Acupuncture: Demystifying an Ancient Practice

Why a 2,000-year-old medical practice is being used by Washingtonians today.

Only the top 40 restaurants were ranked in 2011's Best...

As I lay face down in a Dupont Circle clinic, I felt my hands start to shake. I was prepped for what was about to happen, but as soon as I felt the acupuncturist’s hands on my back, my body instinctively recoiled. I braced myself. I’ve never broken a bone in my body—bee stings, bruises, and shots were the closest I’ve come to real pain.

As I wondered if I would ever leave the building with my dignity intact, acupuncturist Andrei Stoica’s hands were no longer on my back—they had flitted down to my ankles. A near indecipherable pinch, and I felt his fingertips on my wrist. He then began to comb through my hair, lightly pricking the sides and top of my head. By the time he left me alone in the clean, quiet clinic, I realized that there were multiple needles sticking out of my body, and I had barely felt them break the skin at all.

Seconds later, I couldn’t feel a thing.

From Chinese dynasties to DC neighborhoods

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique far older than the city of Washington. Some research suggests acupuncture was a common practice as early as 2797 BC. As time went on, acupuncture progressed and was perfected, and the opening of trade routes lead to its spread.

America’s first taste of acupuncture began in the early 1970s. Today, it is officially recognized as both a treatment and a practice, covered on numerous insurance plans, including federal government employees with a BlueCross BlueShield plan.

But many still see acupuncture as an out-there practice that has tentative results. However, a 2007 NIH study said that of 5,981 patients suffering from long-term pain, the average success rate after acupuncture treatment was near 80 percent.

The demand for acupuncture is high in Washington, and a quick search on Google Maps will show an area stockpiled with places to receive the therapy.

“We currently have about 100 appointments booked per week,” said Nadia Bouhdili, operations manager of Transformational Acupuncture. “That number will grow to about 300 per week over the next year.”

Acupuncture clinics in the Washington, DC, area

The reason for the high volume of patients lies in the fact that acupuncture can be used for conditions both mental and emotional, along with physical ailments related to digestive issues, pain, nausea, respiratory complaints, reproductive issues.

The treatment can also be used as a supplement to Western medicine. For example, by pairing acupuncture with physical therapy, blood flow to an injured area will increase—and as this relieves the pain, an injured person will be able to work through their therapy much more easily.

Acupuncture explained

Transformational Acupuncture is where I sampled the treatment for the first time. Nestled between a Five Guys and a hair salon, the Dupont clinic is crisp and clean. It retains the aura of a colorful doctor’s office—though an array of herbal teas line the shelves behind the front desk, and neatly arranged books on yoga and meditation are propped up in the waiting room hall.

The doctor’s-office atmosphere makes sense. Acupuncture is a medicine that can be firmly backed by physiology, even in an entirely Western sense of the word.

“Acupuncture triggers the brain to manufacture pain killers for a given area,” explained Jeremy Riesenfeld, founder of Transformational Acupuncture. Certain points connect one part of the body to another, and by triggering a neural signal to the brain, more blood flow is brought to that area, he said.

Additionally, if a person does suffer from anxiety or stress, being forced to be still for an hour-long session can be healing in and of itself. As the needles stimulate certain points, brain waves will mirror the frequency of a deep relaxation state, said H. Frank Neely, acupuncturist at Urban Tao Acupuncture and Herbology.

“When you go to a gym and want to bench press 100 pounds, but it’s your first time going, you can’t do it,” Neely said. “You have to build up. With anxiety, it’s the same way—your brain isn’t used to have this relaxation frequency, so the acupuncture session gets your brain used to going there.”

In other words, people who suffer from anxiety will essentially train their brain to relax more easily.

Some critics say a placebo effect is all acupuncture provides. Reisenfeld, not surprisingly, doesn’t see it that way. “If someone’s back pain goes away immediately, and that’s something physical therapy, medication, and yoga didn’t help, why would placebo all of a sudden be able to override past experience because you’re getting acupuncture?” he said.

One can argue that if anything, alternative forms of medicine like acupuncture suffer from the placebo effect instead of benefitting from it. “It’s ingrained that you grow up trusting your doctor more and alternative medicine less.” Bouhdili said.

A Holistic Approach to Health Care

In many cases, a patient’s initial ailment can signal many other issues. Chinese medicine is formulated around providing a holistic view of the individual, and attempting to understand how various issues can be connected.

“If someone has a mental, emotional or stress issue, it will almost always show up in their bodies,” Riesenfeld said.

This kind of connection can be found through “reading” a person’s pulse. Through a patient’s wrist, an acupuncturist can tell the way blood is moving through certain organs, Stoica said. This can reveal other hidden issues that sometimes correlate to the person’s initial problem.

“For example, if someone comes in with elbow pain, you can look at their pulse and say well, you probably have acid reflux, or high blood pressure, or, you might not sleep well,” Stoica said.

Typically, acupuncture encourages collaboration with herbal medicines, nutrition plans, meditation, and exercise—all while keeping in mind the aggregate of a patient’s situation.

“We would never claim acupuncture is the perfect treatment for everyone, but it can certainly be highly effective for a lot of people,” Riesenfeld said, “even instantly effective. That’s hard to ignore.”