Under the Needle

I have reached a point in my life where I'm paying someone to stick needles in me, and the weirdest part is that I'm starting to kind of like it.

For the past six months, I have been experiencing some painful complications from an old knee problem. It wasn't enough to stop me from working and having a life, but it was enough to make life pretty uncomfortable. These past few months have involved a dozen doctor visits, four different medications, and a lovely case of hives from one of the medications. After all that fun, I still have intense pain several times a week.

I have been seeing my doctor regularly during this time and faithfully taking the medicines she prescribes. Meanwhile, my friend Leann has been pushing for me to try acupuncture. Last month, I decided that I would give it a shot, while continuing to take my medication, and see if it makes a difference. The hours I spend curled up in a ball of pain could be better used elsewhere.

Leann knows several people who perform acupuncture and she recommended her friend Allen as the one she thought I'd get along with best. I got his number and called him. I described my health problem, warned him that I was a nervous, needle-shy acupuncture virgin, and asked him how we should proceed. He offered to give me a free test treatment with just a couple of needles so that I could see that acupuncture wasn't as scary as I imagined. If I wanted to go on after that, we would start doing weekly standard treatments at whatever intensity I could handle.

The two main things I was freaked out about were seeing the needles puncture my skin and Leann's stories about getting dressed after a treatment and discovering that her acupuncturist had left needles in her. Leann found them before any harm was done, but she had to pull them out herself. I did not think I could handle that. Allen wasn't the one who had left needles in Leann, but I let him know about my concerns and asked him to be very, very careful. He reassured me well enough for me to go to his office. I also let him know that I wouldn't be looking down at the needles and he said that's very common.

We did the test treatment at the end of September. Allen asked me to wear loose clothes so that he could adjust them to get to the points he needed without having me strip. His office was decorated to be very soothing and peaceful and there was nice New Age music playing. He asked me a lot of questions about my symptoms and the nature of my pain. He showed me that all the needles were single-use, completely sterile, and wrapped in plastic. He let me see that the point of the needle was very thin and that the other end had a brightly colored ball so that he could see where it was.

Allen talked to me for a long time to try to make me comfortable, but after a while I just wanted to get started and end the anticipation already. He wanted me to tell him in advance how many needles I wanted to try that day, but I told him we would just have to start and see what I could handle.

The first needle went in my left calf. I felt a sting when it first went in, but that faded pretty quick. After a few seconds, I couldn't even tell that the needle was still in my leg. Then I got a surprise. Allen wiggled and twisted the needle a little bit, and this river of tingling pain ran straight down my leg! It tingled more than it hurt, but it was still very intense. The second needle went in the same spot in my right leg and it had the same effect. Allen gave me a moment to deal with the sensations and asked how many more needles he could do. I asked him what he would consider the bare minimum to get a benefit, and he said that would take at least one more.

The last needle went in my forehead and it was the weirdest one of all. This time the tingly ache flowed across my forehead and down the sides of my nose. So there I was, with these bizarre sensations running down each leg and flowing across my face, and Allen eagerly asked if he could put any more needles in me today. I told him that I had all I could handle at the moment. He dimmed the lights and said I needed to lay that way for twenty minutes or so, but that he would be sitting nearby if I wanted the needles out before then.

Relaxing in that position was easier than I expected, because the aching sensation settled down after a while and just left the tingling behind. When he came back to take the needles out, I told him that the whole thing wasn't so bad and that I would come back for more. 

The most immediate after-effect I noticed was a great sleepiness. I took a good long nap when I got home. Apparently that's somewhat common. In later weeks of treatment, I have only noticed a marginal reduction in my pain, but I'm sleeping better than I have in ages. It's not a huge effect yet, but it's enough to catch my interest.

I'm not quite sure where to fit acupuncture into my belief system, but with its long history of success, I'm willing to invest some time and money into it. I've decided to commit to a combination of Eastern acupuncture and Western medicines for the next several months. Time will tell whether this makes a pivotal difference in healing my problem, but I'm feeling pretty optimistic.

Postscript:  After about 8 months of combining acupuncture with Western medicine, I was finally pain-free. I can't say for certain whether acupuncture or Western medicine solved my problem, but I'm grateful that it's solved.