Sitting across a small desk like table, I extend my arms toward her. She places her index, middle and ring fingers on each of my wrists. Like a skilled piano player, she moves her fingers, first lightly, then with a bit more force and finally with an even deeper touch, shifting these alternating pressures from one wrist to the other on three specific points on my radial artery, nine pulses in total.
As we engage in lively conversation she asks me how I'm feeling and then tells me that today I have the beginnings of a cold. Although I haven't been experiencing the symptoms yet, I trust her, especially after she asks to see my tongue and quickly nods and confirms that I am indeed showing the early signs of a possible cold.
This is not some kind of hands-on fortune teller predicting my future, but my acupuncturist Daniella, and since I have been seeing her consistently almost weekly for many years, I smile, knowing not to doubt her. When this session is finished all will be in harmony again. After her initial pulse and tongue diagnosis I gladly move to the table and am more than ready for my acupuncture treatment.
Acupuncture is an ancient art of healing, it originated in China long before written texts began. There are reports that acupuncture is over 5,000 years old and that Egyptians talked about vessels that resembled 12 meridians in 1550 B.C. The first written documentation describing the organized system now recognized as acupuncture, is the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine which dates back to 200 B.C. Also called the Huang Di Nei Jing, it regarded the human body as a miniature representation of the universe as a whole, and taught that a state of health could be achieved by balancing the body's internal environment with the external environment of the entire universe.
Acupuncture is part of the system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and is one of the oldest continuous systems in medicine. In contrast, American or Western forms of health care have a much shorter history. The American Medical Association, which is the largest U.S. health care association, was formed in 1847 some 3800 years after the first mention of TCM.
Many of the concepts in TCM do not have any true counterpart in Western medicine. One of the key concepts is qi (pronounced "chi" or "chee") which is considered a vital force or energy responsible for controlling the harmonious workings of the human mind and body.
Qi flows through the body via channels called meridians. There are a total of 20 meridians, 12 of them primary and corresponding to specific organs and organ systems or functions and eight secondary meridians. It is imbalances in the flow of qi that cause illness. When the flow is corrected, the body is restored back to balance. Acupuncture is the most practiced way to restore this balance in Traditional Chinese Medicine, although techniques like acupressure, moxibustion and chi kung or tai chi are various other practices incorporated.
There are numerous references to the origin of the word acupuncture. The earliest European reports came from Jesuit missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries. The word acupuncture was coined by French Jesuits from the Latin acus (needle) and punctura (puncture). Another report claims the term acupuncture was coined by Dr. Willliam Ten Rhyne. It was earlier known as Chen in China, which can be translated roughly into "to be pricked with a needle".
Acupuncture began to appear in medical literature in the U.S. in the mid-1800's when Sir William Osler included a section on the use of acupuncture for "lumbago and sciatica" in his The Principles and Practices of Medicine.
A turning point for the wide acceptance of acupuncture in the United States happened in 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston accompanied President Nixon's Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to Beijing to report on a ping-pong match between China and the U.S. He developed acute appendicitis and required an emergency appendectomy. His personal report of his firsthand experience with acupuncture for post operative pain management was published on the front page of the New York Times, sparking enormous public interest in acupuncture.
The first clinic, Acupuncture Center of Washington opened in 1972, and received massive news coverage. The 20 oriental acupuncturists, mostly brought from New York City, were soon treating more that 250 patients a day. It wasn't long before the medical establishment tried to close it down by taking the city of Washington D. C. to court, but losing. Acupuncture has flourished ever since. In the 30 years since, acupuncture has been legalized in more than 46 states and between 2002 and 2007, the number of acupuncture practitioners in the U.S. grew by 32 percent.
Although some people fear acupuncture because of it's use of needles, modern acupuncture uses disposable needles, making the treatment safe. Made of stainless steel, the needles come in various lengths and gauges of widths. They are solid, not hollow, and have a finely tapered point.
As I'm lying quietly on my back, my acupuncturist begins to insert the needles systematically, in points on my legs and feet then arms and hands, moving to points in my ears and the top of my head. Each treatment for me is different, although the all too familiar points on my stomach and spleen meridians on my leg, generally cause me to open my eyes and pay attention.
My respect for her proficiency continues to grow, as I understand that Chinese pulse diagnosis is an extremely complex and subtle skill, as is the art of needle placement. Acupuncture is essentially painless. Some people experience a slight pinch as the needle is inserted but most experience no discomfort at all.
I understand that needling of acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord and brain. The chemicals will either change the experience of pain or trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones which influence the body's own internal regulating system. Although acupuncture is most widely used for pain relief, it is effective in treating a wide range of ailments; from digestive problems to infertility and fibromyalgia to heart conditions.
With the needles all inserted, I feel my mind begin to quiet and I fall into a deep state of peaceful relaxation. The needles will remain in for 20-30 minutes and today I fall asleep for most of the treatment. As Daniella's gentle steps approach me and she methodically removes the needles, I feel gratitude that I have included acupuncture in my preventative health protocol for over 20 years now. I get up from the table and return to my starting position, where she retakes all nine pulses and studies my tongue again. She smiles and tells me, my pulses are great now; and I'm feeling great. As I venture out into the world I'm energized and confident that I am once again ready to accomplish just about anything.