I’ve got osteoarthritis in my right hip, and when I mentioned to my older brother Jim that surgery was an option if pain management didn’t work, he started raving about acupuncture. Apparently he’d woken up with a sore hip a year ago, and limped in to see an acupuncturist who fixed it in one visit. He walked out the same day, pain free.
This was high praise, particularly since I knew that, as a boy, Jim would break into cold sweats and/or faint dead away whenever he got an inoculation. I didn’t like getting shots, either, but if I looked away and didn’t dwell on the fact that a pointy piece of steel had been stabbed into my flesh, it was no more painful than a mild bee sting. So I decided to give it a try.
I made an appointment with a local acupuncturist of Chinese descent who’s certified by what appears to be a reputable national organization. His office, reassuringly, was in a standard brick professional building, and Doctor Needleman (my pseudonym), was about my height and dressed in a casual shirt and khaki pants. He looked at my tongue, felt around my lower back, and pronounced that my kidney qi (“chee”) was low.
I’d been there all of two minutes.
It reminded me of the joke about the guy who goes to the doctor to find out why he’s feeling poorly. He’s got carrots sticking out of his ears, and stringbeans and French fries jammed up his nose, and the doctor says “I can tell just by looking at you — you’re not eating right.” How could Needleman tell anything from such a cursory examination?
“Got low energy? Pee a lot?”
No to the first, and yes to the second, but the need to pee isn’t qi, it’s my 60-year-old prostate. He nodded knowingly.
“You get cold easily?”
“Only in New Jersey in January, which is why I’m in Florida, Doc,” I answered flippantly.
He told me to remove my shirt, socks, and shoes, and lie face down on the table with my hands relaxed on a chair positioned under the headrest. On the chair was one of those bells you see on a hotel front desk, which seemed random. Then the sticking began.
First Needleman palpated both sides of my spine, apparently identifying choice spots. Next I felt pressure and a hot jab of pain about midway down my back, punctuated by what felt like two gentle taps as he inserted the first needle. The pain subsided within two seconds.
He inserted at least twelve more needles going down both sides of my spine, and even a few into my left ankle and calf. Because I’d mentioned the arthritis in my left thumb, he put three there for good measure. I peeked and saw one hair-thin needle dangling from the meaty flesh at the base of my thumb, and closed my eyes again.
Except for the first needle, I felt no more than a mild pinch and slight pressure as he pushed them in. Then he spritzed my back with a cool liquid and swung a goosenecked heat lamp over the table.
“Okay, nap time,” he said cheerfully as he closed the door. “Thirty minutes. Just relax. Don’t move. Ring the bell if you need help.”
That wasn’t reassuring, although I couldn’t imagine what exactly might go wrong. He’d turned on a loud kitchen timer in harsh counterpoint to the piped-in flute and sitar meditation music that flowed into the room. As I began to feel the warmth of the heatlamp spreading across my back, I had the queasy sensation that something was going on in my body.
Needleman would say my qi was moving, but it’s just as likely I was overcome by the strangeness of lying there like a chubby white porcupine, waiting to see if panic would overtake me and make me ring the bell. But then, maybe 10 minutes later, I drifted into a deep calm. I no longer cared about the nest of needles sprouting from my skin, or my forced paralysis for a half hour, or even the timer’s relentless ticking — it all faded away. I was in a trance (or sleeping), dreaming about swimming with dolphins or how it would feel to be a loaf of freshly-baked bread.
Then Needleman was back, breezily plucking the metal pinpricks from my back. He asked how I felt, and I considered telling him I felt “perforated,” but that wasn’t true. My hip and thumb still hurt, but I felt better somehow. Was it all imaginary?
Have the Chinese been practicing acupuncture for millennia merely for its placebo effect? Could that many people be consistently fooled into believing they’re being helped when nothing is happening at all?
I’ve scheduled three more human pincushion sessions with Dr. Needleman to find out. I’ll keep you posted.