Mighty Life List
Dec 30 2010

Getting My Health in Hand, Part II: Acupuncture


Photo by Helene Goupil.

When we last left our heroine, she was eating steamed broccoli and vegetable broth, crying silently into her herbal tea while a drum circle sounded in the distance.

I couldn’t maintain that diet, I was attracting hippies. Well, I’ll be more truthful. Sleeping 15 hours a day and being covered in itchy hives seemed more appealing than maintaining that diet. The cleanse did make me realize, however, what an idiot I’d been about my health. Be ye not so stupid.

The Western Approach

I scheduled an appointment with one of the best allergists in the city. In contrast to the first allergist who told me I was allergic to everything that brought light to my eyes, this one told me I was allergic to nothing except olive tree pollen. This meant I would have to stop sprinkling the sheets with olive tree pollen, and snorting it as a chaser to the aforementioned crushed cookies, but otherwise no problem.

He also “diagnosed” me with idiopathic uticaria, which means “you get hives, we don’t know why,” presumably in Latin. He said whatever was causing the hives was in my bloodstream, so I noticed more of them when I had wine and coffee because caffeine and booze increase bloodflow, which means more of those irritants were flowing past hive points. Huh.

I told him I was going to try acupuncture, though I didn’t believe in it and had a needle phobia. He told me he didn’t believe in it either, but to drop him a line if it worked. Man, I need to send that guy a letter.


Photo by Helene Goupil.

Needle Napping

Because I’m afraid of needles (and apparently of making appointments), I put off my first appointment until I moved into an office with an acupuncture studio that literally shared a wall. (Okay, universe, I hear you.) Eva, the practitioner, was willing to work in trade, which is how I ended up having about 24 sessions before I really believed it worked.

At that first appointment, Eva asked about my whole body. How were my teeth? British. In fact, I had a chronic infection in a tooth right that moment. How were my joints? Barbie. I’d had non-injury related knee surgery when I was 25 because my knee just stopped working — my shoulders, elbows and hips were uncooperative when it came to simple things, like bending. What else? I had telltale tingling and pain in my forearms from all that time clicking around for my shopping sites. I had patches of (sexy) eczema that I thought was ringworm for years, relatively frequent (and sexy!) cold sores. And also? I was sleeping my life away.

Eva stuck me with needles and prescribed herbs for six months before I was convinced. I gradually slept less, and my hives were subsiding. In that time, and in the two years since, acupuncture has dramatically improved my health. I sleep like a normal person, I hardly notice the few hives that pop up, and now only on my chest and neck, instead of all over my face. I’ve come to realize my joint issues flare up in periods of stress (later, we’ll talk about why I’ve been limping around lately). I have very little arm pain, no eczema, and I’ve only had two or three cold sores in two years. The improvement has been slow, but better than I could have hoped.

Why it Worked for Me

Now, I’m not saying it was the needles alone that did all this, I also credit acupuncture with causing a paradigm shift in how I think about my body, and that led to all kinds of profoundly effective changes. Intellectually, I’d always realized my body was an ecosystem, but our medical system gives overt signs that you should think of your body in chunks, in terms of the specialists you see. Problems with your teeth are for the dentist, problems with your skin are for the dermatologist –- and except in extreme or unusual cases, neither of those specialists will ask you about what’s going on with “unrelated” parts of your body. Acupuncture’s message is that your tooth problems might be caused by the same thing that’s irritating your skin — everything is connected. And that realization changed everything for me.

I also found that once I was committed to a regular course of treatment for my body, I was more willing to do everything I could to improve my health because I didn’t feel so hopeless. If I’m getting acupuncture for carpal tunnel, I might as well also get a decent chair, and turn my track pad to touch clicking. If I’m getting acupuncture for jaw pain, maybe I should go get a damn mouth guard already. Maybe I could get a few books on how my diet affects my body and make some more informed decisions about what I’m eating.

But let’s not discount the treatments, I became a real advocate for acupuncture about six months into treatment, when I felt a woosh run down my forearm. It was like someone had poured warm water over me. There was a rush, a slight tingling, sort of an internal purr like an engine revving. It felt incredible. After that, I stopped having shooting pains, and now I only get tingling if I’ve been overtly stupid with computer use. Magic.

What I Learned

Together, Eva and I figured out that my hives come and go with my period — they’re worst the week before. When Eva moved to China with her wife, my new acupuncturist Kien looked over my charts and pointed out that a hive on my tailbone usually precedes a cold sore, so I need to take a Lysine supplement and meditate on healing for twenty minutes or so to head that off. I had intense itching on the web between my thumb and forefinger, and that turned out to be a sign that something very upsetting was happening with my teeth, so now I’m on the lookout for that. I know much more about the supplements I need to take that are particular to the problems I have, grape seed extract because I bruise easily for example, and now I take vitamins and herbs every day.

I always asked questions while Eva worked, so I gradually gained a small body of knowledge. Each needle placement has a specific purpose, there are “channels” that affect parts of the body or address particular emotions like stress or anger. Acupuncture needles are teeny so they’re mostly painless, you can’t even feel them go in, but once in a while you get a real zinger if something is amiss.

“OW! Owowowowow. What was that?”
“Oh,” she said. “Tooth channel.”

On Monday, let’s talk about oral surgery. And party hats!

49 Responses to “Getting My Health in Hand, Part II: Acupuncture”

  • Abby - Bright Yellow World Says:

    Maggie, this is fascinating, and really motivating! I love this series! Thanks for sharing!

  • Dana Says:

    No need to convince me of the magic of acupuncture. I have three of my four children because of it. I just wish it wasn’t so cost prohibitive for many people (me included right now). Glad it worked for you!

  • Kaci Says:

    Ohhhhh okay. I guess I’ll finally schedule an appointment with an acupuncturist. It’s been on my bucket list for entirely too long anyway.

    I hope I find someone who can walk me through the meanings of each spot just as thoroughly as your acupuncturists!

    What kind of acupuncture have you been doing? I know there are different styles and practices…

  • Notorious MLE Says:

    I’m a total believer in accupuncture too. My husband used to get debilitating headaches all the time. He went to an accupuncturist who prescribed “less carbs”. It worked like a charm.

  • avb Says:

    I received a gift cert for acupuncture for Christmas. Hoping it will help with insomnia. After reading this, I’m even more excited than I was before!

  • Emily Says:

    Thanks for sharing your stories Maggie! You are a brave and fantastic woman.

    Acupuncture helped me too. I had horrible low back pain at a time when I also was going through tremendous personal stress and changes in my life.

    I decided to see an acupuncturist. I believed he could help, but I was also pretty desperate. I was 40 and felt like crap. I was overweight, I had pain, and I just felt OLD.

    At my very first treatment, I laid on my stomach, and he needled my back. Almost from the first needle going in, I began to cry, not from the pain, but from the emotional release. I cried and cried and cried that first treatment. The floor below was soaked from the pain of my tears, but look, my back was better. I also lost 20 pounds pretty quickly after that too.

    It turns out much of my pain was built up emotional and personal issues and anger that Acupuncture HELPED me to let go. Once i faced what was going on in my life, my back got better.

    I continued Acupuncture on and off for a few years, and I can’t agree more – It teaches you to think of your WHOLE body, not just the parts. I also learned how to relax. Acupuncture is like the feeling of a massage, in a lot less time, with many many other healing benefits.

    If I have a crisis again, I’m going back to acupuncture.

    Be well dear Maggie!

  • Kerri Anne Says:

    Acupuncture tops the list of my Favorite Things I Always Should Have Been Doing.

    Acupuncture cured me of near-daily headaches, regulated an unruly menstrual cycle, and made me happily aware of how my body is powerful and amazing and how well it wants to feel.

    So glad it was an equally awesome experience for you!

  • nelking Says:

    Here’s to yoga, chiropractors, acupuncture and Chinese herbs to avoid $50k+ in surgery and feel like there’s hope for a better body as I age.

  • little bird Says:

    yo, this would be a GREAT time to remind people that lots of places (like the Bay Area) are rife with community acupuncture programs and clinics that offer sliding scale rates for group treatment. http://www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org/ has a whole directory of such places.

  • sunny Says:

    I’m sorry you had to go through all of that (and still deal with the lingering results)…. Fascinating that you are now so in touch with your body. It’s encouraging. I want to try acupuncture now after reading your story.

  • Roxanna Says:

    I love acupuncture! My first experience was when I reviewed an acupuncture facial for an article — even though the focus was on beauty, the therapist said that I needed to have my kidneys checked. Skip to a couple of years later when I suddenly start peeing blood and after a visit to a urologist, a nephrologist and a CAT scan later, I learn that there is indeed a problem with my kidneys. The acupuncturist was right, after all.

    Is there a better feeling than that rush of energy you get after a needle nap?

  • dgm Says:

    Yes. YES!

  • Allie Says:

    I have to say, it sounds like you have a virus.. in particular, shingles. My dad’s a surgeon and we were just talking about this over Christmas. Shingles can cause pain in any and all nerves, and you might never get the open rash on your skin. Plus, it can flare up with stress/estrogen – and eventually it subsides, only to come back again later.

    I’m not discounting acupuncture at all! Just saying there might be a root cause :)

  • melissa Says:

    Acupuncture: the only thing that cleared up the awful planters warts on my heels. 2 sessions and they were gone. I went regularly for over a year.

    I really think that the best of both worlds is when your eastern and western medicine practitioners can coexist in your life.

  • Jeannie Says:

    I was not much of a believer until I hired a Doula for my second birth who also did acupuncture (certified, don’t worry!). She did three treatments, all exactly the same, at 37, 38, and 39 weeks. The first two were fine. The last one every single needle was intense. She said that happened when your hormones shifted in preparation for birth … I went into labour 12 hours later.

    I should also add that the treatments were supposed to help you have an easy labour … And mine was 2.5 hours start to finish, drug free. Was it the acupuncture? Who can say? But I’d go back and do it all exactly the same if I had a third!

  • Barb @ getupandplay Says:

    Wow! So interesting!!

  • karla Says:

    hi maggie. thanks so much for sharing your journey. yours has been a similar journey to mine. the knowledge that everything is connected is essential to my well being today. it starts with what i put in my mouth. the amount of exercise i do and looking holistically at my issues.

    it continues to frustrate me that preventive medicine is not covered by my insurance. acupuncture, massage therapy, nutrition counseling are not covered. chiropractic and herbs/supplements are with a ‘prescription’ but not in their entirety (i have yet to see if my flex spending will reimburse me for these).

    seeing a western doctor would result in being ‘spot treated’ and doctors would be happy to give me an anti-depressant, an anti-acid agent, sleeping pills, hormone replacement therapy, bladder control pills, the pill to regulate my period/ endometriosis, and so on.

    yet, if i pay attention to what i eat, eat organic, eat fruits and veggies, eat whole grains (albeit gluten free), don’t eat at fast food, eat ‘good’ meat, lessen the caffeine intake it’s all pretty good. but, why can’t i be treated as a whole person? like you, eastern medicine is fascinating for its holistic approach. too bad our society is overrun with drug companies trying to make big bucks and doctors follow suit.

    and, if i go and see my gynecologist one more time and he tells me that my clock is ticking and that, at 43, i should consider Clomid, grr!

    okay, clearly i have some feelings about this! thanks for sharing your journey. looking forward to learning more.

  • Shevon Says:

    Yay! So glad it’s all working for you. I get a lump under my chin when my cold sores flare up. Lysine makes such a difference.

  • Danielle Says:

    SO sorry you had to go through all of this. SO glad you eventually found a way to manage the pain. This is fascinating, and inspiring.

  • Meg Says:

    Yes. This exactly. I’ve found all my health mess to be a bit of a blessing. I know a lot more about myself and my body than I would otherwise. So when people say they are sorry, I always shrug and say, “Don’t be. Really.”

    Also? Sometimes my health speaks up to remind me of things I already know. Like move more. Or your job sucks and is making you miserable. Which is very informative (even when you don’t want to hear it very much).

  • Lola Says:

    Maggie ~

    Ever since you mentioned your autoimmune issues and the problems with your teeth, I’ve been waiting for you to diagnose and cure me! I knew that whatever I had going on in my body was similar, if not identical, to what you had going on in yours, but I was surprised to learn we were living in parallel universes of health hell.

    I’ve tried some of the same things you’ve tried, with whack-a-mole-ish results, but I did fall in love with acupuncture in the process. After reading your story, I do believe a long-term commitment to acupuncture is in order for me.

    I totally understand your reasons for not blogging about your ailments and symptoms on a regular basis, but I am so very grateful you took the time to share your road back to good health. I am now, more than ever, ready to get my own health issues in hand. Thanks for the nudge and encouragement! Here’s to a super duper healthy 2011!

  • Missives From Suburbia Says:

    I feel like I’m writing this. I didn’t believe in acupuncture, but I suffered a back injury about eight years ago that physical therapy couldn’t touch. In fact, the only thing that could touch the pain was Vicodin, and I was on it for six straight months. Then I met my new boyfriend (soon to be husband) who suggested acupuncture. At that point, I was willing to try anything, and I went. I slept through the night for the first time in six months after only two sessions, and that electric zing nearly made me vomit in my first session, because it filled my entire body. After a couple months, I was pain-free, and although my co-workers seemed a lot more pleasant when I was stoned, the rest of my world felt better when the drugs and pain were gone. I’ve since converted a half dozen people to acupuncture and Thai massage (great for autoimmune, BTW).

    I can’t wait to read the rest of this!

  • Stephanie Says:

    I had horrendous periods since puberty – like three days in the fetal position preceded by a week of hormone swings and iron levels that made doctors shocked I was actually walking around – horrendous. Luckily my OB/GYN when I moved to San Francisco told me at my first appointment that western medicine can’t handle pain very well, particularly menstrual pain. So she referred me to an acupuncturist in the avenues. After 6months of boiling twigs and berries and having needles stuck in my every three weeks, not only could I get out bed every day of the month, but my long time knee pain went away.

    In other words: Acupuncture is amazing. If anyone wants his number let me know, he’s a miracle worker.

  • Sarah Brown Says:

    I remember you telling me about your teeth/acupuncture connection, and I’ve been meaning to try acupuncture for my migraines ever since. I get horrendous period cramps too… I need to find someone in Manhattan/Brooklyn in 2011.

  • Erica Douglas Says:

    I am also a huge believer in acupuncture – I sought treatment for endometriosis and then when we did in vitro egg retrieval in June, my acupunturist focused on egg production. In July, we made sure my body was getting ready for pregnancy and in August we focused on getting the embryo to stick. It worked and I’m five months pregnant after over four years of trying to have a baby.

    I am so glad that you are feeling better.

  • nicholle Says:

    Oooh, the “hives without a cause”….how I know those well. I struggled for almost a year, taking time off work when my lips swelled up like I’d just lost a championship boxing match, and my face was so itchy (and don’t forget *hot* and red) I could only cry. I took antihistamines until I was too dopey to drive or sometimes even get off the couch, and still I could feel hives on my legs even through thick jeans, they were that big.

    My cause ended up being stress, which triggered my hyperthyroid, which triggered a high-sugar diet. Once I cut out the sugar the hives disappeared within days; now that my body is calm again I can eat some sugar. But too much white sugar, beer, wine, bread etc can still set me off.

    My amazing, insanely awesome naturopath also did acupuncture, and I too credit her with helping my healing. My body was so riled up that I couldn’t even do yoga or meditate, but those acupuncture sessions had me relaxed and calm almost instantly.

  • Laura Says:

    Sarah – I’m in NYC too and found this – http://cityacu.net/www.cityacu.net/New_York.html. Might be something worth trying!

  • kate Says:

    So glad you’re sharing this!

    I, too, recently became a firm believer in accupuncture. I’d come down with pneumonia last June which resulted in 6 months of chronic cough and fatigue. After visiting my regular dr., then a naturopath, then a pulmnologist only to be told “We don’t know what to tell you”, I’d basically given up and decided that “completely exhausted” was my new normal. I would cry every day on the way home from work because I was so tired and frustrated.

    Then someone at a wedding mentioned her experience with an accupuncturist and decided to try it. Couldn’t hurt (har har). After just 3 sessions, my energy is back, my cough is gone and I feel normal again!

    Chinese medicine looks at your whole body as a system, not individual parts. I still don’t know *why* I got so sick, but I’m better now and that’s all that matters.

    Glad to hear it’s working for you!

  • Clair Says:

    So glad you’re feeling better! I credit acupuncture with helping me heal after a pretty lousy series of health issues, but it’s sadly become cost prohibitive. Can you tell us how you worked out a trade agreement?

  • Jessica Says:

    This is great, Maggie. Happy New Year to you!

  • Sarah Says:

    This has inspired me to finally (after 5 years of just assuming I’m allergic to everything in San Francisco) see an allergist. Thank you! Any chance you don’t mind dropping the name of yours?

  • Tonya Says:

    I’ve been seeing acupuncturists for at least 15 years for various health issues, so when my husband decided on a mid-life career change to become a doctor of Oriental medicine, I was thrilled. Now I hear stories like this one on a daily basis, about patients seeking adjunct therapies while going through chemo, about patients who haven’t been able to walk or grasp things but who feel like he’s providing them a personal miracle… and me, I didn’t need anything other than acupuncture to fix a bulging L5 that my chiropractor thought could need surgery.
    :)
    If anyone is looking for health support in the Milwaukee area, his site is http://www.jingwellwi.com/

  • kimberly/tippytoes Says:

    It’s NYE, so the timing is perfect on this post. I’ve been meaning to go back to acupuncture because as I quickly approach 40, suddenly my body feels nearly 50. This year is going to be about getting myself together. While acupuncture didn’t solve my specific problem that needed help, it was incredibly peaceful and calming, which probably helped some of my other issues (my kids are loud people, there isn’t much calm in my life otherwise).

  • latenac Says:

    Did your primary care doctor send you to an allergist or did you just decide to go to one yourself? We’ve found with our daughter that having a good primary care physician who brings everything together and who is open to alternative treatments and who is basically more interested in a root cause to a problem rather than treating symptoms is so important. I’ve found allergists to be too quick to say one is allergic to everything and that you need to completely change your lifestyle while my daughter’s physician looked at everything and said, if you can change A, B and C b/c of 1, 2 and 3 things will be better. And they were.

    It sounds like you learned the most important thing and that is things are connected. You can’t treat one thing without possibly affecting something else. The ecosystem approach. My family and I have been blessed with great primary care physicians who look at things that way. I’m glad acupuncture did the same for you.

  • Contessa Says:

    Very interested in this conversation, and looking forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you are getting relief and taking good care of yourself.

  • misstraceynolan Says:

    Thanks for sharing Maggie. This IS good reading and helpful.

  • Rebecca Says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have had chronic pain for years now: degenerative disk disease, my hands, my feet, headaches, blah… not to mention my family is a compendium of autoimmune disorders too. I’ve just turned 35 and my life feels like it’s slipping away. Your account really gives me hope for the first time in a while. I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 years and I try to eat mostly whole foods, but I am going to make an even more concerted effort now, and I’m making an appointment with an acupuncturist (something I’ve thought about for years) this week. Thank you. Thank you.

  • Amy Says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this and that you will reach a wide audience with your experience. Acupuncture has helped me so much over the last few years – I was hit by a car as a pedestrian and after two years of physical therepy I tried acupuncture for the first time, and after 4 visits my chronic pain was gone and has never recurred. I also have been going for hip pain associated with pregnancy over the course of my pregnancy. So many people immediately brush it off when I suggest it, which is such a shame because it’s amazing and science-based.

  • Jennifer Says:

    Never did I dream I’d see the words “oral surgery” and “party hats” in the same sentence. Then again, I never dreamed anyone would be able to convince me that acupuncture really COULD be useful, so there you go.

    Looking forward to today’s installment!!! (Unless you go into detailed descriptions of root canals, in which case I’m going to run through my office screaming…)

  • Jill Says:

    This is really interesting–thank you very much for writing about your experience. Would you mind sharing more information about some of the books/resources you read about improving your diet and vitamin/herb supplementation? This is all very fascinating, and has given me (a fellow needle-phobe!)reason to contemplate acupuncture for some persistent health issues that no one else has ever been able to explain. Thanks!

  • jenG Says:

    Hooray for relief and healthier living! I’m SO glad you’re feeling better.

    I tend to respond poorly to Western medicine and trust my holistically minded chiropractor (with advanced degrees in kinesiology and nutrition) more than any MD I’ve ever seen. I’m not opposed to Western medicine, exactly–I had ear surgery last week for something I doubt could have been addressed any other way–but I’ve yet to find a mainstream doctor with an ecosystem approach. All they do is throw pills at me…pills for symptoms, not for wellness.

    So this little series makes me smile. A lot.

  • Heather O'Neill Says:

    Hi Maggie:

    I loved this post. I, too, was a reluctant believer in acupuncture. I went for issues with anxiety. My mother was ill, I was working full-time and going to school full-time, writing my thesis… and having stress-related back spasms that would throw me to the floor. My then-boyfriend suggested acupuncture and oh-my-god! I felt better instantly. I was so relaxed after that first session that I thought I was going to get hit by a car on the way home.

    It can be cost prohibitive, however, so I was thrilled when my acupuncturist opened a community acupuncture center here in San Francisco. There are similar facilities across the country, all of which charge on a sliding scale. (My acupuncturist suggests a payment of $20-$40 but emphasizes that you should pay what you can afford.) The only difference is that the treatment is in a group setting and not in a private room. After the first visit I stopped noticing that there was anyone else in the room.

    Here is a site that lists similar facilities: http://www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org/clinics

    Glad you are feeling better. ~Heather

  • Susan H. Says:

    My only experience with acupuncture (so far) was on a cruise ship when I was dreadfully seasick. I had cruised many times before but never gotten this sick. Fortunately, the esthetician in their spa suggested a session with their acupuncture therapist and I was desperate enough to try anything at that point. The result: cured my nausea for the rest of the week. I wouldn’t hesitate to try acupuncture in the future, not just for nausea but for anything.

  • Amanda Says:

    My husband and I fell into acupuncture through a client who paid for the design services we gave through trade. Our business partners didn’t like the experience. We loved it. I remember once saying to Kevin, the acupuncturist, “My arm itches,” and he said without missing a beat, “It’s amazing what the mind will do to keep you from focusing.” The the greatest gift I have found, beyond relief from pain, is the awareness I have of my body—what hurts me, what soothes me. Kevin believes that we can mimic acupuncture sessions by remembering the specific points in our bodies that he treats to address issues elsewhere. He’s right.

    I think the paradigm shift you mention is so true. I apologize for rambling, but I am so happy that it worked for you and opened a new avenue for you to heal and learn.

  • Julia Says:

    I really like this series you are doing on getting a hold of your health-this piece especially! Thanks for your honesty about being doubtful yet openminded.

  • Adrianna Says:

    Thank you so much Maggie for your post – so inspiring, and of course, you got me on the band wagon to try it. I have my appointment next week. My body is starting to fall apart. It’s been a year since I did yoga, and already I’ve noticed some skin conditions happening (for worse – vitiligo. Imagine your hair going white in some places that are not of “normal aging” such a small circular spot at the top of your crown). UGH! Hopefully the appointment(s) will help me alleviate the problems for a while.

  • Jill (mrschaos) Says:

    I loved this. After years of headaches, etc…and a doctors treating the SYMPTOM, I came to the realization that it wasn’t a coincidence that I was having these various issues. I didn’t fill any of the prescriptions and I finally took advice from a friend and scheduled an acupuncture appointment. LIFE CHANGING. Dramatic? Sure…but accurate. And, like you, it made me more aware of what is good and bad for my body. It has been incredibly eye opening and wonderful.

  • Courtney Says:

    I love the comment about “believing” in acupuncture. My doctor said the same thing to me when I started going for my migraines. It’s not really something you believe in, you know? It just . . . exists. It’s a treatment. It’s like saying “Oh, I believe in chemotherapy.”

    I used to have a LOT of migraines – at least once a week. I went to acupuncture, he figured out some of my causes (I need to eat more spinach! and try this weird date tea). And after a few sessions, I was down to one migraine a month, always around my period, and I knew it was coming and could deal with it. It was a revelation. I haven’t been since I was pregnant with my son (and he’s now 16 months old) – I really need to go back.

  • sammydog Says:

    Look into gluten, please.

    Been there….for years. Finally found an acupuncturist that meshed eastern and western approaches and uncovered a severe gluten and soy intolerance.

    Mark Hyman, MD is a good starting point.