For someone with a healthy fear of needles, an acupuncturist's table was an odd place to find myself. But after six months of pretending my shoulder pain was temporary punishment for too many push-ups, I met with my primary care doctor who recommended a combination of physical therapy and anti-inflammatories. As someone who shies away from medication, the anti-inflammatories were a hard sell. Instead, I sought an alternative approach: acupuncture.
An ancient practice
Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world, developed from traditional Chinese medicine thousands of years ago. In simple terms, it involves penetrating the skin with needles to stimulate areas of the body.
According to Alice Lee, DA (Doctor of Acupuncture), who has her own practice in Providence and treats patients through the Integrative Care Program in Women & Infants Hospital Program in Women's Oncology, acupuncture works on the body's energy system, called "qi" (or "chi") which flows through channels known as meridians.
"Along these channels are acupuncture points where practitioners can access the qi more easily," Lee said. If a person is ill or injured, the qi is either not flowing well or it's deficient. "In acupuncture, we try to manipulate this energy so it can flow smoothly again and help with the symptoms or illness."
Acupuncture can be used to treat musculoskeletal pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, anxiety, gynecological issues, and some respiratory issues like allergies or sinusitis. At Women & Infants, Lee helps patients manage symptoms of chemotherapy or radiation such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, radiation burns, neuropathy, and pain. Acupuncture is covered by some health insurance plans and flexible spending accounts.
Timing can make a difference. "The best results I get, as far as managing some symptoms, is starting acupuncture before patients start their cancer treatments," Lee said. "If I manage to get to them before they start treatment, I can keep symptoms like nausea and vomiting to a minimum."
Additionally, the chronic nature of an illness or injury and the age and overall health of a patient can affect how quickly one sees benefits.
"Some people can see a change right after their first treatment," Lee said. "But if the person is deficient in qi – for example, if they are fatigued – that tells me they are probably a little weak and we can focus on building up qi."
Many people like me seek acupuncture as an alternative to prescription drugs. Lee suggests patients first see a medical doctor about their illness or injury.
"Acupuncture can help with managing the symptoms or possibly resolving the issue, but it's important to figure out why they are having the problem, too," she said.
Does it hurt?
I was originally skeptical of people who said acupuncture "doesn't hurt." For people like me with a fear of needles, Lee said magnets can be used as an alternative. "There are a number of non-needle techniques using the instruments that brush the skin or stimulate the area without needles, particularly for kids," Lee said.
At my first appointment, my acupuncturist sensed my fear, but once I gritted my teeth and let her go about her work, I instantly relaxed. At times, I felt nothing. Other times, I felt a minor, quick pinch or pull. Even the occasional prick that did register really wasn't a big deal, even for a person with a low threshold for pain.
After several weeks of undergoing a combination of physical therapy and acupuncture, my shoulder feels better. I also noticed a pleasant, unexpected side effect in that the treatments are incredibly relaxing. I leave completely refreshed and floating on air – the equivalent of a great night's sleep, in about a half-hour. So while my shoulder is healing, I am already plotting which of my other stresses or aches and pains might benefit from acupuncture. I think I am hooked.