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!