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On pins and needles

On pins and needles

As a migraine sufferer for 23 years, I’ve tried everything to help manage the pain: dark rooms, ice packs, prescription meds, even prayer.

I know what the triggers are, but avoiding them doesn’t guarantee I’ll be migraine-free. And once that pain sets in, nothing truly helps. You just learn to suffer through it.

Increasingly, chronic pain sufferers are choosing acupuncture as a way to alleviate and manage their pain. But there are skeptics who question the effectiveness of this treatment, and quite frankly, more than a few needle-phobes won’t even consider this alternative.

I needed to find out for myself.

I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Rani Sharma, a specialist in internal and holistic medicine at Advocate Medical Group in Mundelein. Although she’s trained as an allopathic doctor, she often recommends alternative remedies for patients who want to explore other treatment options.

Practitioners of acupuncture believe it works on pressure points located throughout the body called meridians, which are little pathways in the body associated with a specific organ or body part. In a healthy body, chi, or energy, flows freely through the meridians. In a body experiencing pain or discomfort, the chi becomes blocked or stagnant. Acupuncture needles release pressure in the areas where the chi is not moving, allowing the energy to move fluidly through your body.

A word about the needles: They’re not like hypodermics! They’re thinner (widths vary from .012 to .35 mm) and more like really flexible sewing needles with rounded tips. They vary in length from 7 mm to 8 cm, with longer ones being used in areas with a bit more fatty tissue, like your back.

I began my appointment with Dr. Sharma with headache pain at 7, with 10 being the worst and 1 being very little pain.

She started the session by pressing on my skin to find the right spot to insert a needle.

“Is this going to hurt?” I asked nervously, wondering whether this reporting assignment was really part of my job description.

“You’ll feel a little pinch,” Dr. Sharma said, as she pinched a bit of my skin between her thumb and index finger and pulled it upward to demonstrate.  “Once the needle breaks through the skin, then you won’t feel a thing.”

For some reason I thought insertion would be done with more of a twisting motion, but it’s actually more of a jab. I felt a slight sting and then nothing as she pulled up on the coverlet that released the needle.

“Some patients feel achy when these are inserted,” Dr. Sharma explained. I didn’t really understand what she meant until she inserted a needle into my left hand. The achiness felt more like radiating pressure—not painful, just different.

Only one needle was really painful going in, in my left shoulder, where I hold a great deal of tension. Some patients gain instant relief when the needle is inserted into an area of severe pain. Not so in my case. It just hurt, but the sharp pain didn’t last long.

And just when I thought Dr. Sharma was done placing all the needles, she brought out an instrument that detects auricle (ear) tension, which connects to the muscles in your face and head. She touched the instrument to my ear and listened for a tone. When the tone increased, Dr. Sharma applied a bit more pressure, which generated a pulse and created what felt like a strong clamp. This too releases pressure in a painful area. And for good measure, she stuck three needles in my right ear to give even more release.

With 16 needles placed in various areas along the top of my head, my face, my shoulders, ears, hands and feet, Dr. Sharma then left for about 10 minutes and let the needles work their magic. My body began to relax, and I felt myself drift off into a relaxing sleep. And I could feel that current of energy moving around my body at every needle point, from my head to my feet.

When Dr. Sharma removed the needles, I didn’t feel a thing.  She dabbed at each point with a cotton ball to catch any droplets of blood that may appear on my skin. Some people even experience a bit of bruising, she says, but nothing dramatic.

Once the needles were removed, the tops of my feet felt a bit tender for about 15 minutes, and I felt very achy in my right shoulder and my left hand. That night I felt like a Mac truck hit me, but after a hot shower and a good night’s rest, I felt much improved the next day.

My headache had gone from a 7 to a 1 in less than one hour’s time. Will I go back? With regular treatments, acupuncture would probably help with the severity and regularity of my migraines. It beats suffering for three days with an ice pack and a dark room. I’d definitely go back. Wouldn’t you?

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  1. I am SO GLAD this article came out!! I am booking an appointment in June to go see an acupuncturist about my sinuses and I’m so excited! I am a die-hard fan and advocate of alternative medicine and treatments, having first hand experiences and second hand testimonials. I’ve cured (yes, cured) a major UTI with herbal blends from Nature’s Sunshine and Whole Foods after two different medications and gallons of suger-laden cranberry juice didn’t work, and I’ve had reflexology done on a badly pulled tendon during some serious horseback riding (more like a gallop, full speed), which, that night, took away 80% of the pain and (black and blue) bruising. I was able to ride the next day if I wanted to, but I was still swollen enough that I couldn’t get my boot on till the following day. I’ve had zero problems with that ankle since. Also, my Father (20 years ago) and ex-husband quit smoking – cold turkey – with ONE session of acupuncture. Still not convinced? A very famous actor goes to help him sleep and says it works like a charm. How many actors are on sleeping pills? Not this one!
    My fondest wish is that this sort of thing is taken even more seriously and eventually covered by insurance without prejudice. You don’t have a well documented and periodically updated medical practice around for over 6,000 years (acupuncture, for example) if it doesn’t work.
    Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Katherine! I too am a fan of alternative medicine and treatments. Glad to hear that it’s worked for you on a number of fronts!

  3. I’ll be interested in a follow-up to see continued treatments help your overall condition. Congratulations for stepping out of the box and taking a leap of faith! I’m going to suggest this to a friend who suffers from migraines.

  4. I don’t mean to nitpick, but I feel like the phrase “It is thought that” should precede your paragraph describing the theoretical mechanism of action of acupuncture. The way it reads now, the explanation comes across as authoritative and backed by science; which it is not. There are many studies, but none are definitive.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I am happy that you had relief, but you stated in a reply to another commenter that you’re “a fan of alternative medicine and treatments,” which makes me wonder if your reprieve from the pain was just the placebo effect in action. Regardless, congratulations on your relief. 🙂

  5. Nikki Hopewell May 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm · Reply

    @Steve, duly noted! Please see above. Thanks for your comment.

  6. @ Joolie. I will certainly provide a follow up with full disclosure.
    @Steve. Well thank you for the compliment, for though I am no authority I appreciate the indication that I sound like one! 😉
    As for the subject matter, I can only claim my own experiences and those of friends and family. To make it clear, I was not providing an official document on “the theoretical mechanism of action of acupuncture” based on any kind of authority or scientific backing on my part, but merely sharing my own enthusiasm for such alternative considerations to drugs and/or (in extreme cases, though irrelovent to this point) surgery. Whether it be the placebo effect or not, does it really matter? I know that quitting smoking cold turkey with no problem whatsoever (and not dealing with a bad-tasting gum, a patch that might burn the skin, neither of which worked for my ex) due to the aid of acupuncture is all the example I need of the mechanism of action of acupuncture. Just because there hasn’t been enough modern study to be able to explain the mystery of it, doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. To me, the examples and testimonials of people I acutally know are much more significant than some distant laboratory spitting out tests and statistics that I had nothing to do with and cannot observe with my own eyes. How do we know that the drug companies aren’t sabatoging these tests so that people think there is nowhere to go but to drugs? We don’t. Besides, how many of these drugs are recalled or duplicated? Thousands. There is a time and place for them, to be sure. But too often and too prematurely are alternatives still thrown to the wayside as New Age, hocus-pocus nonsense. Was there not a recent article on how meditation is shown to help with PTSD in military personel? Are cardiologists just now admitting that deep breathing does wonders for blood pressure and stress – the latter of which can effect us down to our very bone marrow? Yes, and yes.
    Bottom line; As long as one can find alternative routes to relief preceding such things that might cause undue and/or lifelong side effects, isn’t that what’s important here?

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.