Acupuncture’s efficacy: what does it treat?

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I must admit, there’s something I dislike about Western scientific studies of acupuncture. I find it arrogant that Western science should consider itself more valid, even though the Chinese system of medicine is thousands of years old. The scientific studies follow the guidelines of double-blind testing* with control groups, which is appropriate for the Western understanding that bodies generally behave similarly when exhibiting the same symptoms. In Chinese medicine, however, the same symptom can have multiple meanings depending on the totality of the patient’s constitution. As Dr. Alex Moroz, an acupuncturist who directs the musculoskeletal rehabilitation program at New York University notes, “There is a body of literature that argues that the whole approach to studying acupuncture doesn’t lend itself to the Western reductionist scientific method.”

When I get acupuncture, I can feel points that light up (my term) even if they are not needled. If I get a needle in my arm, for instance, I might feel energy rushing to my big toe. When I ask my mom about this, she’ll tell me that that makes sense–the channels are complementary, for instance–which gives me confidence in the twelve-channel system more than any Western study could. I admit that I’m biased toward believing that acupuncture works, and thus I expect something to happen, yet I don’t understand acupuncture enough to predict the specific and immediate results of a particular point being needled.

All that being said, I understand that people are skeptical and that proof through Western medical terms is beneficial to the practice of acupuncture in the United States. Among other conditions, acupuncture has been shown to relieve pain, pregnancy-related depression, and football-related stress (this last one is not actually a study, but an article about an NFL specialist). At this point, doctors, researchers, and patients alike seem comfortable relating acupuncture with pain relief, yet my mother treats just about every condition imaginable. She, and other well-trained acupuncturists, successfully treat anxiety, high blood pressure, acid reflux, migraines, neuropathy, and infertility in men and women. Though the relief of pain, discomfort, and ill health can exponentially improve a person’s life, I’m most excited by acupuncture’s success with infertility. In this case, my mother is not just restoring or improving life, but giving life. Is there anything more incredible?

*In double-blind acupuncture studies, the researchers and the participants don’t know who is getting real acupuncture. The person inserting the needles, on the other hand, has to know whether they are using actual points, “fake points,” or not inserting needles at all. If someone were inserting needles who was not a trained acupuncturist, and therefore wouldn’t know the difference between these classifications, that would completely skew the study as well. You wouldn’t ask a non-surgeon to participate in a study about surgical efficacy.

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Medical metaphors

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Before my freshman year at Dartmouth, the ’08 class was assigned a book for summer reading to which we were supposed to write a short response paper. As a product of the public school system, I had never had such an assignment. Thus, I thought this project was a) exciting and b) mandatory.

My response paper to the book, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams, centered around the use of metaphor in breast cancer treatment. Ms. Williams’ female family members had a strikingly high rate of breast cancer diagnoses, a fact she attributed to living near a nuclear testing ground. She writes of the difficulty of healing when the dominant trope of treating cancer is of combat. We fight cancer. We have lines of defense and of attack. Chemotherapy is used to destroy, to kill, to exterminate cancer cells. This language is so ingrained in our understanding of cancer treatment, that it feels impossible to couch treatment in different terms. The danger, though, is that the enemy is the patient’s own body. A civil war necessarily wreaks havoc on the entire expanse of the battleground. Hair loss, nausea, and exhaustion are taken for granted as part of the cancer patient’s recovery.

Now, I’m certainly not going to argue that such an approach is wrong. Cancer is a terrible and complex disease, and Western medicine has made incredible strides in curing the afflicted. I think of all the people dear to me who have been diagnosed with cancer who are now completely healthy and free of cancerous cells; this is nothing short of astounding. Certainly, there are many patients who like to envision the battle they’re staging within and see themselves as the valiant fighter. However, I wonder how many others might yearn for a different understanding of their bodies.

When I first started getting acupuncture, I was struck by the metaphors my practitioner used to illustrate my issues. He compared the digestive system to a pot hanging over a fire. If wood is too damp a fire won’t be able to burn properly, and the contents inside that pot won’t break down. In this understanding, the stomach is the pot, and the kidney is the kindling underneath. The solution, then, would be to rid the kidney of its dampness.

Don't dam me

In Chinese medicine, the main energy of the body is called qi (pronounced “chee”). Most acupuncture treatments consist of manipulating this energy in some way: moving it from places in the body where it is stuck, nourishing it if energy reserves are too low, calming it. I have heard qi compared to the flow of a river. We can easily imagine what this river might look like if dammed (leading to stagnancy), or if it floods, or if it dries up. The river itself, though, is not the problem, just as our energy is not the problem. If the river of our energy is off course, acupuncture is a tool to redirect it, to smooth it out, to nourish it. This vision of the body feels restorative to me. If we compare ourselves to the most natural of the earth’s processes, I believe we will find strength in those metaphors.

That paper I submitted for the First-Year Summer Reading won first prize. My friends joked that I won because I was the only one who submitted a paper, but hey, I won $300 for it and there’s no metaphor that can top that.

9000 Needles

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“9000 Needles” is a documentary about an American stroke victim whose brother brings him to China to seek the kind of care that American doctors and especially the American health care system are unable to provide. Having not yet seen the film, I question the narrative that the trailer creates: is a body builder really a picture of health? Furthermore, on the film’s website, the Chinese doctors are called “mysterious medical alchemists,” which seems to negate the thousands of years of theory and application used to minimize the mystery. However, the film certainly may be a step in the legitimization of acupuncture in our culture.

How to be an acupuncturist

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What you’ll need: Several years of training in Chinese medical theory, needling technique, and herbology; a steady hand

Songlist: Needle in the Hay by Elliott Smith, China Girl by David Bowie

Further reading: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine

2011: Year of the Rabbit

Two holidays occur this week: the continuation of the Chinese New Year celebration, and my mom’s birthday. Thus, this is a good time to talk about acupuncture.

Now, I’ve labeled myself “unemployed,” but that’s not entirely true. I’m a receptionist at my mom’s acupuncture clinic in St. Paul. Patients enter the clinic downtrodden, in pain, sniffling, and emerge an hour later smiling, eyes bright. The change that my mom affects can be so considerable in just one treatment that I’ve often wondered if I should go for a degree in Oriental medicine as well.

When my mom started her M.OM coursework (Master of Oriental Medicine), her schedule sounded a lot like a student’s at Hogwarts: Herbology, Transformations, Defense against Dark Illnesses (ok, I made the last two titles up, but she certainly learned relevant material to those subjects). She took classes in Chinese language, and in Point Location, in which she learned the 365 points recognized in the Chinese medicinal system. She learned about the twelve channels in the body, related to the twelve main organs. She learned how to read pulses and tongues to diagnose imbalances in the body.

Don't you feel healthier just looking at this guy?

When I tell people my mom is an acupuncturist and that I work at her clinic, they always ask me if I have had it. The answer is yes, and I must say that the biggest effect it’s had in my life is that I understand and pay attention to my own body so much more. When you go to an acupuncturist for chronic headaches, she will ask you what part of your head hurts, how often, and at what time of day. So many new patients, even if they’ve suffered from the same pain for years, are flabbergasted by these questions. When you start to pay attention, you realize that you only get headaches after eating dairy or you invariably feel dizzy just after you wake up. This is precious knowledge, as health is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.

I got frustrated with western medicine in high school when I went to the ER with a persistent sore throat and was delayed for an hour when the doctor went to round up nurses to come check out my uvula (apparently my uvula is unusual in that you can see it when I open my mouth, a piece of self-knowledge I did not need to find out at 10 pm on a Sunday night). I got frustrated when I had pneumonia in college and the doctor told me that my chest x-ray was “not as bad as she hoped” (she hoped the problem would be more severe, I guess). I got frustrated when I had to have a routine blood test and the doctor admitted she would be “taking a blind stab” into my arm.

I get frustrated when we are coerced into believing that our health is not under our control and that the doctor understands our bodies more than we ever could hope to. Chinese medicine is alternative to western medicine in that it allows the patient to be an expert on himself. And I like that. I love talking to my mom’s patients when they emerge from their treatment rooms full of energy and optimism knowing that they will be able to go to work the next day without pain or eat lunch without their hearts burning. As the United States continues to be immersed in a debate on health care, I appreciate being involved in a side of health that’s preventative and attentive and lets each patient become the architect of their own success.