All new ACA health plans include acupuncture as a covered health care service in California. So what is it like to receive acupuncture and can it potentially help relieve medical challenges that some of us face? I decided to try out this traditional Chinese medicine to see if it would alleviate the pain in my neck.
Can acupuncture relieve the pain in my neck?
Since my teenage years I have suffered chronic pain in my neck that varied from an acute to a mild annoyance. I initially sought relief from a Chiropractor after the pain was so bad I could barely turn my head and was suffering intense shooting pain if I moved my head in the wrong direction. The chiropractic sessions did help and I learned some different exercises and added the use of an ergonomic pillow to alleviate some of the muscle stress that causes the flare ups of stiffness and pain.
Chronic pain and modern life
Over the years I figured out that most of the neck pain derived from excessive exertion and the flare ups were akin to a muscle cramp. As I have grown older the pain, while not as sharp, has become a dull ache and prevents me from completely turning my head to the left side. This is a particular hassle when you are riding a bike and need to check for approaching traffic. I’ve also determined that the limited range of motion and chronic pain is exacerbated when I work on the computer and constantly lean on my left elbow which contorts my upper body.
Acupuncture’s holistic approach
To test whether acupuncture could alleviate some of my neck pain I made an appointment with a local acupuncturist in Granite Bay, CA. One of the first things Dr. Pan did was to check my tongue, which I figured she might do from the brief reading I did in the waiting area. Even though I didn’t indicate any abdominal problems on the health form I filled out, the tongue is an obvious window into the gut. Dr. Pan noted I might be having some abdominal problems based on my tongue’s appearance.
Chinese medicine treats the whole body
Yes, I’ve been plague with irritable bowel like symptoms for years. Through changes in diet such as removing meat, avoiding high protein foods and carbonated beverages I’ve been able to reduce the rumble in my tummy down to a low roar. Beyond what could have been a good guess by looking at my coffee coated tongue, I could see that these acupuncture doctors are focused on treating the whole body and not just the immediate pain. Score 10 points for eastern based medicine over our pill pushing western incarnation of health care.
Needle? What needle?
After a short discussion of diet and the possible medicinal help from herbs, we moved on to my chronic pain. Within no time Dr. Pan had several acupuncture needles in my neck. There was a noticeable reduction in neck pain and an increase in the range of motion. With a fairly high tolerance for pain, I’m probably not the most objective source for evaluating the discomfort from an acupuncture needle. However, the sensation of the acupuncture needle was no greater than the feeling of being bitten by a mosquito, with no itchy side effects.
Productive therapeutic time
Now that the needles were in place, I figured I’d be out the front door in a few minutes. But this is where acupuncture really diverges from a western style medical office visit. Dr. Pan instructed me to lie on my side as she applied electro stimulation and infrared heat for 30 minutes. My first thought was that I was not wearing an adult diaper and I was hoping I could make it for half an hour without wetting my pants – stupid coffee. My next thought was that I’ve spent over 30 minutes just waiting to see a family doctor and this was a far better use of my time.
Meridians and Chi
In the softly lit treatment room with oriental music playing in the background I could feel the gentle tingling sensation of the electro therapy and heat lamp on the back of my neck. It would have been perfect if there was a little aroma therapy. Overall it was very relaxing. As a testament to how the whole body is wired together through what acupuncture calls meridians, I experienced sympathetic involuntary muscle twitching in my left thigh muscle during my electro stimulation treatment. It wasn’t like my leg was bouncing around like a dog having a dream, but little rippling contractions that were oddly pleasant. Perhaps this was part of the subtle energy called Chi circulating in my body.
I got cupped in Granite Bay
But wait there’s more! After de-stressing for 30 minutes on the treatment table, Dr. Pan came back in, evaluated my pain and range of motion and then proceeded to cup me. When I saw the doctor ignite the burning ball with a lighter, I figured I might have over stayed my visit or said something wrong. The burning ball thingy, also known as fire cupping, is used to create a vacuum inside these bamboo cups before they are applied to the selected treatment area. I was cupped on the neck and shoulder area.
A little cupping suction to improve blood flow
The sensation of cupping isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it because, as a guy, I like to push back against pain or discomfort. (Nothing feels better than hitting the gym or going for a run when you have a nasty cold. It’s like you want to make the cold virus feel just as bad.) The suction of the cups provides counter pressure to the internal pain pressure. It was mildly uncomfortable but it also provided a sense of therapeutic benefit. Bonus, I have an excuse for the hickeys on my neck, “Oh, those marks… my doctor cupped me.”
The driving test
After my session I felt so relaxed I walked right out of the office, completely forgetting to pay for my treatment. The office administrator quickly corralled me before I could drive away and we both had a good laugh. The big test was actually driving. I’m forever being reminded on my “pain in the neck” when I look over my shoulder to check for pedestrians and cars. On this late morning in the midst of a beautiful spring day I was relatively pain free as I drove to my next appointment. This acupuncture – acupressure – cupping stuff really works!
Acupuncture and acupressure limitations
I’m under no illusions that one or two acupuncture and acupressure treatments will end my chronic neck pain. It is caused by age and the ergonomics of working on a computer at a desk. After my initial acupuncture treatment I do see the therapy as a valid and valuable therapeutic alternative to pain medications. I can also understand the application of acupuncture for the treatment of other diseases and health challenges beyond just pain management.
Needles before pills
Pain management has become big business. While driving to visit Dr. Pan I heard a news story about the controversial introduction of yet another pain pill which combines oxycodone and morphine called Moxduo. While such a new combo drug may be highly efficacious for many people with severe pain, it would be great if medical doctors first prescribed a trip to an acupuncturist to see if pain relief can be realized through a means other than a pharmaceutical. And with all the new ACA health plans covering acupuncture, it may be less costly in the long run for the patient and society as prescription pain medication addiction is a growing problem.
I’m still a pain in the neck
If you haven’t considered acupuncture, you should. If Dr. Pan can get those little needles through my thick red neck and relieve my pain, I bet most acupuncturists can do the same for you. The best of all worlds would be if we could receive that 30 minute stress relieving relaxation session while we waited to see the western doctor for our annual physical. What acupuncture can’t cure is my being a pain in the neck to friends and family…and that’s a good thing.
*Note: I had never met Dr. Pan before my initial visit. I knew virtually nothing about acupuncture before I made the appointment. For me, this was like taking a medical sky dive as I entrusted my neck to a woman I had never met before. Several people had commented that acupuncture had given them relief from pain and helped them with other health challenges. So I figured it was time to investigate this growing traditional Chinese health care. I have received no compensation either in the form of money or services to write this review on acupuncture from any person or organization.