I don’t have a fear of needles. I have a rational distrust of needles penetrating my skin. And that rational distrust has at times made me weep at the doctor’s office like a three-year-old.
So, when I saw an ad for Seven Directions Community Acupuncture in Nashville’s Edgehill Village, it struck me as an opportunity to make peace with pricking.
I’d never tried any Eastern Medicine. From my very Western perspective, I wouldn’t choose herbs instead of antibiotics, and if I were sick, I’d take advantage of the most modern medicine necessary, not acupuncture, massage, or herbs.
In fact, I saw much of it as pseudoscience, and I saw its proponents as victims of the placebo effect. Scientific studies1, 2 of acupuncture have shown no difference in effect between puncturing the standard acupuncture points and puncturing arbitrary points. However, the studies also showed that both the standard and arbitrary treatment rituals had analgesic effects.
Basically, scientists are unsure whether the needling itself reduces pain, or if it is psychological. Still, so many people testify to the benefits of acupuncture that it seems they couldn’t all be wrong.
With all this in mind I made an appointment, excited to see what’s kept people poking each other for the last few millennia.
Quietly tucked away in Edgehill Village, the studio is a comfy haven of earth tones, bamboo, and Buddha figurines. It was silent except for meditation music and the receptionist, who softly offered me tea and some medical forms to complete.
When I met my licensed acupuncturist Holly Macias, she led me through the group treatment room, where the acupunctured clients are reclining, then to a sitting room to explain the basics.
“I’d expected the studio to feel more like a basic individualized massage spa,” I said. “Does having so many clients sit on recliners in one room make it cheaper than lying each one down in their own room?”
“It’s not as common in the U.S., but in Asia acupuncture is usually done in this community setting,” said Macias. “It creates a group healing energy that enhances each individual’s treatment. And it doesn’t cost as much for the client.”
The words “group healing energy” made me again skeptical of the treatment’s mechanics, so I asked her to explain.
“Qi (pronounced chee) translates to the life force that keeps us going,” she said. There are hundreds of types of qi in our body, which flow through channels called meridians. These meridians can often become blocked with qi or weakened due to stress, poor sleep or bad eating habits for example.
Acupuncture needles stimulate the acupuncture point to clear the channel of congested qi, or to fortify the channel, balancing the qi flow.
“It’s can be very theoretical,” she said. “Entire books try to explain what qi is. But it’s very practical for us.”
It seemed far-fetched and based on unfounded ideas, but I did want to feel some effects from the treatment, so I remained optimistic. I’m also aware this is nearly the definition of a placebo effect.
Macias led me back into the group room, where two other girls were resting. For the treatment I remained fully clothed, lying on a recliner. Interestingly, Macias started by examining my tongue to determine the imbalance and decide which points to prick.
“Another diagnostic tool I’ve learned is palpation, to feel irregularities where energy may be blocked or deficient,” Macias said, lightly pressing along my arms.
Once she found imbalanced qi in my elbow pits, she began to puncture the appropriate points: one needle on each elbow pit, one on each wrist, one on each of my knees, and two on each ankle. The last was one needle between my eyebrows.
The strange thing was, it was completely painless. Having 11 needles inserted in my skin was slightly uncomfortable, but still easier than plucking my eyebrows. The needles were hair-thin, unlike needles used for injections. Even when she covered me with a blanket, the needles didn’t hurt.
The first 20 seconds I lied there watching the needle on my forehead. Then I quickly fell into a trance for 5-10 minutes. It was unlike lying in my bed to rest. The feeling was more like the sudden relaxation of a massage. Then, I was deeply asleep for the next 30 minutes, only stirred by my own unexpected coughing.
“A lot of people cough like that when their qi is getting realigned,” Macias said, pulling the needles from my skin. The entire process was bloodless except for one drop from removing my forehead needle.
Physically, I left with all my muscles completely relaxed like I’d undergone a full massage, even though I’d just lied there with needles in my arms. Mentally I wasn’t exactly spacey, but I was relaxed rather than focused.
I felt great and even got to name my own price for the service ($20 – $40), plus $10 for my first-visit orientation. It wasn’t too expensive, but Macias said long-term physical and emotional effects set in after 5-10 sessions, which might not be feasible for many college students.
Overall, I do believe many people could benefit from such a relaxing treatment. I just wasn’t convinced the needles did the trick. If I took an afternoon to listen to ambient music, blanketed in a comfy recliner in a dark room, I could probably feel that same tranquility again.
But just because acupuncture is based on questionable evidence doesn’t make it useless. I would certainly recommend anyone to visit a community acupuncture studio that uses thin, single-use needles. Try it, if only to prove to yourself that needles aren’t as terrifying as they seem.