The most commonly practised technique of acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles which are then manipulated by hand or by electrical stimulation.
In the Traditional Chinese Medicine system the human body is seen as a subtle balance of two opposing forces, namely yin and yang. Yin is representative of the slow, passive aspects of the person, while yang signifies the opposite - the excited, active aspects. It's believed that ultimate health is achieved by a harmonic balance of the two.
An imbalance can lead to blockage in the flow of qi – which the Chinese believe is the vital energy or life force which regulates a person's spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health and which is influenced by the opposing forces of yin and yang.
Studies have shown that acupuncture produces its effects through regulating the nervous system, which aids the activity of pain-killing biochemicals such as endorphins and immune system cells at specific sites in the body.
Research has also shown that acupuncture may change brain chemistry by changing the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones.
These, in turn, affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate a person's blood pressure, blood flow and body temperature.
The games begin
On arrival at the Cape Town Medi Spa's Ubuntu wellness Centre, I met Paul, the man who was going to be carrying out the treatment.
Since Paul is Chinese, our initial conversation was somewhat stilted as I tried to tell him that I not only suffer from migraines, but also have a spastic colon. Eventually we both came to an amicable agreement that my head and tummy were ‘Eina’.
However, since I have not had a migraine for a few months, Paul suggested we rather focus on my spastic colon for the treatment.
To begin with he measured my heart-rate on both wrists. He then asked me to lie on the bed, fully clothed, and lifted my shirt to expose just my stomach.
This was quite a relief as I had actually expected to have to take off all my clothes and put on a robe as one does with other treatments. I’m sure it was a relief for both of us I did not pre-empt that move.
He felt around my stomach with his hands, gently prodding certain points and asking where it hurt more: much like when you go to the doctor for a check-up.
The needles come out
When he was satisfied that it was sore in most places he went to fetch the needles. He kindly showed me that the needles were new and being taken out of a sealed packet.
He then rolled my trouser-legs up to just above my knees and used cotton wool and some antiseptic liquid to clean certain points on my knees, shins and feet as well as on my stomach.
After that he took out the needles. They were not too big – very fine and thin. Certainly not as scary as I had anticipated.
He positioned the first one on my stomach just above my diaphragm and placed the tip against my skin. Before inserting the needle, he asked me to let him know if anything hurt or if I felt dizzy at any point during the treatment. He then gave the needle a very gentle tap and it was in.
I barely felt a thing, but then again I am fairly thick-skinned. He went on to place another five or so needles around my stomach before he moved on to put two in each knee, one in each shin and two in each foot.
I must say, at this point I was feeling rather chuffed with myself for being such a big girl about it all. It wasn’t painful at all and once the needles were in I couldn’t even feel them.
No pain, no gain
I shouldn’t have been so naïve. No sooner had I finished congratulating myself than Paul returned to the first needle and started gently twisting it.
He went around to all the needles and gently, but firmly, twisted each one a bit. Some of them I couldn’t feel at all, but others were very painful.
As soon as I let out a few whimpers, he would stop twisting and move onto the next one.
But it was only sore when he twisted the needle; after he left it alone, the pain immediately went away.
For me, the most painful needles were in my feet and knees. The stomach ones were not sore at all and I actually forgot they were there.
Paul left me alone for most of the session, returning only three times to check on me and twist the needles in a bit more. When I asked him about this he said it was to encourage circulation.
I found it strange that I had needles in my feet and legs for a problem that was essentially in my intestines. But Paul told me that all the different points where the needles were inserted related to my intestines – a lot like reflexology where different parts of the feet relate to different internal organs.
When the session was over and Paul came in to remove the needles, I was a bit worried that I would have puncture wounds all over me and dots of blood on my clothes. But amazingly, not a drop was spilled and for the most part, I could not even see the places where the needles had been.
My feet were a bit sore after the treatment however, and I think they might have been slightly bruised by some of the needles during the treatment.
But alas my spastic colon is still spastic. To be honest I did not expect it to be cured in one session though, and Paul explained that it would need several more treatments combined with a stomach massage to get effective results.
I did feel slightly energised after the treatment, but that could have also been from the hour-long lie-down.
Overall, it was an interesting experience, although I think it is one which would have to be a regular event to be thoroughly successful and effective as a treatment.
I would recommend it to those who are looking for treatment of specific conditions and have the time to dedicate to a course of acupuncture over a few sessions.
A half-hour session of acupuncture costs R220; a full hour, R330.
For more information contact:
Ubuntu Wellness Centre
Cape Town Medi-Spa
99 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town
Source: National Centre of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, http://nccam.nih.gov/health/acupuncture/
(Amy Henderson, Health24.com, November 2007)
Sham acupuncture effective