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The Pleasures and Pains of Acupuncture

by Sam Hart(more info)

listed in acupuncture, originally published in issue 26 - March 1998

Most people know that acupuncture involves inserting needles into the body at various points for beneficial reasons. I first came into contact with acupuncture because I'd broken my back in a snowboarding accident a couple of months before. I'd been hurtling down a slope when I caught the wrong edge of my board on the snow. My bottom hit the ground with so much force that I compacted a lumbar vertebrae, crushed the two surrounding discs and broke a rib where it branched off from my spine. Scarily enough, that's a fairly typical snowboarding injury.

Receiving acupuncture
Receiving acupuncture

After three weeks spent horizontally, I was put in a back brace for three and a half months to give my spine the support and rigidity it needed to mend. I was advised that it would be at least a year and a half before I was capable of leading anything like a normal life again.

It was while I was wearing the back brace that I began to contemplate having acupuncture. I'd heard it was good for bad backs, and I was willing to try anything to help mine make a full recovery. This was an odd choice of treatment, however. I hate needles with a passion, unless I'm sewing with them.

I soon discovered that there is a lot more to acupuncture than meets the eyes (and nerve endings). Although it helped to ease the pain and stiffness in my back, my treatments took on a significance that I had not originally foreseen. Acupuncture became the means by which I healed myself of some deep emotional wounds – wounds that counselling, psychology and psychotherapy had failed to help me overcome.

WEEK 1 – Piercing the skin


My first acupuncture session took two and a half hours. To begin with, my acupuncturist Anna-May quizzed me on every aspect of my life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Questions ranged from how was my emotional state to what foods did I like? I told her everything, from my back injury to my penchant for stilton cheese. She wrote down everything and compiled a file of my details. Then the moment of reckoning came. She asked me to undress and lie face down on the treatment table.

"Today I'm going to see which of your yin organs need treating. Yin organs are dense and blood filled, like your kidneys, heart and liver. Each organ has a corresponding energy – for example, kidney energy is will-based, liver energy is anger and direction in life, planning and decision making. I'll ask you to take a deep breath. As you exhale, I'll insert the needle. If there are any problems, a definite red ring will develop on the skin around the corresponding needle."

She then proceeded to place about five needles down either side of my spine on points which corresponded to my yin organs. The first two at the top produced a sensation rather like pressing a mild bruise. The next two, however, produced the most uncomfortable feeling somewhat akin to a mild electrical shock coupled with a deep muscle injection. I contorted so violently, I became airborne for a couple of seconds, completing my performance with an almighty yell.

"Oh, sorry, sorry," said Anna-May, patting me on the arm and looking concerned. "They're obviously sensitive spots."

"No kidding."

Thankfully the rest of the needles were inserted uneventfully. During the treatment I began to feel very sleepy. Anna-May confirmed that this was a very sedating treatment. I lolled about for fifteen minutes in a full-flung state of hibernation, then Anna-May removed the needles.

Two red rings had appeared – unsurprisingly, round the points that had caused my aerobatic display. One meant that my 'heart energy', my lust for life, needed strengthening. The other ring, round my heart protector point, meant that I was oversensitive. In the initial discussion, Anna-May had worked out that I had a delicate emotional disposition and she expected the needle test to reflect this. In her opinion, decreasing this tendency was as important as treating my back.

I was advised to avoid big meals, hot baths and getting drunk for a couple of days, all of which could cancel the effects of treatment. I then left for home on a different planet.

My reaction

Later on that evening, I reflected on the treatment. I was concerned about the extreme reaction I'd had to the needle in my heart point. I pondered over why balancing my heart energy was as important as mending my broken back. I'd had a turbulent adolescence with many family problems. I was well aware of the effects that they had had on me, and could clearly see powerful patterns in my behaviour that were stunting my ability to move on in life.

For the last four years I had tried a range of treatments to change my responses to particular life events, including psychotherapy, counselling and a host of positive thought programmes. Some were more helpful than others, but all of them left me with the feeling that I was chipping away at a mountain with a chisel. I felt that I needed to change something inside of me which was largely beyond the control of my conscious mind. Could acupuncture really help me to do this? Needless to say, I returned the next week to find out.

WEEK 2 – The floodgates start to open


I chatted to Anna-May about my week. I'd become aware of a problem in my throat. Every time I tried to tell someone how I was feeling, a huge frog appeared in my throat like I was about to cry, but I didn't. The frog just stayed there, sometimes for several hours.

I knew this was a physical manifestation of my emotional state. I had cried very little about my back since the accident three months ago. I was busy being strong and positive, but my body didn't seem to be playing along. I mentioned this to Anna-May and we agreed to watch it to see if it went away.

Anna-May decided that this week she would needle some 'heart control points'. This meant that if any repressed feelings surfaces after treatment (part of the healing process) they would do so when it was convenient and not in the middle of a dinner party.

First, she took my pulses. I was amazed to discover that there are twelve different ones, six in each wrist. These pulses are measured by checking the regularity of the beat in three different places on the wrist at a superficial and deep level. In the right wrist there are heart, small intestine, bladder, gall bladder, liver and kidney pulses. In the left wrist there are pulses for the colon, lungs, stomach, spleen, 'triple heater' (the body's thermostat) and 'heart protector (the body's emotional defence system). The pulses give information about these twelve main meridians in the body.

This time when the needles were in, I began to shiver. Anna-May massaged my face with some relaxing geranium oil until the shivering had subsided.

"What was all that about?" I asked.

"Your body was releasing fear. It doesn't really matter about what," she said. "What matters is that now it's gone."

I was startled by her attitude. Psychotherapy had always encouraged me to be aware of the 'why' of my actions. This often led to me going round in introspective circles, frequently getting confused. To just let something happen was a welcome new approach.My pulses were checked after treatment ("ooh, much smoother").

My reaction

The week after treatment was pretty awful. I began to cry frequently without knowing why (and no, it wasn't PMT). I also began to feel like I wasn't in control of myself or my surroundings. I would get panicky for no good reason, run away and then burst into tears. I began to feel very vulnerable and protective of my back. I stopped going out as much and stayed in the house, which was 'safe', as opposed to everywhere else, which wasn't. I tried not to analyse what was happening, and just went with it.

WEEK 3 – Taming the frog


Anna-May assured me that my tears were quite normal and just to let them come. The frog still hadn't gone – in fact, it was worse, giving me neck and headaches sometimes. Anna-May decided that it was a block between my liver and lung meridians (news to me!), which needed treating.

I also mentioned in passing that I was very sensitive to the weather. I have a habit of constantly shedding jumpers and putting them back on again to stay comfortable. She thought this was very important, and decided to needle some points on my triple heater meridian to lessen this sensitivity.

To treat the frog, she placed needles where my jaw meets my skull. I immediately felt something shift, and haven't had any problems since.

My reaction

I felt far more energised and confident that week. I bought some new clothes to celebrate.

WEEK 4 – A frightening time


As I chatted away to Anna-May at the beginning of the session, I realised that she was becoming my counsellor of sorts as well as my acupuncturist. What pleased me more was that she could actively treat any problems I was having. Instead of having to probe back into the past to resolve the whys and wherefores of my state of mind, she could treat me for who I was in the present, which felt much more constructive.

Anna-May said that this week she felt a strong compulsion to treat my 'spirit burial ground' points. She said that this probably meant that my spiritual growth was somehow being limited and that I needed to get rid of whatever was blocking my path. Needles were inserted on either side of my chest.

My reaction

That week was to herald an increase of the previous symptoms of tears and vulnerability. Added to this, I appeared to have lost the ability to block out background noise. Movement became more exaggerated, and everything became clearer, crisper. I was receptive to far more than my mind normally registered. I kept slipping into this altered state of consciousness in the most unwelcome of places, like the town centre on a Saturday. I craved peace, and felt most relaxed alone, in green spaces. There I could embrace my widened perception and love what I perceived, instead of being frightened by a sensory deluge. Furthermore, anything which I might 'have' to do filled me with terror, even down to eating a meal with my family. Social restraints became suffocating. I relinquished all commitments and did only what I felt like doing.

This state of mind also forced me to recognise a behaviour pattern that I needed to lose. Before this experience, I spent a lot of time running away from my own company. The memories and feelings which surfaced when I was alone were too painful to deal with. I therefore created a busy social life and lots of commitments, so that I had to spend the minimum amount of time with myself possible. Now, for the first time in my life, I was my best friend and favourite company.

I was beginning to feel like layers of myself were being peeled off so what was underneath could be aired and healed. The means by which this process was being accomplished wasn't pleasant, but it was highly effective. These were the measures that I couldn't instigate consciously. I could feel the mountain inside shifting to face the sun.

WEEK 5 – The social challenge


This week Anna-May and I worked upon silencing my 'mental chatterbox', so that I could enjoy a greater state of tranquillity without my mind constantly gabbling away. She placed a needle in my 'yintang' point, in the space between my eyebrows. She also put needles in my feet. I could feel energy pouring out of the needles. I left feeling serene and grounded.

My reaction

That week, I began to want to see people more, but I was still frightened of slipping into the altered state of consciousness. Realising that this was limiting, I found it in myself to deal with the fear of going out. When I socialised, I was fully aware that it was because I wanted to be there and not because I was running away from myself. If I wanted to leave, I did. I was more in control of my social life than I ever had been.

WEEK 6 – The demons exorcised


Anna-May needled my yintang point again this week. She told me that the deep level work was mostly finished. On leaving, once again I felt centred and balanced.

My reaction

The week passed uneventfully and I even went to a night-club (and made a roaring success of it).

I reflected this week on how my attitude to physical pain has changed too – I feel far more confident in facing it. Going and willingly subjecting oneself to pain is different to suffering because of an injury. The former you decide to do, and you must be willing to cope with the pain it brings. I've never been very good at this! But every time I made the choice to have another acupuncture session, I gained confidence in my ability to deal with pain (mostly swearing). Anna-May sympathised with my low pain barrier.

"When I have acupuncture, the air turns blue around me."

"That's really amazing. Blue's quite a protective colour, isn't it?"

"No – I mean from the swearing."

It's nice to know she understands.

In the following weeks after this treatment, I began to feel much stronger and happier – feelings that have stayed with me. There seems to be a foundation of optimism that runs deep inside of me, that gets me through the rough patches. My back is going to take a long time to heal, and though acupuncture has eased the pain and stiffness, it can't perform miracles.

Acupuncture has had a much more dramatic effect on my mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. I began to feel more empowered. I believe that this feeling comes from the awareness that I am far less at the mercy of my 'inner demons'. I've had to alter my lifestyle to accommodate the changes that acupuncture has wrought in me, but these changes have been necessary for me to keep growing as a person. Personal space is now an unshakeable priority. I never socialise because I feel obliged to. I'm not as frightened of being alone anymore. This has given me the freedom to see my aims in life as real possibilities, and not unattainable dreams. In time, I'll move on to fulfil my ambitions. All this from a couple of needles! I didn't think acupuncture was my cup of tea, but I soon realised the truth in my friend's words:
"Nobody likes the needles, dear, but we all love what they do."

Facts about Acupuncture

•     Acupuncture is a system of Chinese medicine that has evolved in China over the last 4000 years. The first written records of acupuncture date from 2000 years ago.
•     Acupuncture is part of a larger body of traditional Chinese medicine, which is based on the belief that staying in tune with nature, or living according to the ‘Dao’ is necessary for optimum health. The further we stray from it, the more we suffer in mind, body and spirit.
•     The concepts of Yin and Yang and the five elements of earth, fire, water, wood and metal are fundamental to the system of acupuncture. These elements correspond to aspects of nature’s cycles and to organs in the body.
•     Different body organs have different emotions, seasons, colours, compass directions, foods, vocal sounds and times (amongst other things) associated with them.
•     ‘Chi’, or life force flows through twelve different pathways in the body, called meridians. Sometimes the flow of chi can get blocked or restricted, causing problems in the related organ. Symptoms and causes can be physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
•     Needles placed at certain points along meridians can help to shift blocked energy, enabling the body to function more efficiently.


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About Sam Hart

Sam Hart is a freelance writer and lives at 72 Aragon Drive, Warwick, Warks CV34 6NB.

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