Stick it to pain
I've long had this fantasy that Western medicine will merge with Eastern, that medical schools will absorb ancient wisdom and simpler treatments into a blended approach to health. Why take a pill for acute pain if massage will do? Meditation and other ancient practices reduce long-term stress, in turn reducing pain, in turn alleviating certain symptoms and conditions. Sometimes more intervention becomes necessary - surgery and drugs aren't always avoidable. But why must it be one or the other, with the sum of the world's knowledge and experience?
I had to try something new. After a lifetime of chronic headaches I'd tried everything else. Except acupuncture.
Yes - I mean those hyperthin (sterilized) needles. Sounds a little crazy, but it's catching on.
The theory is sound and it's not as scary as "needles" make it sound. Most of the time, I don't even know they're there. Some I never feel at all. Others, a little prick at the beginning, maybe a dull ache for a minute or three, then nothing. Just "aaahhh."
Like meditation, acupuncture is all about increasing flow and restoring rhythms. With meditation the flow is blood pressure, allowing it to carry more oxygen and other good stuff to the brain and body. With ancient Chinese acupuncture, it's energy (or "chi").
Our bodies operate with physical energy - an undisputed fact. For example, each heartbeat is electrically stimulated. Electrical signals run throughout the body, allowing your brain to read this column. Electricity equals energy.
Think of your body like an energy highway system; when those highways get clogged, traffic builds up; jams and crashes occur. Things get painful, out of sync, messed up, especially over time. Acupuncture targets those clogged routes ("meridians") and gets things flowing again. Each pressure point on the body corresponds with what's "down the highway;" a spot on the arm may link to the stomach, the hand to the head, and so on.
I found soft-spoken and highly professional Rho Zaragoza, owner of Ancient Lake Acupuncture in Hayden, a very soothing place. He's also a registered nurse, which frankly reassured me (that East-West blend again). Rho and his wife, also an R.N. who works at Kootenai Health, moved here from Portland 13 years ago. Four years earlier Rho had an "aha" moment in his career.
"I sort of looked around and asked myself, 'Is this all there is?'" he said.
Soon after, they were visiting a pregnant friend who mentioned getting acupuncture for back pain. She needed an alternative to drugs, one that didn't risk harm to the baby.
"That crystallized everything for me," said Rho. "Why does it have to be either-or? Why put the child in jeopardy or keep the mother uncomfortable?"
So he got his license and has been inserting stainless-steel needles into sleepy patients ever since. No, really; acupuncture is so relaxing, many patients fall asleep. I just get very calm and peaceful-feeling. Rho exudes that peace; he's clearly a fulfilled person.
Acupuncture is about long-term change, not the temporary cover-up a painkiller might provide. It takes a little time (varies by patient), but after seven treatments I've seen reductions in my headaches, both in frequency and duration. It can alleviate symptoms of more serious problems too; Rho also treats cancer patients, helping them endure chemotherapy more comfortably. A lovely side-effect of acupuncture is mental.
"It's about small shifts, developing a sense of pace in life, instead of rushing to the stop sign," he said. Rho sees acupuncture as part of a life picture, helping people slow down to make that shift, restore our natural rhythms. "That angst ties us up in knots."
More insurance plans now cover acupuncture, which costs less than a doctor visit. My plan doesn't, but it is HSA-qualified and a deductible medical expense.
Don't worry; practices vary, but Rho never uses the same needle twice. Sure, I was a bit scared at first. I hate needles as much as the next guy. But now I crave the treatments, because I feel so good afterward.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.