The silver needles rise a good inch out of my flesh. Scattered across the plain of my belly, they look kind of like flagless flagpoles. With my first acupuncture treatment, Eastern medicine seems to be staking a claim on me. Just a few minutes earlier, I had been faithful consumer of Western medicine as I entered a room of H & Z Acupuncture office near North Druid Hills Road. It looked like a standard examining room, with crisp white furnishings and sage-green walls.
The paper napkin beneath me crinkled as I lay back and saw again those spotted ceiling panels I’ve stared at in so many doctors’ offices lately. A middle-aged Chinese man in a white coat stepped into view. “May I touch your abdomen?” he asked softly. The flesh below my belly button rises like a gently sloping burial mound. His fingertips brush old scars. “How did you get this one?” Silently, he adds the information I supplied to his growing database of facts about me: Female. 42. Osteoarthritis of the spine. Suffering low back pain. Occasional at first but constant for three months. Has seen one chiropractor, two orthopedists, two physical therapists, and an ergonomic specialist. The MRI detected a bulging disc in her lower spine. Steroid spinal injection. Cannot sit in the examining room chair for the pain.
“Are you afraid of needles?” he asks. “No.” “Why not?” Taken aback by the question, I pause — I don’t know why not. But I am curious about how acupuncture will feel, and, yes, a little nervous. I try to lie still as he measures different distances across my body. The first needle enters my middle, below my belly button. It doesn’t hurt. He gently taps in several more on either side of my pelvis as I try to concentrate on my breath. Before long, there are so many needles across my midsection, I decide to lift my head to check out the view. My belly button looks like the top of a birthday cake for a very old person. Some needles stand erect. Others lean, like lopsided candles in cream-colored icing. Extremely thin, they quaver as I exhale. As the doctor tap, tap, taps more needles in – into my forearms, calves, feet, hands, forehead, and scalp – he explains a little more about the treatment. Acupuncture stimulates the body’s energy, called Qi, to promote healing. For thousands of years, it’s been used to treat many diseases and musculoskeletal conditions. It’s not about fixing one part but about restoring the balance the whole depends upon.
As he talks I notice something is missing. Behind closed eyes, my mind searches, pointing a flashlight into its crowded corners. Where is it? Low-back pain has been my almost constant companion for three months. It has grown familiar as the furniture I grew up with. But it’s gone. My consciousness keeps probing for the pain, kind of like a little kid’s tongue keeps returning to the place where the loose tooth used to be. A growing sense of ease spreads throughout my body as the doctor adds the last of the needles. Of the dozens inserted, most hurt not at all. A few strike with sharp sensation that quickly subsides, like a finger prick. For warmth now, he covers exposed skin with blankets.
Unlike the multi-tasking practitioners of Western medicine who have treated me recently, all his movements are quiet and unhurried. Keeping to his own rhythm, he works steadily, pausing to bend the arm of a flexible lamp over my middle. An orange-yellow light warms my belly, sprouting with needles. The doctor and his assistant dim the overhead lights as they slip out of the room. When they return 20 minutes later, they seem surprised that I did not actually fall asleep. Many people do. Though awake, I feel drowsy and calm but with a particularly sharp sense of focus. Slowly, painlessly, the doctor removes each needle in the order they were inserted. As he outlines for me the course of acupuncture treatments he recommends, I have to ask him to repeat several times, and he does the same when I speak. Though his Chinese accent and my southern American one make verbal communication a little tricky, it doesn’t matter. His skill clearly speaks a language my body answers on the deepest level. And I schedule another appointment.