Will This Treatment Work? —My Stab at Acupuncture


Who was the first person to think of sticking someone with needles to make them feel better? Did some poor soul straggling in pain through the desert fall onto a cactus and lay there until they miraculously started to feel better?

By the end of 2017 I’d lived with chronic pain for over twelve years, and maybe unbelievably, I’d never tried acupuncture. I tried almost everything else, save chiropractic, but because I didn’t want someone jerking my injured neck around, I left that to braver souls.

Back in 2007, two years into my debilitating neck pain and just before I was ready to try ancient Chinese medicine, my pain levels dropped precipitously after I attended a two-week intensive of specialized, mind-body-based myofascial release treatment (MFR). So I decided I didn’t need to try acupuncture. Thankfully so, because I don’t like needles and I feared they would cause my body to tense up—the last thing my myofascial pain syndrome needed.

Even though MFR helped to dramatically reduce my physical pain, I still live with daily, chronic pain. After learning that my pain was trauma-based (a long story for another time), I tried a myriad of treatment techniques (described here) with little success. Since none of these satisfactorily erased my pain, in the fall of 2017, I was ready to subject myself to scary, sharp little needles.

I searched the internet for practitioners of Five Element acupuncture because a trusted MFR friend swore by this method. She said it addresses mind, body, and spirit. So maybe it could help me since my mind, body, and spirit seemed to be tangled up in nasty knots.

My distaste for needles and spending more money on something that couldn’t be guaranteed to work kept me away from acupuncture all these years. But like many times over the past twelve years, I was again desperate for more pain relief.

So I gave it a shot. Over a period of five weeks, I met four acupuncturists and was treated by three of them on four different occasions. On three of the days, I felt a small bit of increased energy for a short amount of time and one day a very brief decrease in pain and stiffness in my neck. Other than that, all it got me was less money in my pocket and a six-week spike in my pain. Like with so many other things I’ve tried, I’ll never know if I gave it enough of a fair chance, but spiking up my pain for that long has my body and mind not ever wanting to try acupuncture again. Here’s how it went down…

Finding Mr. Right

At first I was stymied trying to find an acupuncturist that practiced Five Element acupuncture, was on my insurance plan, and wasn’t too far away from where I lived. So I went looking for the closest match I could find.

On September 15, I had a free consultation with Mr. Chan, whose practice was only a few miles from my home. He wasn’t on my insurance plan, but I figured I might gain some useful information from the consult. His website said he performed acupuncture in a holistic way, so I thought it might be similar to Five Element acupuncture.

He took my pulse and asked me to stick out my tongue. He told me my digestion wasn’t good and that my blood and nutrients weren’t flowing to my neck enough, thus causing me to be in constant pain.

He said he could tell this because of my “weak and thin” pulse and because I had teeth marks on the sides of my tongue, which meant my tongue wasn’t receiving adequate nutrients to hold its shape. With a language barrier between us, I didn’t inquire further, even though I didn’t quite understand. But I could imagine that if my digestion were slow, it might not be allowing all the nutrients and blood to flow to my neck, thus keeping my neck tense and knotted.

Mr. Chan told me that if I chose to be treated by him, he would very precisely insert needles in my neck region. He said it’s better than what hands can do with manual therapy (I told him I’d had MFR bodywork). He said the acupuncture would also help with inflammation. But through my twelve years of researching and evaluating my condition, I’m pretty sure that inflammation is not causing my pain, but that’s a conversation for another time.

He said I can get better, and that it’s especially important for me to get better now, before I get older (I’m fifty-two). I also don’t fully agree with that philosophy, but I won’t bore you with that discussion at the moment either.

In an attempt to discern how much he was going to address both my body and mind, I asked, “What if it’s not just my neck that’s causing the tension; what if it’s my subconscious mind?” (I happen to know this is much of my problem.)

He said he would focus on my digestion to help nutrients flow to my neck to make it healthier. I don’t think he understood my question, but he insisted acupuncture would help me. He said it would allow me to be more comfortable and manage the pain. What he didn’t realize was that I don’t want to manage it. I’ve been managing it for over a decade. I want to conquer it.

I wasn’t completely sold on Mr. Chan. As kind as he was, I didn’t feel I would be getting the Five Element treatment I was hoping for (though I hardly knew what it was). After I left, I read that checking your pulse and tongue is not part of Five Element treatment. I concluded that Mr. Chan probably performs “traditional Chinese” acupuncture, which according to my research doesn’t incorporate the mind and spirit as much as “Classical Five Element” acupuncture does. I decided to try someone else.

Treatment #1: Uncertainty

The next day I met with Ms. Wong who was recommended by my doctor and who participates in my insurance plan. She systematically explained what she was doing as she pressed on points on my upper forearm, my hands (between my knuckles), and my feet, asking if they were tender. They were. It felt like she was pressing on bruises, with an occasional shot of pain beyond where she was touching me.

She said the spots were tender because nutrients were trapped in my neck and were not reaching my arms and legs. She took my pulse and looked at my tongue, just like Mr. Chan did.

I told her about my twelve-year pain saga and she said it’s good I came to her now, because this will make me better. I never got around to asking if it was Five Element acupuncture. There was hardly a pause in the conversation where it felt like the right time to ask.

She pointed to a chart on the wall that illustrated the acupuncture meridian lines. There were two lines that traveled from the neck down the arms. She said because I was tender in all the places where she pressed on my arms and hands, I was blocked on both those meridians. She said because the neck is narrow, there’s lots of congestion there. There are also direct lines from the neck to the feet, she said. The tender spots between my metatarsal bones on my feet confirmed blockages down those meridians, too.

After she decided that the entire route on the direct lines from my neck to my hands and feet were in need of nutrition, I felt a small poke. She said she didn’t want to disturb my sensitive neck and would work on my extremities so that nutrients would flow from them to my neck. But Mr. Chan said it was my stomach that needed to initiate the flow of nutrients and he was going to poke my neck and stomach. I didn’t understand these contradictions. Which approach was correct? Which would be more effective? Maybe this is more of an art than a science. Maybe there are different paths to the same outcome.

I felt a tiny sensation—like a bug bite—as Ms. Wong tapped one finger on top of another to force the needle into my forearm, and then into my left hand, followed by my right hand. I didn’t particularly care for the sensation as I felt my body bracing against the petite stings. I wasn’t nervous at first because I didn’t even know she was going to start inserting the needles until I felt the first prick. In fact, I wasn’t even sure she was going to do the treatment that day at all. As friends who’d had acupuncture before promised, the needles didn’t really hurt. Then she put one into my right hand that sent a shooting pain down into my finger.

“Ouch, that one hurt!” I told her.

She extracted the troublesome needle and started prodding me again with her finger looking for a better location to place the needle.

“Does this hurt. Does this hurt?” she asked as she moved her finger to various spots on my hand.

“Yes it hurts,” I said. It hurt everywhere she poked.

“It’s not even the needle, but it still hurts?”

“Well, it’s tender,” I said.

She told me to close my eyes and breathe or hold my breath when she popped the little suckers into my skin. I felt my body tensing and bracing against this affront. And with each new needle she inserted, I tensed up a little more. She said that after a while (maybe next treatment?) my body likely would get used to being stuck with needles and wouldn’t feel the need to brace against it. She re-inserted the one retracted needle a little farther back on my hand and it didn’t shoot pain this time. She proceeded to stick needles into my feet and then I felt a warm sensation.

I opened my eyes at the end of the needle injecting ceremony to see that she had placed a heat lamp near my right foot. I think it’s supposed to assist the flow of blood, or qi, or whatever is supposed to be flowing. She then set a timer for thirty-five minutes—the amount of time it takes the blood to make a complete cycle, she told me. She turned off the lights, put on soothing music, and exited the room.

I—the pincushion that I was—lay there wondering if this was going to work, and if so, how. Do the needles help the blood flow better? How deep do the needles go? Can they affect blood flow? I felt a bit of pain when they were inserted, so they might cause blood to flow to the area. After all, my body wants to protect me from the pinprick assaults, and increased blood flow is a protective response. In between my thoughts, I tried meditative breathing because maybe spending mental energy trying to figure out if this treatment was going to work or not wasn’t very productive.

She came back into the room after thirty-five minutes to remove the needles. When she was done, she grabbed a little glass jar. I heard a cigarette lighter flick and felt heat and suction on my back. Was she lighting me on fire? She apparently began “cupping” (suctioning) the skin on my neck and upper back with the jar at several locations.

The fire-aided cupping was a little too hot for comfort. Plus, the slight stretching of my skin from the suction hurt at one particularly sensitive spot.

When she was done, she asked me to move my head side-to-side. Moving my head to the end of my range of motion caused pain, as usual. She asked whether my neck felt better. It didn’t.

After over a decade of living with physical pain, I’ve learned not to expect an immediate cure. So I made three follow-up appointments. I wanted to give acupuncture a fair chance and see if my body could relax enough during treatment to allow nutrients to flow more easily. I still had hope that it could have a positive effect on my body, mind, and spirit.

The day before my next appointment, which was two weeks later, I started to freak out. I was already anxious about repeatedly being poked again, but I was even more nervous because a friend with epilepsy told me that acupuncture had triggered her epilepsy. My appointment was the next day and I was getting more anxious by the minute. When I succumbed to tears the more I thought about going, I decided I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and I cancelled my appointment. To try to figure out why I was reacting so strongly, I quieted myself and closed my eyes to dig deep into my feelings. My gut told me that the needles felt like a violation to my body. I don’t like being violated.

Treatment #2: Energy Boost

I thought maybe I should try acupressure instead. I made an appointment at a place where I thought that’s what they did, but I was wrong. So I ended up at another acupuncture appointment sixteen days after my first session with Ms. Wong, and three days after my originally scheduled second session with her. Since I was already at this new location, and my anxiety from three days earlier had calmed down, I decided to stay.

Jane, the acupuncturist, brought her clipboard into the treatment room to take notes while I told my story. I felt comfortable enough that I even told her that past trauma was associated with my chronic neck pain. For some reason I’m not always able to disclose this to a stranger, or sometimes even friends for that matter. But with Jane, I dumped the whole story on her. I felt like she understood the mind-body link that was crucial to my healing. So even though she said she didn’t perform Five Element acupuncture, I decided to let her treat me.

Like the others, she looked at my tongue (she said it was white, whatever that meant) and she took my pulse (she said it was “deep” and that she couldn’t discern anything specific about any particular organ or area of my body).

At first she said because of my chronic neck pain she would stick the needles in my neck. But after I told her the whole story, she decided to start with “trauma points”—ankles, stomach, shoulders—for fifteen minutes. Then she said she would add more needles to my ears, between my eyes, and on top of my head.

The needles didn’t feel too bad going in. When she left the room I lay motionless, not wanting to disturb the carefully placed spikes sticking out of me while trying to notice if anything was happening in my body. After a little while I first felt pressure at my temples, then my forehead, and then back at my temples again. I wondered if this was my Qi moving around my body.

She returned after about twenty or thirty minutes and removed the needles. I gathered my belongings, and since I didn’t feel any better or worse, I made two follow-up appointments, hoping I’d feel some positive effects eventually.

When I got home, I had the strange and long-overdue feeling of having a couple hours of more energy than usual. Since chronic pain drains my energy on a daily basis, I was excited to feel a surge of energy and made sure I went to my next appointment.

Treatment #3: Hopeful

A week later I returned to the place where Jane had treated me. This time Samantha was the acupuncturist. I gave her a condensed version of my story; she said she had quickly read over my notes from my session with Jane, who said I was treated for anxiety. I told Samantha I didn’t feel anxious but that a childhood trauma was linked to my neck pain. She asked if I wanted to address the anxiety/trauma or the neck. My neck pain was flared up since I’d overworked my body recently, and given that Jane had worked on my trauma the previous session, I said let’s focus on the neck.

I lay face down and she put a bunch of needles in my neck, upper back, and lower legs. The ones placed in my neck further aggravated my pain. If I tried to move my head, with my face uncomfortably positioned in the face cradle of the treatment table, the muscles in my neck where the needles were hurt even more. So I tried to stay as still as possible and relax.

She said to try to take a nap but throughout the treatment (that is, lying there doing nothing with needles in me), I wasn’t relaxed and certainly didn’t nap. I tried to breathe slowly to calm down my body. Instead I felt both my heart pounding and my neck throbbing the whole time.

Immediately after the treatment, I felt a little less stiffness and pain in my neck. When backing out of my parking space when I went to leave, I could turn my neck a little farther than usual. After I got home, I felt a little more energetic (similar to after the previous session with Jane). I was hopeful.

Samantha said my neck might hurt a little more the first day or two, but after that, it might start to feel better. I felt good for the first couple hours. Then that night my neck started to stiffen up, which continued for the next two days. It was also rainy on the second day, so maybe that was contributing to my pain and stiffness, which it often does.

By the third day, it didn’t feel as bad as the first two days, but nonetheless, it hurt more than usual. I still had an appointment the morning of that third day with Ms. Wong because I’d never gotten around to canceling it. Since it was too late to cancel without having to pay, I went back to her. I was also interested in finally asking her if she did Five Element acupuncture, and to see if her approach (of not sticking me in the neck) would be better than the treatment I got from Samantha, which had increased my pain.

Treatment #4: Six-week Spike

Back with Ms. Wong, I’d hoped to ask her more questions about her approach, but just as with the first time with her, I never found the opportunity to.

When I entered the room, she asked how I was feeling and if my neck hurt.

I said, “Yes, it always hurts, but I’m not in horrible pain.”

“What number, 4, 3?”

“Three, maybe 2,” I answered. She told me to lie on my side.

She gave me a pillow so I could get comfortable and then took my pulse and looked at my tongue. Before I knew it, she started tapping the needles into my neck. No time for chitchat.

“Just lie there and rest,” she said.

I so very much wanted this to work because in the past I’d done endless, exhaustive work digging into my emotions and traumas to try to heal and I was ready for something easy. And acupuncture is easy. Once you get past the uncomfortable pokes, all you have to do is lie there.

When she began popping the needles into me, my heart started pounding. My reptilian brain was priming to confront the assault on my body. It took maybe fifteen minutes before I felt my heart calm down and I was finally resting. This required some meditative breathing on my part, but I managed to calm down.

After about a half hour, she removed the needles and then cupped two jars onto my back and left me there for a few more minutes.

When she came back in, she took off the jars and said, “You’re done, you can get dressed now.”

After I sat up, I noticed two dots of blood on the treatment table. I didn’t think this work was supposed to draw blood. I left with a slight uneasy feeling.

About an hour after the treatment I felt a slight surge of energy, but my neck pain didn’t feel any different. However, a few hours later, my neck was hurting more. By the early evening, it felt even worse and, in fact, different from my usual pain. Extreme tension was gripping the back of my neck around where she had put the needles. It felt like someone was squeezing the back of my neck just below my skull. My neck hurt more than usual all that night and my pain stayed flared up for the next six weeks.

On My Own Again

After recovering from the flare-up, I decided not to go back. In the four experiences I had, my body and mind simply did not react positively to this treatment. Maybe I could have given it more time, but I just didn’t want to spend more money only to hurt more.

Or maybe I should find a Five Element acupuncturist, even if I have to drive far away (which aggravates my pain). I’ve also been advised that if I seek out another acupuncturist to ask how they cultivate their own qi, because acupuncture is energy medicine and how they cultivate their qi matters more than needle placement. I never managed to ask this of the practitioners I saw. For some reason it’s often hard for me to question the professionals I see, and even more so with a language barrier.

I might try qigong, which, like acupuncture, is based on the concept of blockages of the flow of qi. But unlike acupuncture, it doesn’t involve needles. Plus, I have a book (101 Trauma-Informed Interventions: Activities, Exercises and Assignments to Move the Client and Therapy Forward by Linda A. Curran) that explains ways to do this at home.

Or maybe I just need to keep addressing the emotions underlying my chronic pain to finally let go of my pain. I still don’t know what’s going to finally work for me. So the saga continues.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Will This Treatment Work?

Note: Names have been changed in this piece to ensure anonymity.

Feel free to comment on your acupuncture experiences. I’m always interested in anecdotal data to add to my brain’s library.

For more on myofascial pain and my journey, go to my full website: http://www.healingfromchronicpain.com/home.html

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About HealingFromChronicPain

I was a successful working mom until I ruptured a disc in my neck in 2005 and entered the world of chronic pain. That's when everything changed. I've made significant progress in my healing, but the journey continues. I've started this blog to share some of the thoughts I've had along the way.

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