By Wil Forbis
February 1, 2015
What is the deal with acupuncture? It's a question I think many of us have asked, a quizzical visage taking effect. On one hand, the idea of acupuncture sounds... well, crazy. Poking needles in peopleís skin to heal chronic pain and other ailments?!? But, many of us know at least a few people who have tried acupuncture and believe in the technique. So we wonder, "Does it work?"
Settling that question once and for all is outside of my ability (and anyone's I suppose, though studies have been done with middling results). I can, however, acknowledge that I used acupuncture myself for several different ailments and I can describe my experiences and results.
The first issue for which I sought help is one I've written about before.
†About eight years ago, aches and pains that had been building up in my hands and forearms, likely caused by guitar playing and heavy computer use, were having a pronounced negative affect on my life. Almost any hand activity would cause nagging pain in my forearms that would persist for hours, sometimes into the night. The condition is common enough and called RSI (repetitive strain injury.)
I tried various methods and products to ease the pain: massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, wrist braces, Epson salt baths, soaking my arms in hot and cold water, inversion tables, and a few more. I also switched over to using voice dictation for my computer use to limit my hand activity. (I stopped playing guitar---my main joy in life---for more than a year.) Some efforts provided temporary relief but nothing came close to a cure.†
At one point during all this, I tried acupuncture. I'd talked to several people who had credited it with offering major relief for their chronic pain and I figured, what could it hurt? I was living in Los Angeles at the time and found an acupuncturist located somewhere on Venice Boulevard. I made an appointment and, one sunny afternoon, walked in.
The place was small, I remember that, and run by a Chinese woman. (I'd followed the advice of a co-worker who recommended finding a Chinese practitioner because they had "special magic.") Before sticking the needles in me she asked questions about my diet, alcohol consumption (I lowballed my answer, nervously curious whether she would use ancient mystical techniques to see through my lies.), work habits, bowel movements and depression. Then she put me in a darkened room, stuck needles in my arms and forehead and let me sit there for about 40 minutes, under orders not to move. I recall finding the experience kind of peaceful though the needles were a little discomforting. Towards the end however, my arms started to tingle as they do when they fall asleep. That went away once she came in, removed the needles and sent me on my way.
Did acupuncture do anything for this condition? Basically, no. In fairness, many people say you have to have several sessions for acupuncture to have any effect but I found it negligible and couldn't justify the expense. (I can't recall the cost of the session but it was more than small change.)
It was another malady that onset several months after the visit described above that brought me back to an acupuncturist. In January 2008 I awoke one morning finding myself noticeably unsteady and woozy. I visited a doctor and didn't get much help but by the evening the feeling was mostly gone. However, it returned days later and for several months I experienced frequent strange spells of dizziness, poor cognition and extreme fatigue. (I could sleep for ten hours and wake up feeling exhausted.)†
While these symptoms persisted I saw various specialists and neurologists and underwent tests such as MRIs, EEGs, but I could not get a conclusive explanation. Eventually, more than a year later, the condition was diagnosed by a neurotologist as utricle disease, a close cousin of the ailment known as Labyrinthitus which affects the balance system of the inner ear. At the time that the symptoms were affecting me, however, I was grasping at straws and when an acquaintance who was an acupuncturist said he could help I was intrigued.†
I visited this person a couple times a week for a month or so. Like the Chinese woman before, he was interested in various facets of my health. Ultimately he diagnosed my problems as being related to my liver (I think; Iím going off memory here.) and advised both regular needle insertion and the consumption of a weird iron rich drink I obtained at a health food store in West Hollywood.
Did any of this work? In this case it was harder to tell because, unlike the arm pain, my dizziness didn't have any real consistency. I would have periods of a few days where I'd feel better, almost normal, and then a spell would hit me again and I would be lost in a wave of brain fog. Ultimately, I must have concluded that the acupuncture wasn't worth the cost as I discontinued it.
It was while under the care of this second practitioner I had the following disconcerting experience. I was lying on a table and staring at the ceiling tiles with numerous needles sticking into my face and chest and I thought to myself, "This would be a lousy time for an earthquake." As I envisioned the ceiling coming down and driving the needles into my chest, the room started to shake. An earthquake was actually happening! (Not really unusual in Southern California.) However, it was mild trembler and passed without killing me.
So whatís my take on acupuncture? I suspect that it's (well intended) horseshit though I suppose if I become mired in a chronic ailment in the future I might give it another chance. I have become a big believer in the placebo effect (the medical phenomenon in which people who believe themselves to be receiving a treatment get better even though no treatment is really being applied) and I suspect that drives most of acupuncture's success (which, statistically speaking, is unimpressive.)†
But I also know how disconcerting chronic issues can be, and if a placebo makes you feel better, more power to you.
I should note that both my ailments---the arm pain and the dizziness---eventually passed. What caused the repetitive strain to retreat is an open question though I strongly recommend the writings of Dr. John Sarno to those struggling with it. The utricle disease, while still an occasional annoyance, declined as my brain learned to compensate for the damaged inner ear. Life goes on.