By Jorie –
There are few reasons I would ever want to be stuck with numerous needles at once. Treating migraines, however, is definitely one of them. Acupuncture has become one of my main lines of treatment for my chronic migraines, and for good reason.
When I started acupuncture back in April this year, to say I was fairly skeptical and extremely nervous is an understatement. I suffer from a form of dysautonomia called vasovagal (also known as neurocardiogenic) syncope, which is a fancy term for a variety of symptoms that can include fainting, drop in blood pressure, and even seizure as a result of stressful stimuli. And one of my triggers? Well… needles.
However, I was in for a surprise when I discovered that not only could I not feel the needle being inserted (much), but it didn’t hurt at all through the process and I actually felt better immediately after treatment. I was slightly drowsy, but I felt good. This has continued for the last 2 months now. So, you may be wondering…what is acupuncture? And how is it effective in my situation?
A Brief History
Acupuncture is a widely used method of treatment for a plethora of painful, chronic conditions. It is believed to have originated in Taoist China but an exact timeframe has not been determined. Early records were found in many areas of China from over 8,000 years ago, between the Old Stone Age and New Stone Age, where artifacts such as tiny, thin needles made of stone, bamboo, and bone have been discovered. Texts have been found describing many aspects of acupuncture including healing points, meridians, and afflictions treated, just to name a few.
(Above: Ancient Chinese texts depicting acupuncture points and meridians.)
The treatment was originally introduced to the western world between 1500 and 1700 as a result of merchant trading in Europe in the Middle Ages from visiting Chinese traders. In the 1800s, it was most notably recognized by Dr. Franklin Bache, who experimented with acupuncture on prisoners. In 1826, he reported in the North American Medical and Surgical Journal:
“[…] acupuncture is a proper remedy in almost all diseases, whose prominent symptom is pain.”
“[the prisoners] were completely cured, seven considerably relieved.”
Acupuncture grew vastly in popularity around the 1960’s and 70’s in America thanks to former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: they noticed the modality of treatment on a visit to China and Nixon’s doctor subsequently wrote an article entitled, “I Watched Acupuncture Work.” It was a hit with the American public. Prior to that, a US reporter traveling in China wrote an article about his experience with an emergency appendectomy that employed acupuncture.
Acupuncture was finally recognized as a legitimate medical practice in 1997 by the National Institutes of Health.
Acupuncture in Action
The effectiveness of acupuncture plays heavily on the technique and education of the practitioner, but the tools of the trade are just as important.
Acupuncture uses various styles of fine, hair-thin needles placed at specific points along the body’s pathways, called meridians. The practitioner gets a feel of the body’s Qi, also known as Chi or energy, by feeling the pulse. My own acupuncturist explained to me that lot of it is intuitive and doesn’t parallel with the western idea of anatomy.
(Above: Acupuncture needles shown to size.)
The thought behind the acupuncture points and flow of energy through the meridians is that in Chinese medicine, it is thought that disease blocks the flow of the Qi. This is what causes deficiency, pain, and other unpleasant symptoms. The practice of acupuncture opens these pathways up again, bringing the Qi back to life and releasing toxins built up in the body.
From a western perspective, we would medically consider this to be neurophysiological—having an effect on the nerves, neurotransmitters, hormones, and possibly over-riding brain signals to relieve pain and other symptoms. Acupuncture releases endorphins, the “feel-good” hormone. There is plentiful evidence, in fact, that acupuncture is not mere placebo but does in fact beneficially alter the body’s chemistry.
Through acupuncture, the goal is that a balanced Qi can be achieved, thus returning the body back to a natural, healthy state—pain-free and happy.
(Above: Acupuncture points and meridians shown along the body of teaching models and in an informational booklet given to me by my acupuncturist.)
While I may use acupuncture primarily for the treatment of my chronic migraines, the health benefits go far beyond that. Acupuncture can literally treat almost any ailment. Evidence supports that acupuncture may successfully treat all of the following:
And that’s not even half of it.
Acupuncture is known to successfully help increase circulation, boost immune system function, assist as an anti-anxiety, and help stop addictions—just to name a few.
The statistics supporting acupuncture as a successful migraine treatment are staggering. According to clinical studies cited by The Migraine Trust, migraine patients reported the following outcomes after receiving acupuncture:
As a migraineur myself, those numbers are extremely promising. They give those of us suffering a thread of hope. Those statistics may not sound like much to the average healthy person, but when compared to 20+ days of migraine per month, 2+ days of missed work per week, and seemingly endless prescriptions and doctor appointments, I will easily take a holistic remedy such as acupuncture any day if it can give me even the slightest relief.
My First Experience
The office was calm and peaceful, and the first thing my senses observed while waiting in the lobby was the light aquamarine wall color. In psychology, this color is known to promote peace and tranquility—a feeling I definitely needed at that moment.
(Above: Images of my acupuncturist’s lobby as you walk in the door… so serene!)
A small area for making tea sits by the window, the air is still, the atmosphere quiet except for soft whispers behind a door where another patient is finishing up treatment.
And then the door opens. And out trots a dog.
Yes, my acupuncturist has an office dog, and his name is Woody. He is the sweetest little greeter, and being a dog person myself, Woody makes my visits all the more relaxing.
(Above: The sweet little office dog, Woody. He travels everywhere and even naps on my lap during treatments sometimes!)
Meeting my acupuncturist was like meeting an old friend: easy-going, friendly, and understanding are all words I would use to describe her. Each time I go to see her I’m reminded how glad I am to have been referred to her practice! (If you live in Virginia and want to try acupuncture, check out her website here).
My first acupuncture experience was memorable because, well, I felt nothing. I felt nothing as the needles pierced my skin, and that was an amazing relief.
I was scared that the procedure would be painful, that my dysautonomia symptoms would be triggered—all the “what if” situations came to the forefront of my mind while on that table but I can happily say that none of them happened.
She started on my back for the first appointment, an area she explained that she begins on with most of her first-time patients as it promotes over-all health and gets them used to the sensation of the needles. The back holds some universal healing points for everyone, a “central, generic location,” in her words.
(Above: The first acupuncture treatment done on my back.)
After the treatment on my back, she placed needles in my hands and feet. These points, she explained, are great for people who suffer headache and migraine. I was already familiar with one of the points in my hand from acupressure that an old doctor had taught me, called L14, or in Chinese medicine, “He Gu” which translates to “joining the valley.” It is effective for relieving acute pain. Try it with acupressure sometime!
(Above: Hand and feet acupuncture points, all great for headache and migraine as explained to me by my acupuncturist.)
My feet, on the other end of the spectrum, were the most painful areas she placed needles, which she said was normal—the feet are one of the most sensitive places on the body. The needle she placed to the furthest left on my left foot was the most painful, with a dull ache the whole duration of treatment.
I asked her what might cause these feelings. She explained that this particular point on my foot connects to the gallbladder and follows all the way up the body to the left temple and “zigzags” through the side of the head. She wasn’t surprised that this point was tender and responsive for me given my frequent migraines and she was actually pleased (despite my discomfort) that I felt such a sensation because that means it’s doing its job.
(Above: Photos of a treatment room, and an image of one of my later treatments once she’d moved on to some points in my face. These points are great for sinus pressure and allergies.)
Overall, I was pleased with my first treatment and have been pleased with all the ones following it. My acupuncturist has always been attentive to my needs (even when we encountered an after-treatment mishap with my hand going numb! Don’t worry—it was fine!), and she always tries to explain things “technically” to the best of her ability. For someone like me who loves to learn, this has been a blessing!