-cold sensation where I used to have none.
We start our sessions with a short chat about what’s changed since last time. I mention anything unusual, like a sinus headache or a pulled muscle, that would affect the day’s treatment. Rand uses this information to decide what to focus on in that session. She often suggests connections between different issues that give me insight to what’s going on in my body.
After all the needles are in, Rand dims the lights, turns on soft music, and leaves the room for about 40 minutes. I always have a moment of panic when the door closes—I can’t move! What if I have a charlie horse? Once I did get a foot cramp and I managed to relax it without dislodging the needles in my ankle, using the technique I learned in SCUBA class. If I really did have a problem and shouted for Rand, she’d hear me and come running. I haven’t needed to in all this time.
For the first 10 minutes or so, it’s natural to tense up when you know you’re bristling with needles and mustn’t roll over on them. The low lights and music relax me and I inevitably fall deeply asleep, often with vivid dreams. When Rand comes back in, I’m reluctant to wake back up. She respects my drowsy state and keeps the lights and her voice low.
Rand concludes our sessions with cupping. She heats the air inside a glass globe with a flame, then places the globe with the open side down on my skin. As the air cools, the cup creates suction. At first I was iffy about the cupping, but indulged it because she seemed to think it was important. Then I came in one day with severe nerve pain in my upper spinal fracture site. The acupuncture treatment seemed not to make a dent in the pain. Rand left a cup sucking at the pain site for several minutes. I wanted to scream, but something made me want to stick it out, so I did. That night I had zero pain and my spine moved freely at the site. I haven’t resisted cupping since, even though my friends at the pool tease me about the marks it leaves.
For hours after a treatment, I’m a little spacey because I’ve been so relaxed, much like a “massage coma.” I usually plan a quiet evening to let the benefit last as long as possible.
The theory behind acupuncture, poorly paraphrased, is that it breaks up entrenched energy paths and forces new neural pathways to form, and in so doing, leave behind old pain loops and tensions that don’t serve a purpose anymore. Acupuncture has helped me manage my pain enough that I continue to go, and I consider it an important management tool. I think, though, that acupuncture has had a much greater effect on me emotionally.
In breaking up stale patterns, I’ve come to question underlying life assumptions and realize just how entrenched I was in routines I considered safe. I began to see the routines as limiting, and my fear of change was replaced by fear of stagnation. I powered ahead with steps toward change, sure of myself in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I became more assertive in my personal interactions too—my “oh, hell no” trigger became much more sensitive and I expressed my boundaries clearly, with confidence.
I probably respond more strongly to acupuncture than the typical American. I’ve been a student of Eastern philosophy most of my life, and I was prepared to accept the premise of the treatment. We know now that the mind plays a huge role in response to any treatment. I don’t believe my response is a placebo effect, but I don’t care if it is. It’s made good changes in my life, and my sessions are an important touchstone in my routine. When I achieved my goal of moving to a tiny house last month, I jokingly told Rand, “This is all your fault!” She agreed that the treatment could have contributed to my momentum to make this needed change.
If you’ve been thinking about trying acupuncture, I’d highly recommend it. It’s unlikely to do any harm, and it might help you. If cost is an issue, check the practitioners available in your town; you may find one with a sliding payment scale like I did. I think Rand would be a star practitioner at any price, and I’ve lost nothing by going to an affordable-rate clinic.
Have you tried acupuncture? What are your thoughts about it?