Getting a flu shot or blood test isn't a pleasant experience for me. I'm not a drama queen, but I've been known to whimper at the well-intentioned jab of a needle. I try to take deep breaths and look away, imagining myself in my happy place, canoeing on a remote lake in a national park. Even still, I tense up my arm by habit, grimace and feel the sting.
That said, I've always wanted to try that needle extravaganza known as acupuncture, the ancient healing art of inserting needles at relevant, precise points of the body to stimulate the body's own regenerative capabilities. So instead of gobbling aspirin for the headaches and stiffness that I get from hunching my shoulders over the keyboard all day, I decided to try a natural therapy – like acupuncture.
Traditional Chinese acupuncturists say that channels of energy, called meridians, flow in regular patterns through the body and over its surface to nourish our tissues. We become sick or suffer pain when there's an obstruction in the movement of these energy channels. Needling specific points on the body unblocks the channels to get the energy flowing properly.
I went to Katie Au, an acupuncture practitioner and chiropractor at Shape Health and Wellness Centre in Toronto, Canada, for a modern explanation of acupuncture and an acupuncture treatment.
"Inserting needles into anatomical locations creates a very small injury, which your body must quickly heal," Au says. "This stimulates healing of the surrounding tissues, including muscle, nerves, skin, and connective tissue." The healing reaction increases local blood supply and oxygen, and releases feel-good endorphins that act in the central nervous system to relieve pain.
The bottom line? Acupuncture is a way to reset the body's own internal regulating system for optimal health.
As my acupuncture session began, Au shows me the needles she's going to use at points along my upper back and hands. They look nothing like a hospital syringe; they are fine and bendable, ranging in length from about three to five inches. "Some people can't even feel these going in," she says of inserting the needles part-way into the skin. Some practitioners use electrical stimulation or heat on the needles for a stronger reaction from the body to heal the injury. Au will often manipulate the needles slightly with her hand to intensify the experience.
I lie on my stomach on a massage table, baring only my back, and start to relax to the soothing music. It's true – I hardly feel the sensation of the needle piercing my skin.
She uses only six or seven at points on my back and shoulders, two longer ones on my hands. Then she adds one to the top of my head; the point there is known as the GV-20, the "governing vessel 20", she says, but it's commonly called the "happy point", to promote feelings of calm and restoration.
I can't tell if I'm imagining things or not, but I feel heat generating at the acupuncture points. "You're responding really well to the treatment," she says, explaining that the skin around each point is darkening as circulation and blood flow increases to heal the tiny needle injury.
While this is nothing like the hands-on manipulation of a good massage, I feel incredibly relaxed – so relaxed I could fall asleep. Au says many clients often do. After inserting the needles, the treatment runs about 20 minutes, where she stays in the room quietly observing. Then she applies a bit of pressure around each acupuncture point to remove the needles so I can't really feel it being done.
I'm relaxed and refreshed at the same time, as though I'd finished a great yoga class and all was right with the world.
My shoulders have dropped from my earlobes and the next day I'm more conscious about my posture at the computer and schedule in some stretching breaks, just as Au suggested. I half-expected to see marks on my skin where I'd been needled, but there's no evidence. All I feel are those mood-boosting endorphins and a bit of soreness in my shoulders, the same pleasant ache I get after a deep-tissue massage. A soak in the tub with Epsom salts is my go-to remedy that "flushes the toxins", as massage therapists say, and melts away the soreness.
As good as I feel, I know I'll be back for another acupuncture treatment – so bring on those needles!
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