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An acupuncture cynic tries it for the first time

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

If you want to try acupuncture, read this first

Within a minute of meeting licensed acupuncturist and herbalist Diane Hartenstein, I was asked to stick out my tongue.

I obliged because I'm hopelessly polite, and because this appointment was free through a pilot program at my work. My brain, however, was busy rattling through all the reasons why I thought acupuncture was nonsense.

Hartenstein intently peered into my mouth and then scrawled a note on my paperwork that said, "little fur, very red." Intrigued, I asked her what health information she could possibly glean from my tongue, its color and its furriness.

"Well, it's not exactly good," Hartenstein told me with a warm smile. "Light fur on your tongue means you're dehydrated, and the vibrant, red color tells me that you have extra heat in your body — perhaps from anxiety, or another underlying condition." Bingo. By simply looking at my tongue, Hartenstein noticed exactly what I'd been denying — that I was intensely anxious due to a family matter, and that I'd self-medicated with dehydrating glasses of wine the night before.

Enormous relief from tiny needles

I was hooked. My skepticism dissipated as Hartenstein explained that my tongue and the pulse points on my wrists provided a window to my health. My anxiety, clearly, was high. The anxiety precipitated my ill-planned, Tuesday drinking and subsequent dehydration. The dehydration resulted in my presenting health problems — a splitting headache, and thus more anxiety. Normally, I would have treated the headache with an ibuprofen, but Hartenstein looked me in the eye and said, "Why don't we treat that anxiety instead?"

She cleaned my right ear with an alcohol swab before beginning a round of auricular acupuncture, in which she placed five tiny needles in my ear. The needles were accompanied by a light pinching sensation, and they caused a feeling of warmth to sweep through my neck and shoulders. I felt light-headed for a moment, and then my body was surprised by calmness. Sleepiness took over, and then Hartenstein moved tuning forks beside both ears to help me focus on the present moment. After just a few minutes of treatment, I felt like a new woman and both my headache and anxiety lifted.

Acupuncture is a research-backed medical treatment

Relief from a small headache is nice, but I'll admit it certainly isn't earth shattering. After my session, I asked Hartenstein if she's ever seen acupuncture yield more compelling results than simple tension relief. "The acupuncture community has seen incredible results," Hartenstein exclaimed. Among the success stories? A cerebral palsy patient who placed his feet flat on the ground for the first time in his life following acupuncture; a 25-year multiple sclerosis patient who regained significant balance and steadiness; and a Vietnam veteran who found relief from severe neuropathy in his feet.

Hartenstein explained that acupuncturists are serious about healing. They aren't a group of fly-by-night soothsayers, of the same caliber as a tarot card or palm reader. "Acupuncturists in the U.S. all attend a three to four year master's program and obtain over 3,000 hours of clinical education and training," she said. Some, like Hartenstein, even go on to pursue a doctorate in the field. They're well schooled in the workings of the human body, and research demonstrates that acupuncture is as effective as an adjunct or stand-alone therapy.

Curious, but skeptical? I get that. My acupuncturist's immediate awareness of my ailments helped me put aside my cynicism. The ensuing session managed my pain and dealt with my mental health, which was well worth the risk for me.

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