As a medical student, I had the great good fortune to spend a winter in Beijing, China, at an urban children’s hospital that used traditional Chinese medicine as well as modern Western methods. Of course that included acupuncture, a practice I had heard of but never seen up close. I’ll never forget the outpatient clinic there. It was full of kids with colds, just like in the United States; but instead of handfuls of tissue, the Chinese kids had faces full of needles. And they weren’t crying.
Eager to learn all I could, I asked one of the doctors to give me an acupuncture treatment. She asked me about my symptoms. Since my arrival in Beijing, a city with winter air heavily laden with coal dust, I had been severely congested with thick yellow mucus.
Hearing this, the Chinese doctor proceeded to stick several tiny needles into my face and neck. Each one she twirled and adjusted, saying “tell me when I hit the spot.” My confusion about this cleared as I felt a sense of sudden pressure and warmth when the needle hit what was clearly “the spot.” The needles were left in place for a while, then removed. The following morning, I awoke snot-free and with a mind as open as my sinuses.
That was many years ago — my first acupuncture treatment but not my last. In fact, my most recent treatment was Thursday morning. I got needles in my forehead, arm, belly, leg and foot to replenish my vital chi (your body’s energy) and boost my flagging energy. I have received acupuncture for other problems, from neck pain to night sweats. I have also referred many happy patients who wax poetic about the relief they get. I have become a believer.
Acupuncture has been used for centuries for pain control and treatment of various illnesses. It is one of the tools used by Doctors of Oriental Medicine, health professionals who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine. In recent decades, acupuncture has become increasingly accepted outside of China. The needles have been shown to stimulate certain hormones and biochemical mediators such as endorphins (natural painkillers), but beyond that the exact mechanism is so far unexplained in Western terms.
A Doctor of Oriental Medicine sees the body in terms of energy systems and energy flow. When you see a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, they will ask you questions, then request that you gently stick out your tongue. The tongue is examined for shape, color and coating. Each of these characteristics changes as your health changes. Also, in the TCM paradigm, different areas of the tongue correlate with different organ systems in the body.
They will then feel your pulses. In Western medicine, the kind I practice, we usually check one pulse, at the wrist. We press your wrist gently, count how many times and roughly how strongly the pulse beats, and that’s about it. A TCM doctor can discern much more. They press three of their fingers at each of your wrists and feel the pulses at three different depths. Three pulses times three depths times two wrists — that’s some kind of exponential information gathering, if you ask me. The information they get is all about your body’s energy, or chi. They will use words such as “slippery” or “choppy” to describe the pulses, which they then correlate with imbalance in various kinds of chi.
The purpose of acupuncture is to balance the flow of chi through the meridian channels. If chi flow is blocked in one place, or too heavy in another, imbalance and illness result. When certain prescribed points on the body meridians are stimulated with acupuncture needles, balance and wellness are restored.
To perform acupuncture, the doctor will briskly insert several thin needles into your skin and leave them in place for about 20 minutes to do their work. Does it hurt? Honestly, sometimes it does, a little. My Doctor of Oriental Medicine uses the word “strong” to describe the brief intense feeling that can come when a particularly needy spot is needled. But once the needle is in place, the sensation fades quickly to nothing, and you can just lie there and relax. Sound impossible? You would be surprised. I have been known to fall asleep.
Once your chi is all balanced, the doctor removes the needles and you are on your way. People use TCM for all kinds of symptoms and conditions. Digestive distress, smoking, insomnia, menstrual disorders, chronic pain, stress and allergies are just some of the conditions that I have seen successfully treated with TCM.
As I said, I’m a believer. But don’t take my word for it — come try it for yourself. Student Health and Counseling now has our very own Doctor of Oriental Medicine. Call (505) 277-3136 to make an appointment.
Peggy Spencer is a student-health physician. She is also the co-author of the book “50 ways to leave your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be considered anonymous, and all questioners will remain anonymous.