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Part 2: Acupuncture - "Because It Works!"

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Yesterday, I described my first experience with acupuncture. Today, Erin Hessel of Esema Healing Arts will tell you why you should try it and what's happening with those teeny little needles. (Seriously, they're so small - I was told that the needles are so small that they would fall right through the shaft of a hypodermic needle. So no more thinking about that scene in "Pulp Fiction." You know which one I'm talking about, needle-phobes.)

JF: Describe the basics behind acupuncture, some of its background, and why it's endured for so many millennia.

EH: Acupuncture is based on the theory of meridian pathways, and there are 12 major meridians that run throughout the entire body. They connect to different organs, muscles, tissues, and the areas where you can access them on the skin are your acupuncture points. They're all over the body, more than 360 of them, and we choose the points based on the meridians we're trying to access and on the clinical indications and functions of those points - and those were initially determined by trial and error. It's not that far off from what other cultures were doing in traditional medicine practices all over the world thousands and thousands and thousands of years ago. Way before science. People were using energy medicines, traditional medicines, plants, and other methods that are in Chinese medicine. There have actually been several schools of acupuncture that have developed within meridian theory that have different philosophies on how to diagnose and treat disease. Japanese acupuncture, Korean four-point technique, five-element acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are a few.

And I believe the medicine has lasted as long as it has because it works.

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JF: Why should people try acupuncture right now?

EH: As a general statement, people should try acupuncture because alleviates stress. It's also very good for preventative medicine. What I think is so exciting about Chinese medicine is that you don't have to be sick to come get treated. You can still benefit and can actually help prevent illness when done on a course of four times a year, at the change of the seasons, as a way to maintain good health. That way, when - or if - something does come up, you have an established relationship with an acupuncturist and they can treat you that much better.

JF: When I got acupuncture, you said that the needles worked together and "talked to each other." Could you describe that in more detail?

EH: They do! Like I said earlier we're accessing different points in different meridians, and we are trying to harmonize the whole body. Yes, they're 12 separate meridians, but they're all connected. The points that we choose are harmonizing the entire body and they work together to do that. Some people are very sensitive to the treatment or very aware of their sensitivities, and they can feel sensations happening during treatment. Sensations of heat, or tingling, or almost electrical impulses, like if your foot is falling asleep and it's waking back up, and that is what we call a positive sign that you're tuning in and able to feel that.

Now, whether or not you can feel it isn't the point. We know it's there either way. Some people are a little bit more sensitive to it than others and they can sense something moving, and they can sense where it's moving. And because we, as acupuncturists, have studied for years about the pathways of the energy meridians, we can actually confirm if what you're feeling is something that we would expect. So it's cool when you can have that dialogue with a patient.

JF: You showed me, on your hand, how deep the needles are inserted, and it's really not far at all. What exactly happens when a needle is inserted?

EH: According to Chinese medicine, the needle is accessing an energetic frequency that the energy meridian in the body can respond to. We're using that needle as a conduit to create change in the body and create flow and balance in the body. Now to us, Western-minded individuals who grew up in the United States, that makes absolutely no sense. And that doesn't answer any of our questions! So to answer our questions, we've created studies and used different techniques to actually see what's happening at the needle site and what's happening in the brain when he needles are in. And I think that is what's so frustrating for the acceptance of acupuncture into Western medical society because there isn't a lot of consistency in the data. You know, just when we think "Oh this is exactly what it's doing!" it'll change into something else in another person. Because it's so individualized.

But they've shown, at a very basic level, that it does increase blood flow and circulation to the area, which would be good for many different things, and there is some sort of neurological and muscular response at the needle site where fibers of the muscle actually wrap around the needle, altering that area, so it depends on what they're trying to do. Clearly the body is reacting in some visible way to that needle, and that's somehow creating a change.

It's hard to exactly say what it's doing that satisfies our cultural mindset. We're working on the explanation. I'm working on it every day!

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JF: Since there is such an emphasis on preventative medicine in Chinese medicine, compare that to Western healthcare.

EH: It's a very different thought process . Most people wouldn't think, "Oh, I'm going to go to the acupuncturist or doctor before something goes wrong." We've got it down pretty good with dental cleanings; we go twice a year, so nothing goes wrong. Pap smears are once a year, then once we get older, we get mammograms and colonoscopies. So there are some good preventative measures. But in general, we're not a prevention-forward medical healthcare system.

JF: Like we're supposed to get physicals every year, but we rarely do.

EH: Exactly. It's not on the forefront of people's minds, and that's part of the education of being involved in this field. The coolest thing that I saw in China is that the hospital I was in was a Chinese medicine hospital, but it was also a Western medicine hospital. And it was a big hospital! The ground floor was the herbal pharmacy right next to the Western pharmacy. Every floor was opposite. So there would be a geriatric medicine floor, and then a geriatric Chinese medicine floor. And then a GYN Western medicine floor, and a GYN Chinese medicine floor. Chinese acupuncturists would actually specialize in a particular department and work together on patient care. So if you see your primary acupuncture care MD first and they think you need a Western test, then they send you to the floor down below, get the test results, and evaluate if you need antibiotics, if you need herbs, if you need a series of acupuncture, what's your best treatment. It's much more integrated, which I hope is the wave of the future - someday - for acupuncture here in the United States, rather than the "boutique" style. I think there is huge potential for us to benefit each other and fill in the gap for preventative medicine.

JF: Because right now, it's as if acupuncture and Chinese medicine are treated as more of a fad or a luxury and not as healthcare.

EH: On the whole, but it is changing.

JF: How does acupuncture complement Western medicine?

EH: Acupuncture complements just about anything in Western medicine because it won't interact with medications or other therapies. There haven't been enough studies on herb/drug interactions, but sometimes, depending on the treatment that somebody's getting, we may hold off on herbs until they're done with their Western treatment and then start with herbs. With acupuncture, you usually don't have to do any sort of juggling. But I'm a big supporter of bridging that gap. A lot of what I try to do is try to form relationships with medical doctors in the field of my expertise, which is a lot of OB/GYN and reproductive endocrinologists, and educating them on what I do so they can in turn educate their patients and we can work together when needed and develop a referral service so that patients can find the best care.

Of course there are times when Western medicine fails or just doesn't work like it was supposed to. People don't feel the relief that they want. Sometimes that's a great opportunity to try something like acupuncture because you might find just what you're looking for. And other times, you could come see an acupuncturist for months and months and not get the kind of relief you would get from the quick treatments of a Western medical doctor. We both have our strengths, and knowing what those strengths and weaknesses are help me help patients better.

JF: Are there any specific conditions that you know of where acupuncture can be a total substitute for Western medical treatment?

EH: That's a hard question because Chinese medicine is such an individualized medicine. But something coming up a lot in my practice these days is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). There's no known treatment from a Western medicine perspective, other than the birth control pill, unless someone is trying to get pregnant, then they do have medications for that. But there's not really anything to manage the symptoms of PCOS and acupuncture is really helpful in doing that. For women who don't want to take birth control just to manage their symptoms for PCOS, acupuncture and/or herbal medicine can be such a wonderful option for them to try. I'm seeing really good results in that lately.

JF: So you wouldn't say acupuncture is a cure, but it's a definite remedy for a lot of conditions.

EH: It's a definite remedy. It works best with consistency and with time, so symptoms are unlikely to change with one treatment. It does take some sort of investment and patience. It's not always a quick fix like with a pill that you take and in 20 minutes - boom, symptoms gone. If you come for acupuncture, you'll see results in about three to six months depending on the severity of what we're working on. It's a different way of working with medicine, but then the goal is that you have an impact over those three to six months offering lasting results. A successful treatment identifies what we call in Chinese medicine your pattern of disharmony so your body can now maintain itself.

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JF: I don't want to use the word "faith," but do you think there is a certain amount of belief that it would take for people to accept it more widely?

EH: There is enough evidence in history and modern clinical trials that it's not about belief necessarily. If you believe acupuncture will not work, it still may work. It has been shown to work either way, whether you think it does or whether you think it doesn't. It's kind of like the atmosphere of relaxation in the clinic I work in - very low lighting, soft music, comfortable room - we try to make it as comfortable as possible so people can relax. And a lot of people do relax. They come in, they meditate during their treatments, they fall asleep during their treatments, they just chill out. And some people don't. But we do that because it creates an optimal experience while you're here and makes it easy to get used to acupuncture. So whether you relax or you don't, it works either way. It's not the goal of getting you to relaxation, it's about the 20 minutes that the points are in, and using the right protocol.

JF: Why should people in NYC choose you as their acupuncturist?

EH: Well, I might say that I am not be the one they should go to! I'm highly trained, and I'm trained in many different ways, not just through acupuncture/Chinese medicine school in the US, but through my apprenticeships and through my rotations and on-location training in China. I also have a particular specialty in women's health, particularly hormonal and metabolic changes, and then a lot of my practice is prenatal and labor and delivery, which is very unique. That's a relatively small field within Chinese medicine in the US. A lot of Chinese medicine is chronic pain and medical conditions, autoimmune, etc. But I happened to have worked a lot with this and learned from many great teachers in these areas, and that's really where I shine, where I'm really able to help people.

I do see people outside of prenatal care. I see men, I see kids, I see all kinds of things in my office that I do not necessarily advertise and have good results. But when the time comes, I do happily refer to other acupuncturists who are better suited for certain conditions for certain people, or if people aren't responding to my treatments, that doesn't necessarily mean that they won't respond to acupuncture. They just need to see somebody else.

But if you are a woman, and you're having some hormone changes, and certainly if you are pregnant and you want to have the birth experience that you want and deserve, then the prenatal acupuncture and doula package seem to be working really well for people. To my knowledge, I don't know many acupuncturists who combine these two unique services.

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Have this nice woman stick needles into you. For your health!

Read more about Esema Healing Arts at www.esemahealingarts.com. Their office is located at 16 East 40th Street, 2nd Floor, in Manhattan and can be reached at (646) 842-1598.