Acupuncture: healing tool or a rest cure?
I now can say I’ve given acupuncture a whirl.
Not to suggest that acupuncture is something a person does on a crazy whim, like roller-blading down an airport parking ramp. People pursue better health in a number of ways, including getting their teeth cleaned, undergoing hypnosis, trying the paleo diet or going someplace for a high colonic on their lunch hour — though I think of this as something they do primarily in California.
In fact, acupuncture is most like having one’s teeth cleaned. It requires an appointment, an insurance card and a detailed evaluation of one’s general condition. I was given a long questionnaire that seemed to be heavy on digestion-related questions. The questions were so specific as to preclude repeating them here, but I couldn’t resist asking the acupuncture guy why that aspect of a person’s constitution was so important.
His reply was friendly but mystifying. He asks those questions, he said, because the answers tell him things about his patients that they might not blurt straight out.
I was finished with the survey but I took a sweeping glance at it before I handed it over. I didn’t think my responses revealed anything extremely private, but of course, as the patient, I wouldn’t know. All I could do was wait to see if the acupuncture guy suddenly asked me a question about, say, my dog. I hadn’t mentioned my dog on the form, but I might have revealed his existence between the lines. If he said, “So why did you adopt your dog from a shelter rather than going to a breeder?” I’d have to decide if he was a great acupuncturist in whom I should place all my confidence or just plain creepy.
He led me to an examination room identical to the examination rooms of my family physician, except my family physician’s medical school diploma wasn’t hanging on the wall. I could keep most of my clothes on, he told me, but he gave me a hospital gown — another reassuring sight — and asked me to take off my shoes and socks and roll my jeans to my knees.
These instructions threw me for a loop. The hospital gown part was fine, but bare feet? I should explain, perhaps, that this appointment was entirely thanks to my younger daughter, who hoped the chronic pain I’ve had for more than a decade might be helped by alternative medicine. To that end, she bought me an online coupon offering an hour’s treatment at half price.
As for me, my response echoed the one novelist Anne Tyler gave her then-boyfriend when he proposed. “Well, why not?” she said, according to an interview.
That’s what I said about acupuncture. “Well, why not?” I’ve tried everything else, and wouldn’t it be amazing if acupuncture turned out to make all the difference?
So I was prepared to be completely open-minded and New Age, but my pain is in my right arm, not my feet or anywhere near my feet. If my arm is northern Canada, my feet are South Africa. Why couldn’t I keep my socks on?
I learned the answer when the acupuncture guy returned and began placing needles here and there. He’d remove each one from its individual I-assume-sanitized packet, put the tip against my skin and then give it a gentle tap. Place. Tap. Place. Tap. Considering that each packet had to be torn open and that he threw away the scraps before picking up the next packet, he progressed surprisingly quickly up the outside of my right arm and down the inside. Several needles in my left ear. Two or three in, yes, my feet. Place. Tap.
Except he didn’t place the needles in order like that. He’d put a needle in my ear, one in my foot and two or three in my arm and then wander, seemingly aimlessly, back to my ear to stick in one more. Followed by another in my arm, and so on.
In another exciting development, the acupuncturist announced his plan to do electro-acupuncture, which alarmed me until he said my daughter’s coupon would cover it. In electro-acupuncture, some of the needles are attached by wires to a box that looked like the controls of a tabletop train set. When the acupuncturist turned the knob that made the engine start around the track, my right arm hummed pleasantly, like an electric toothbrush.
Could he turn it up, he asked. As an example, he turned the knob that would have made the train barrel into the tunnel and, in fact, did make me say, “Ouch! No!”
So he turned it down again, but continued at intervals to ask hopefully for permission to try again. I continued to say no. If my coupon was being spent on electro-acupuncture on training wheels, so be it.
For most of the session, I was alone in the room, listening to music — the kind of music you’d expect to hear when undergoing acupuncture — and enjoying the buzzy electronic waves in my arm. It was relaxing. It was painless. I almost slept. My ear bled a little when he took out the needles, and the acupuncturist said that was good; it meant my circulation was improved. And although I wondered if it could possibly mean only that someone had stuck my ear with a needle, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He didn’t say one word about my dog.
Margo Bartlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.