Last Thursday, I let a woman I'd just met stick a needle between my eyes.
Acupuncture isn't so new to Chicago, and the 2,500-year-old treatment certainly isn't new in general, but it was new to me. Growing up with a doctor dad who cured most of my kid-gripes, it never crossed my mind to try anything but conventional remedies. Since training as a yoga teacher, jargon about energy channels and links between inner balance and good health has become familiar conversation, and I was curious to see if the kind of improvement I've gained on the mat would hold up in a clinic.
While most people know that acupuncture involves inserting needles into specific points on the body, most Westerners—including doctors—are at a loss to explain why it produces the positive results reported by patients. Acupuncture is a primary component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a system that views health as an ideal balance between opposing forces in the body. When disease arises as a result of imbalance, acupuncture is one technique used to restore harmony by stimulating the flow of Qi (vital energy) along specific meridians.
Western researchers have theories in their own terms about how acupuncture works, including that the needle placement regulates the nervous system and releases biochemicals that help fight pain. TCM diagrams of the meridians strongly resemble Western diagrams of the nervous system, so it's not shocking that the two schools can be accepting of one another. Acupuncture is now a common option for patients with all sorts of ills, most popularly elusive conditions like digestive issues, depression and chronic pain, but also muscle injuries, post-operative pain, and even obesity and wrinkles. When I noticed a painful stiffness in my right knee, I decided to try the therapy for myself.
I was immediately impressed by the pre-treatment exam. After having me fill out a quick background on paper, my acupuncturist, Christine, launched into a Q&A about my health history. And it wasn't just a "When were you vaccinated and have you ever had an organ surgically removed." This was more like, "Do you get crabby from PMS? You do? How bad? Oh, honey."
It was cathartic to tell her about every ache and mood swing that no one had ever deemed important enough to discuss, and it was intriguing to hear her take on what could be going wrong.
She checked my pulse and looked at my tongue for cues from my digestive and circulatory systems, and finally it was time to get started. As Christine swabbed the needle sites with sterile cotton balls, I started to get pretty nervous, and things certainly didn't look good when the first needle was positioned to go into my forehead … but I really felt just a quick pinch, like being snapped with a small rubber band. The discomfort was gone in seconds, and that held for all of about a dozen other needles she placed in my arms, legs, hands, feet and knees.
For 25 minutes, I lay quietly in the room by myself, stretched out on the cushy table with a heat lamp warming my toes and soothing music on the stereo. Christine checked in at the halfway point to tweak the needles a bit. At first, it was hard to stay still, and the sensation of the needles, though not painful, was strange. But after a few minutes I started to relax, and 15 minutes in, I was feeling positively euphoric, like I wanted to buy everyone in the world an ice cream cone.
When the needles were removed, I felt exhausted but relaxed, and there was a little bit of achy-ness in the needle sites, particularly one between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I went home and fell asleep immediately.
The next day, I felt tired, as though I'd had a long workout, but I felt better the more water I drank. In less than 24 hours, the aches and sleepiness had faded, and I felt normal. Talking with Christine, I learned that for specific problems like my knee, generally a few treatments are needed to get results, although a few people do experience instant cures. And she did suggest that the aches and tiredness are, according to TCM, signs that stagnant Qi is moving...although to be fair, she said that there are other possible causes, such as an accidental poke to a vein.
Despite the lack of miraculous outcomes, my experience gave me faith in acupuncture, and I would try it again. The treatment put me quickly in tune with my body, I learned a ton in the process, and the beginnings of results were convincing enough to spark an interest that won't go away easily.
Take a stab at it:
Learn more about U.S. studies on acupuncture, and other complementary and alternative therapies, at this site vetted by the National Institute of Health.
Read about uses for and types of acupuncture from the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Find an acupuncturist near you (though it's helpful to get recommendations; talk to your physician, physical therapist or other trusted source if possible).
After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.