Health, The Bod
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Was My Acupuncturist Helping or Hurting Me?

My feet hurt. They hurt so much and for so long, I finally sought help to make them feel better. A personal trainer showed me a series of stretches and strengtheners. A chiropractor specializing in Active Release Therapy pressed his thumbs so deep into my hamstrings, I saw stars. A massage therapist twisted my toes like a Taliban torturer. And still, my feet hurt. Every day.

Then a friend told me he’d had great success with acupuncture for a chronically sore hip, so I made an appointment with his guy, Dr. M., a compact man with an impish grin that featured an occasionally missing tooth, depending on the day. A neurologist by training, Dr. M. completed his medical degree in China and had a bustling practice in New York.

On my first visit, we talked about my feet and my sleeplessness (I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours at a time for over two years). Dr. M. believes that diet is fundamentally related to inflammation, which, according to his theory, is the root of every ailment, from headaches to acne to insomnia to sore tootsies. On his list of forbidden foods: dairy, anything carbonated, nuts and alcohol. What?!! I ate yogurt and peanut butter just about every morning and drank wine just about every night. My fridge is perpetually stacked with cans of seltzer. Uh oh.

After our chat, Dr. M. ushered me into one of several small treatment rooms I would visit over the next few months. Each room contained a table covered in crinkly white paper, a small window that opened on to an airshaft and a ceiling speaker that emitted staticky classical music. He instructed me to strip down to my skivvies as he stepped out. No little paper robes here. Just chilly me in my bikinis and bra waiting to be stuck like a voodoo doll. Stiff with nerves, I tried deep breathing exercises and visualization techniques, neither of which helped.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes as you read this since your experience with acupuncture has been relatively painless. But somehow I knew, even before the first needle left its wrapper, that this would not be the case. I’m actually pretty good about managing pain but Dr. M. had a reputation for being aggressive.

So when Dr. M. says this is what you must do in order for me to help you, that is what I did. No backtalk, no whining. Just compliance.

To my surprise, the first needles were inserted nowhere near my feet. They went straight into my belly with the aim, said Dr. M., of stimulating my digestive tract. (He told me to watch for changes in my stool, both in the way it looked and how it smelled. Yum.) Dr. M. created a circle of needles from my lower abdomen to just beneath my rib cage. He was an aggressive needler, indeed, unmoved by my winces and twitching. He actually giggled as he sensed my discomfort growing. I like to think that was his way of expelling his own nervous energy, rather than plain old sadistic chuckling.

My feet and ankles were wildly sensitive to the sticks. More needles found their way into my face, ears and scalp. He was efficient and within minutes, done and gone, leaving me to vibrate as currents of energy coursed through my body. I found this mildly uncomfortable in some spots and downright painful in others. Moving intensified the effect so I stayed as still as I could, shifting only when absolutely necessary. The minutes passed so very slowly as I tried to focus on anything but the buzzing along my shinbones. After 20 minutes, Dr. M. returned to pull the needles out as fast as he’d put them in, occasionally dabbing dots of blood as he worked. And then, it was time to flip over and do the dorsal. I particularly hated the needles he placed on either side of my spinal column. But I lay still and quiet.

Once the needling was done, Dr. M. sent in George, a massage therapist and the tallest Chinese man I have ever seen. He was strong and cruel, as he pressed his long fingers — and possibly an elbow — into the backs of my ankles. When he was done, I dressed, wrote a check for $100 to Dr. M, dropped $10 in George’s tip jar and made an appointment for the following week

You eye-rollers might be at it again at this point, wondering why I would endure such an unpleasant experience and then book another date with doom. I’ll tell you why: Because I’m a good girl. I do as I’m told, especially by male authority figures (yup, it’s a daddy thing). So when Dr. M. says this is what you must do in order for me to help you, that is what I did. No backtalk, no whining. Just compliance. I went dutifully for the next few weeks, detesting each treatment and waiting for the cure to kick in.

At one point, I asked Dr. M. about treating my husband, who was suffering from tennis elbow. “No problem,” he said. “Couple of treatments and done!” After session one, my spouse came home bruised and suspicious. “Are you sure this guy knows what he’s doing?” he asked. Following session two, my husband was convinced of Dr. M.’s quackery. He had used hollow needles to drain what he called “dead blood” from my husband’s arm, after which George brutalized him to the point that he was more sore than ever. “I am never going back there,” my husband said. “And neither should you.”

Yet I hung in. I wanted to believe in the medicine that had helped millions of people over hundreds of years. Even more, I wanted to believe in Dr. M. One month turned to two and then…my feet started to hurt less. The needles were as painful as ever and I never got used to those zappy rivulets. But my feet, they felt better.

At that point, I agreed to let Dr. M. address my insomnia, a decision that led to dozens of needles in my scalp, neck and face along with the usual pricks in the feet and belly. He could see how uncomfortable I was but told me I must be patient, explaining that my problem was deep. And he was more aggressive than before, probing even deeper with his tiny daggers. My distress was apparent but I never complained. In fact, Dr. M. commented to my friend, also a patient, how much he enjoyed treating me. “She’s very strong,” he said. High praise, indeed, from someone who hurt me on a regular basis.

As patients, we want to have faith in the person we’ve entrusted to treat us. We want to believe that he or she will do whatever can be done to make us better.

But even as I acknowledged to myself and others that the treatment had helped my feet and might ultimately help me sleep, something inside me was building. A small voice became louder and more insistent as I began to question my willingness to endure an experience I found frightening and painful, week after week, even if it might be helping. I thought about people who underwent awful procedures in order to treat serious illnesses. They had to do that. I did not have to do this.

As patients, we want to have faith in the person we’ve entrusted to treat us. We want to believe that he or she will do whatever can be done to make us better, while at the same time minimizing discomfort as much as possible That was not the case with Dr. M. Maybe he believed that anything less wouldn’t do the job. But maybe it would, and wasn’t there room to try? I pondered over the effect of my anxiety versus my pain relief ratio. Yes, my feet ached less, but my tension level was through the roof. That’s just trading one form of suffering for another.

On the last day I saw Dr. M., I lay face up on the table as he inserted needles into my abdomen, edging up towards the spot I dreaded most. Just as he was commenting that I seemed to be getting used to the belly pricks, one needle touched a spot just below my diaphragm and I jumped in pain, inadvertently smacking Dr. M. in the genitals. “I’m so sorry,” I said, but I don’t think I was. Subconsciously, I think he deserved a whack in the balls.

That needle was the tipping point. For the first time, I cried on the table and I knew I couldn’t come back. I said I’d call to make my next appointment but I didn’t. Weeks later, I spoke to Dr. M. on the phone and told him how he’d hurt me and that I wouldn’t return. Like a spurned lover, he growled, “You’ll be back. You’ll try others and you’ll see they cannot help you. You will be back.”

I haven’t returned. I tried a different acupuncturist who was so gentle, I sometimes napped as she needled. But I remained awake as always every night and stopped treatment after a couple of months. Perhaps there’s a middle ground and I’m willing to try it. (Rolling my feet on a lacrosse ball works pretty well, too.) But I now know that while help can sometimes hurt, blind submission is only one option; one which I don’t ever have to take.

Filed under: Health, The Bod


Amy Barr

Amy Barr is a veteran magazine editor. She started her career as an editorial assistant at Working Mother magazine and rose through the ranks to become Executive Editor before joining Time Inc. to launch the online edition of Parenting, where she served as managing editor. Amy was also part of the online launch teams for, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The South Beach Diet and Everyday Health. You can find Amy on Twitter at @amylbarr.


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