Earlier this year I completed a six-week trial of acupuncture to see if it would banish the pain in my butt from Piriformis syndrome, an inflammation of the sciatic nerve. It didn’t fix that, but it did do something else that I hadn’t experienced with massage or chiropractic treatment (and certainly not with ibuprofen). And I did feel better.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice that uses needles at specific points on the body to diagnose and treat medical and even emotional problems. The idea is to unblock your Qi (pronounced chee) or life-force energy, which is why, I believe, many Western medical practitioners don’t “get it.” It’s too woo-woo, plus patients end up looking like porcupines while they’re on the practitioner’s table. Nevertheless, the acupuncture needle was approved as a medical device by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996.
Practiced widely in the East for 2,500 years, and in the West for 200 years as alternative medicine, it is recognized by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and World Health Organization (WHO) to be an effective treatment for a wide range of issues:
• Stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and addictions
• Chronic pain, painful joints and arthritis, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, sciatic pain, and nerve pain
• Weight loss, digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, IBS, and colitis
• Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia
• Gynecological issues such as PMS and menopause and reproductive issues such as infertility
• Allergy, rhinitis and sinusitis as well as asthma, headache and migraines
• Cancer and side effects of chemotherapy
I am no stranger to acupuncture. In the 1980s I considered having acupuncture for infertility, but my then-husband, a physician, was strongly against it. Later in the 1980s I did have acupuncture to curb my migraine headaches at a time when effective medications were not yet available. It didn’t eliminate my headaches, but the severity of the pain was lightened.
In the meantime, I have friends who have used acupuncture for chronic back pain, for hip pain prior to and after hip replacement, for depression and for craving for drugs.
I met my aptly named acupuncturist, Harmony, at a yoga festival in West Palm Beach. She and her partner Kim own Integrative Acupuncture in Delray Beach, Florida, which offers a range of alternative medicine options including Chinese herbs and hypnotherapy.
At our first meeting, Harmony explained the philosophy of Qi, which circulates through the body on pathways called meridians. There are 14 main meridian pathways and each is connected to specific organs and glands.
I asked what I should visualize while I was lying on the patient table for a half hour or so after all the needles had been inserted into particular meridians. “Water,” she said. Imagine the meridian pathways are like a river; where the river flows, water nourishes the land, plants, and people. Qi nourishes and energizes cells, organs, glands, tissues, and muscles. An obstruction of Qi is like a dam blocking the flow, which leads to an imbalance that can cause illness if let unattended.
I had already filled out an extensive medical questionnaire before speaking with Harmony about my treatment goals. I wanted to get rid of the pain in my butt, but I was also looking for overall wellness. I lacked energy and tend toward depression so Harmony decided to treat my emotional meridians as well as pain meridians for my Piriformis muscle.
The prick of the needles is actually quite benign, although if one hits a nerve the pain is instant. The needle can be adjusted, but stroking the area helps it calm down. The pattern of needles was a little different each time.
So what happened to me? The pain from sciatic nerve continued to vary depending more on physical factors such as exercise, sitting cross-legged for too long, and not stretching before I got out of bed. I didn’t get rid of it.
Acupuncture had a marked effect on my emotions, however. As soon as Harmony dimmed the lights and left the room, I would see my parents (both passed on) in my mind’s eye watching over me in various ways. I would feel such gratitude for a variety of things that every single time I wept for the first 10 to 15 minutes or sometimes the entire time. It wasn’t a sad crying, it was more like emotions slowly leaking out. I always felt better when I left.
I know acupuncture works for pain because my friends tell me it does as well as studies. But since I didn’t change my physical habits until recently, which lessened the pain, perhaps my Qi could not be budged. I think it was loosening the emotions that allowed me to then make changes in my life so I feel healthier.
As Harmony said, modern science can document effective results of acupuncture and knows it works for certain things – but they don’t yet know why. It’s a mystery worth investigating.
Judy Kirkwood is a contributing writer and Forums Director of ThirdAge.