Acupuncture has a stigma. The same stigma that plagues alternative types of medicine. However, acupuncture is not the same in different parts of the world and not every practitioner practices the same, but there are key similarities. Let me share what brought me to acupuncture, what you need to know about acupuncture, what to expect if you decide to try it, and why I still do it! Even if you are scared of needles, you can benefit from acupuncture!
Why I tried acupuncture
Working in tech has ravaged my shoulders. Sitting at a desk all day paired with my over-exaggeration of “lowered shoulders” while teaching dance caused some major damage to my shoulders. At one point, I had a knot so large in my shoulder blade, I physically couldn’t move my shoulder because it was stuck. This pain also traveled up my neck and once I started getting migraines in the middle of the work day, I decided I needed to do something. I discussed it with my doctor and she said to talk to my physical therapist (who I was already seeing for a foot injury). My PT gave me some exercises and stretched my shoulders but really didn’t do anything to fix it. He did inform me that I was missing many ligaments in my shoulder blades which means my muscles have to work even harder to keep my shoulders in place. The curse of the naturally flexible.
It only continued to get worse and when my complaining became too much, my friend told me I should just try acupuncture. I had thought of this before but I was skeptical and I didn’t know of anyone who had tried it. After some more thinking, I looked at my insurance and saw that it was covered so there was no reason to not try it. I went into it without doing any research mostly because I didn’t want to scare myself away. But I’ll let you in on a secret, acupuncture isn’t actually scary.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is the stimulation of acupuncture points using heat, pressure, or even laser lights. Different techniques include needle insertion, moxibustion (I have never tried this), and cupping therapy. When you stimulate these certain points, it corrects the flow of qi moving through the meridians (only some believe this). It is most commonly used for pain relief although it has been used for other ailments, weight loss, depression, and cancer treatment. There are many different studies done to look at how successful acupuncture can be, some sides seeing success, others saying it is probably a placebo effect. It should be done by a trained professional who use a clean technique and single use needles. It is encourage that acupuncture be completed in adjunct with other treatments.
What to expect
I found my acupuncturist through my insurance and I chose her because I felt like she focused more on the body and less on the medicinal side of the practice. You will have to decide what you prefer and what you are comfortable with. My first appointment, I filled out a long questionnaire about my health, lifestyle, and why I was there. Then the acupuncturist met with me to discuss my ailments and what I was looking for in the sessions. She asked me some general questions about my digestion, sleeping patterns, and my cravings. Then began to explain the different avenues we could pursue and decided needle therapy and cupping therapy would best tackle my problem.
Since we were tackling my shoulders and upper back, I put on a hospital robe, laid face down on a massage-esque table, and began my 45 minutes of treatment. She started with the cupping to release the shoulders and reduce the inflammation. This includes some lotion on the back, the application of the suctioned cups, and the moving of the cups around the back to release the fascia and placed at certain pressure points. As she began, she kept apologizing because the cups weren’t staying because I was so tight. This meant I was left with large rings that look like bruises but are actually hickeys all along my shoulders. I was unaware that this would happen the first time around so I would recommend not doing cupping therapy a week before anything where you need unblemished, exposed skin. I am still tight in certain areas which means I still get the awkward hickeys but the inflammation has reduced dramatically and so has the blemishes.
Finally, we started the needle therapy. I have no problems with needles so I had no qualms about this, but I know that many people do. Once when she applied a needle to my wrist, I looked at it and I felt a little weird but just closed my eyes and probably fell asleep. Here’s the thing: the needles are so thin many times you can’t even feel them. What gets you is how long they are, but they aren’t inserted in very far. If you do have problems with needles, during your first visit you can practice with just one needle to see how it goes. It will get easier every time. Having your shoulders done, you can’t see anything and most of the time you can’t feel anything. The needles are inserted with a flick like motion along cleaned pressure points. What I find trippy is that sometimes there is a release of energy you can feel when a needle is inserted and my acupuncturist can tell. She can feel the energy release! You have to keep in mind that sometimes the needles aren’t going to feel good. Let your acupuncturist know and they can adjust it for you. After the needles are inserted, they usually leave you to rest and for your body to do it’s thing. Sometimes funny things happen. You can fall asleep, you can feel energy bouncing around to each point, or you can even try to meditate– which I always fail miserably at. After what can feel like forever, they will come back in, remove the needles, and let you slowly get up, dressed, and your session is done. Easy as that! It is crazy how discombobulated I can get after a session and I really need that time to slowly get my two feet on the ground.
Why I still do it
Simple as this: I haven’t had a migraine (which used to make me miss work) since I started acupuncture. Ever since the one session where she put a needle in the center of my forehead, my pain never rose up past my neck. I have regained mobility in my shoulders and my knots in my shoulders are almost gone! Also, I am amazed about what my acupuncturist can gleam from a quick glance at my tongue, check of my pulse, or question about my sleeping patterns. She knows I have been craving salty foods by looking at my tongue. She knows I haven’t eaten lunch yet and had caffeine right before I came to my appointment. She then advises me to eat ASAP after my appointment because she checked my pulse. She knows I am stressed because I told her I am using a sleep tracker and apparently I keep waking up at 3 am. She told me it is my liver waking me up because I am stressed. Mind blown.
Another reason is because through my dance training I have learned about fascia and it was almost the first things we discussed. Fascia is a “connective tissue fibers that form sheets or bands beneath the skin to attach, stabilize, enclose, and separate muscles and other internal organs”. It is made of a “flexible structure that is able to resist great unidirectional tension forces until the wavy pattern of fibers has been straightened out by the pulling force”. Fascia covers your whole entire body and plays a more important role than you may think. The problem is fascia can harden. If it is being used and stretched, it will stay pliable. When it is not being used, it will harden making it painful to stretch. A great example is what happens when people age. The older you get, the less mobile you are. This causes the fascia, especially in the back, to actually harden which is why many older people are hunched over and have hard times moving. This happens to people with injuries who are no longer moving their bodies as much as they used to. If you don’t release the fascia once the injury has healed, your body won’t get better. One great example of this is hip problems. Some people receive invasive surgeries because of hip pain but the actual problem is we sit all day long. This shortens the muscles in the area (including the psoas) and also hardens the fascia. If you work on releasing the fascia and the muscles, the pain will most likely go away. For me, the fascia in my shoulders had hardened because of how I sit at work and I needed a way to release it– one of those ways is cupping therapy.
Now acupuncture isn’t perfect. I still have shoulder pain maybe once every two weeks at this point. I blame it on myself though: poor posture throughout the day, I took a few months off due to my schedule, and I still haven’t seen a massage therapist to help in adjunct with acupuncture. However, my quality of life has improved dramatically and I’m starting to approach my health in a different way. If you are someone who suffers from pain, go and try acupuncture! Let me know if you do and if you have any questions! — J
P.S. I know some of this sounds crazy (energy, fascia, and psoas), but I swear I am (mostly) not.