Acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are at least 3,000 years old. Last year, the National Institute of Health’s monthly newsletter noted more than three million adults in the United States alone use acupuncture.
Until yesterday, I was not among them.
There is an old adage that says we should always write what we know. As a journalist, I rarely get to write from personal experience. When my partner and I decided to produce a package focusing on acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine and alternative medicine in the Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods, it occurred to me that I knew very little about acupuncture. I knew it involved needles and chi, the ancient Chinese concept of life energy, but that was it.
As I scoured the Web and the nearest library for information, it occurred to me that acupuncture is an inherently sensory practice. How could I write about what it feels like if I didn’t know first-hand? How could I write what I did not know?
So I volunteered to try it. It would only be one session, which is hardly representative of a typical weekly acupuncture regimen. At the very least, I could attempt a glimpse of what it’s like for those three million adults.
We arrived at Community Acupuncture of Mount Airy at 10 a.m. and interviewed its owner, Elise Rivers, for approximately half an hour. She emphasized the treatment functions as a “powerful way to decompress” and that it had both preventative and restorative properties. As a student journalist, the former was enticing. As a roller derby girl still relatively fresh off a broken ankle, the latter sounded soothing.
The clinical area was pristine and dimly lit. A number of covered beds spaced feet apart lined the room. The space lacked the familiar fluorescent light of the Western health institutions I’d experienced. When we spoke to her prior to the treatment, Rivers said acupuncture was relaxing. The space where she worked emphasized that characteristic.
After a brief description of my medical history, Rivers had me remove my vest and tie, unbutton my shirt, roll up my pant legs and lay on one of the beds. A heating lamp was placed over my stomach under which Rivers repeatedly warmed her hands over the course of the treatment. She examined my pulse and tongue and then rolled over a small cart with her supplies.
She explained the needles she uses are approximately as thin as a human hair. Given their thinness, she added that she uses a plastic sheath to guide the needles into the skin. Without it, the needles would be flimsy.
The first needle went just below one knee. There was a dull, heavy sort of pinch, not unlike what I’ve experienced during vaccinations, but this one was only briefly noticeable and was not nearly as prevalent. Rivers told me I may feel a prickle, heaviness or warmth afterward. There was some heaviness, but it was fleeting. There was no lingering sensation of “I have a needle in me.”
Rivers explained acupuncture motivates chi in the body, which is linked to the electrical currents that run through the human body. When a needle is inserted into an acupuncture point, it motivates the chi in a corresponding part of the body connected to the point along a meridian. The process either alleviates blockages of the body’s electrical current or stimulates increased circulation.
After adding a second needle on the opposite leg symmetrical to the first, Rivers moved to my once-broken ankle which, despite my recovery, was still swollen. She noted its warmth, explaining there may be a blockage. She placed a number of needles in and around it, followed by one more in each leg.
She moved upward along my body: stomach, chest and arms. She placed one needle between my eyes. Lastly, she placed a number of needles in each ear, noting that the ears were microsystems of acupuncture points. Some needles hurt more than others and some did not hurt at all. Few evoked little more than a blink.
I was then allowed to rest for 20 minutes. Rivers explained that in this time, the needles would do their work and motivate the flow of energy within my body. I’m not entirely sure whether I slept or was just incredibly relaxed, but the time went by quickly.
I was less tired after the treatment, but my ankle was still swollen and nothing about my stress level or persistent medical woes had changed. The experience was relaxing, but personally I feel that effect was contained within the treatment itself. In all fairness, having not had a proper recurring regimen, I can’t be too sure it’s fair to say whether or not it worked.
This is not to say my experience was typical, as there is no typical experience of acupuncture. My experience was unique. Each person experiences acupuncture differently from the next, and it is never the same experience from session to session. While it was not extraordinarily beneficial to me, there is no knowing how acupuncture could benefit someone else.
The NIH noted that a single acupuncture session often will not produce any profound effect and that it is a process. Rivers emphasized that after my session, explaining she would tend to recommend a six-week plan. My experience was most likely not representative of the norm, where a patient may receive the treatment once a week over the duration of a number of weeks.
It is hard to offer conclusive proof of anything regarding acupuncture. The NIH explained it is difficult to accurately survey its effects because the process of acupuncture makes the creation of control or placebo trials difficult to formulate. Clinical trials often provide subjects in control groups with a “fake” version of the tested technique, medicine or procedure.
Dr. Karen J. Sherman, an acupuncture researcher funded by the NIH, said, “I don’t really think you can come up with a placebo for needling.” The NIH explained that it is hard to replicate the effect of a needle without actually using one.
I say if interested, try it. It’s the only way to know whether it could work for you. For more information, go to this website at https://www.philadelphia-acupuncture.com/