Utter the word acupuncture in polite company and images of oversized needles and Chinese doctors searching for a crucial nerve may come to mind. At best, people may think of acupuncture as a medical cure effective for others, but not for themselves. At worst, the instinctive horror of needles, like the terror of the dentist’s drill, puts people off any thought of approaching this alternative source of medicine without a second thought. In the medically advanced Western societies, many people even consider this ancient traditional wisdom to be a raw and radical new alternative to the progressive, techno-based Western approach to medicine. Perhaps the time has finally arrived to demystify the aura of uncertainty that still surrounds the modern-day practice of acupuncture.
Part of the problem may lie in the graphic description of this arcane as well as archaic therapeutic technique. In keeping with the pictorial nature of their language, the Chinese describe acupuncture by using the character “chen” which literally means “to prick with a needle”. Beyond the off-putting image of huge darning needles, another popular misconception lies in the belief that one session with the acupuncturist will result in an instant cure. Perhaps one reason for this belief lies in the false impression that Western medicine gives to people by promising an immediate cure through a pill that will make the ailment go away overnight. More sophisticated people familiar with the techniques of acupuncture mistakenly take the search for the all important pressure points as a magical mystery tour, lodging a number of needles within a certain body area in hit-or-miss fashion only to withdraw them again and place them somewhere else to better effect.
First-hand experience is the most effective way to clear the fog of misinformation and demystify the unwarranted innuendo that surrounds acupuncture as a viable alternative medical treatment. I recently suffered from what is commonly (and appropriately) called frozen shoulder that had developed overnight for no apparent reason except perhaps as the tell-tale sign of an aging body. Although I was not suffering from constant pain, the ailment was debilitating, with chronic weakness in the upper arm and awkward limitations to its movement and flexibility. Simple gestures such as tucking my shirt into pants, even slipping my arm into a shirt sleeve, had become a painful ordeal both intense and aggravating. I had been to the doctor, had the standard physio-treatments such as hot treatments and ultra sound, and had been offered the usual anti-inflammatory pills that I politely turned down. All to no avail, I still suffered from a chronic ailment with no hope of a cure.
After six months of annoying pain and frustration with Western treatments, mercy descended from above in the form of a happy coincidence. I was walking along a main street in Abu Dhabi when I noticed an intriguing shop window designed with a Chinese style frame with hanging lanterns and filled with colored photos of herbs and roots. Jars filled with ginseng roots stood in a row. The store front sign fittingly read “Al Rahma Herbal Treatment, while in the window hung a written invitation to visit one of the doctor in the clinic upstairs. Why not, I thought. Nothing is gained through ignorance and “rahma” (mercy) was precisely what I was in search of.
A full-bodied image of the muscles and sinews of the human body made a bold statement of purpose and design as I entered the office, an image that indicated the meridians and acu- points that course through the human body. After a brief but thorough consultation with a Chinese doctor whose English was limited but whose knowledge seemingly was extensive, I was put on a course of treatment that held the promise of a cure. What impressed me about the doctor was his frank surety that with time this particular ailment would be gone. I would wake up one day, he intimated, and wonder where the pain was.
However, he immediately dispelled several misconceptions surrounding the mystique of acupuncture. He assured me there was no miracle cure, the procedure may take weeks, and the patient has to work with the acupuncturist to effect the cure. What took place that first evening set the pattern for the next several weeks. I laid myself out comfortably on my back and settled in for a minimum half hour’s session, and sometimes longer when he forgot about me, of absolute stillness. After several exploratory passes over my upper arm and shoulder, the doctor deftly and painlessly inserted paper-thin, very fine needles into nearly a dozen of the 365 acupoints on the body, most of which govern a certain characteristic energy that influences the functioning of the body. As he took his leave, he advised me not to move since movement within the treated area would result in pain. Indeed, as I fell back into the solitude of my enforced repose, I made one final readjustment of the body and immediately felt a wave of pain course through the affected area.
Absolute stillness leads to a floating of the mind in which I reflected upon the renewed energy stream beginning to flow through my body and the philosophy of healing behind this ancient wisdom. According to Chinese philosophy, all life partakes of a natural balance of forces that are reflected through the eternal rhythms of yin and yang. Day gives way to night just as summer gives way to winter. The tide comes and goes. We wake and sleep and breathe. What can be witnessed within the natural order can also be seen within the human being. Everything within nature bespeaks the natural rhythms of expansion and contraction that is reflected within the greater cosmos itself, a universal interaction and complementarily that seems obvious once it is recognized for what it truly is.
Like the philosophy of approach to healing within the Ayurveda system that originates in the state of Kerala in South India, acupuncture date back thousands of years as one of the oldest and most complex of the medicinal arts and is based on ideas and theories formulated in its early phase of development over hundreds of years. The ancient traditions date acupuncture from – 2698 to – 2598, but more recent rigorous research indicates that the cornerstone of acupuncture, the Nei Jing, is understood to have been completed in the –2nd to the –1st century. This work is comprised of 162 articles divided into two sections composed of multiple books. The first book, entitled “Fundamental Questions”, clarifies points of medical theory current at that time. The second book, entitled “Spiritual Axis”, is essentially the first acupuncture manual of its kind. Both books not only explain the yin-yang theory, they also provide a focus on individual symptoms as somatic rather than supernatural events. Interesting by way of correspondence, traditional Malay masseurs consider the original source of pain, especially in muscle and nerve pain, to be the evil jinn that populate the psychic realms, but that can enter the body and reek havoc on the physical level to unsuspecting victims.
As I attempted to lay supine and motionless on the doctor’s couch, in terror of making a move lest I send a shock wave of pain through the system, my mind continued to wander through the archives of this traditional philosophy of medicine. In this ancient approach to understanding the workings of the human body, the elusive quality of being we call “life” is characterized by a force the Chinese call qi (roughly pronounced “chee”). In Chinese medicine, it is theorized that the human body, as well as every other living thing, has a natural flow of qi that runs through and virtually enlivens the corporeal system. Qi is said to travel through the body along channels called “meridians”, mainly fourteen of them, giving rise to the idea that an energy flows through the bodily system other than what we know. Qi constantly flows up and down these pathways to maintain a healthy balance of the natural rhythms of the body. When the flow of qi is insufficient, unbalanced, or interrupted, yin and yang become unbalanced, and illness may occur. Understandably then, human health and well being relies on the balanced flow of qi within the channels of energy in the body.
The doctor reappeared nearly 45 minutes later and deftly withdrew the multiple needles without further ado. I have survived the onslaught of the needle treatment intact and now realize how effortless and efficient the process really is. To further complement the treatment, I am submitted to the infamous “heated cups” ordeal. The doctor doused a ball of cotton at the end of a wire into a flammable liquid and set it afire. Then with the swift movements of a magician, he cast the flame into a small glass cup the size of a golf ball which he swiftly set on my shoulder and arms. The fire creates a sudden vacuum inside the cup that when swiftly applied to the skin hangs there through the force of suction. What happens is that within the circumference of the cup the blood is immediately drawn to the area, the theory being that the onrush of blood will act as a nourisher and curative to the congestion and toxicity of the muscles and nerves in that area. For a full ten minutes, I had a cascade of glass cup hanging from my shoulder and arm like ornaments on a Christmas tree. When the doctor released them with a resounding pop, a circular blood-congested welt remained behind that took several days to disappear.
As a final step in the treatment on that first evening, the doctor applied a strong massage to the affected area and complemented his pressure pointing with rotational movements and stretching of the arm and shoulder some of which had me grimacing in outraged pain. Then came the secret pact between acupuncturist and patient. There was to be no swift cure, the doctor said in halting English, but there would be a definite cure. I liked his confidence and the surety of his assertion. But, he added, you must work with me. By this, he meant that I needed to do various stretching exercises for the neck, shoulder and arm. “No pain, no gain,” he kept repeating like a mantra.
Over time, after multiple treatments and personal effort, I began to realize that there was a hidden truth embe dded within the phrase “no pain no gain” that I couldn’t ignore. Unlike Western treatments that rely on drugs to deaden if not cure the problem, the Eastern approach goes directly to the source of the problem and combines the application of sound medical principles with the effort of the patient to restore the equilibrium of the body. I was being asked to make an investment in my own cure through a daily routine of stretching.
I would have preferred a miracle cure. We expect such things from alternative medicines as massage therapy and the manipulations of the chiropractor. Instead, I steeled myself to keep my appointments at the acupuncture clinic, where I underwent the same routine. With time, I began to feel some relief. The strength of my arm and the limited extension of my frozen shoulder began to relax. By the second week, I was down to three visits, the third week only two, and a final visit on the fourth week. By then, I was scheduled to return to the US for several weeks and my visits to the clinic came abruptly to an end. I still had a problem, but the doctor assured me on my last visit that it will slowly disappear. “You will wake up one morning and think, what happened to the pain.”
Indeed I found an unexpected simplicity in what actually happened. About halfway through my holiday, far far away from the streets of Abu Dhabi and the little Chinese shop where I had faithfully been treated, I was tucking my shirt into my pants early one morning and wondered: Whatever happened to the pain? It had disappeared, just as the doctor promised, not through pills or a steroid shot with potential side effects, but through an ancient curative process based on medical principles that find their source and their truth in a holistic philosophy of life.
Now through experience, I know the true value of acupuncture, not by reputation or theory but through the practical application of an effective cure. I had passed through a trial by illness and was eventually set free of its circle of fire, without the debilitating effect of chronic pain to darken my days. I felt like moving mountains and setting hearts on fire, grateful for the wisdom of the ancients who have passed down through the millennia a form of treatment that is as safe and effective as it is mysterious and wondrous, a gift of the ages for all ages.