Needles, Cups, and Delicious Heat

Dear Reader,

What’s the point of acupuncture?

The needle!

Was that horribly cheesy? Apologies, I just had my first acupuncture experience recently and, boy, was it completely different than I had expected.

Acupunctural therapy was as foreign to me as the history surrounding it. As a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture focuses on treating the body holistically to improve overall health. Acupuncture has been practiced in China for hundreds of years and focuses on the flow of Qi (energy) in the body. So, when you complain about pain in your hip, the goal is to treat the whole body to improve the flow of Qi, which will in turn help improve your hip. In preparation for this post, I looked up “acupuncture” on Wikipedia… here’s a snippet:

Acupuncture is a pseudoscience because the theories and practices of TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] are not based on scientific knowledge, and it has been characterized as quackery.


The doctor I visited, let’s call him Dr. Shen, greeted me outside of his small office. I walked into the vestibule and took a seat by his makeshift desk (a small shelf) as he asked me a series of questions.

Dr. Shen: What brings you here today?

Me: Shoulder pain or, more accurately, chronic shoulder soreness (more here).

Dr. Shen: Okay, I see your chart, tell me about it.

I give him a short summary of my shoulder soreness and then somehow, we speak about every part of my body but my shoulder.

Dr. Shen: Do you sleep well?

Me: It’s probably not the best.

Dr. Shen: You are probably tossing and turning problems over in your mind throughout the day. You don’t need to worry so much. Do you fall asleep well?

Me: Yes, I fall asleep easily.

Dr. Shen: Good! You have good energy. You could use more muscle though.

Me: …

Dr. Shen: Do you have a good appetite?

Me: It’s probably normal.

Dr. Shen: I think it could be better.

Dr. Shen takes my pulse.

Dr. Shen: Hmmm. You have weak reproductive health. We put the needles, so they focus on your uterus.

And with that, I was told to undress, lie on the bed in the middle of the room, and place the white sheet over my torso.

Dr. Shen explained that the needles may cause a feeling of pressure but shouldn’t hurt in any significant way. He started by taking the thin needs and popping them into my right calf.

Dr. Shen: All acupuncturists have their specialties, but I like to put the needles in the most distal parts of the body, like below the knees and elbows.

Me: Okay.

Dr. Shen: Everything is connected. You can’t heal the shoulder through the shoulder, you have to focus on the whole system.

Me: Uh-huh

Dr. Shen: First, we will start with the “yin.” When a Chinese farmer is working in the field and bending over, his head and back are darkened by the sun, but the inside of the body—stomach, forearms—are protected in the shadow. The “yin” is light and the “yang” is darkened by the sun. Yin and yang make balance. When we put in the needles, we put in some in the dark and some in the light for balance.

Me: Ahh.

Dr. Shen: I will fix your shoulder. You cannot get this treatment from anyone else and I am going to give you this treatment. But if you only come once, it is only one treatment. You need many treatments, ideally twice a day. Laughs. But most people come once a week. You should come for five, ten, and many more treatments. If you only come for one treatment, it is just one treatment.

Me: Okay.

About 40 needles later (in both calves, arms, face and the top of my head [!!]), Dr. Shen placed a heat lamp by my stomach (for circulation apparently) and told me that he would be back in 15 minutes. Surprisingly, I fell asleep with needles in my face and had a very restful nap. I was startled by the clock alarm and my heart raced as I remembered that I was covered in needles. I jerked my arm and felt a prick. Luckily, it seemed that there was no damage except momentary shock and temporary discomfort.

For part two of the procedure, I turned onto my stomach, so Dr. Shen could put a few more needles into my legs, and then he surprised me by telling me that we were going to do cupping therapy. Sixteen cups (pictured above) were individually placed on my back and a small vacuum was released to create a sensation of gentle pressure. Dr. Shen explained that the pressure would help improve the blood flow. It felt strange, but not unpleasant.

Next, Dr. Shen said that to help my shoulder that he would apply heat to the body. He placed more sheets on top of me, which covered all parts including my head (I was face down, head cradled), which made me feel a bit like a well-looked-after cadaver on a mortician’s table. Then, he laid a very large heating pad over the length of my back, which would have lulled me to sleep if the good doctor did not perform his final trick. Because I was face down on the bed, I cannot confirm exactly what Dr. Shen did, but it seemed (through my internet searches) that he applied moxibustion heat therapy — a type of aroma, heat therapy in which the dried plant material “moxa” is burned near the surface of the skin. The smell was strong and earthy, and the heat was intense, but not uncomfortable. If anything, it was just a surprise!

The whole treatment lasted around 90 minutes. When I signed up for acupuncture, I imagined I would get some needles and feel a certain way. However, what I got was a list of all that is wrong with me, needles (as expected), cupping, and heat therapy — wow!

If you follow my blog, Dear Reader, you may have noticed that I use the word “experience” liberally, but, wow, my appointment with Dr. Shen was certainly an experience!

… I will probably be a repeat customer….



P.S. UPDATE the cupping left a mark! It didn’t hurt or cause any discomfort, but the marks lasted for a few days afterwards… next time I’ll skip the cupping. You have been warned!

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