Moving the Needle

Acupuncture can be a powerful curative – if practiced by a certified practitioner of Chinese medicine.

There’s a moment, after my acupuncturist has painlessly inserted the small, very fine needles into defined points on my reclined body, when she pauses before leaving the therapy room.

“Would you like the ‘space blanket’?” she asks.

I never turn down the space blanket, a thin, foil-like sheet that keeps a prostrate, semi-disrobed person remarkably warm and comfortable on the acupuncture table. Supported by a heated table pad, and pillows under my head and the backs of my knees, my anxious mind quickly eases into a sleepy “acu-brain” state of relaxation. I stare at geometric shapes of bright color in a painting on the wall and drift off, unaware of time.

I’ve come to acupuncture because, like other people, I didn’t find what I needed from Western medicine, to which I turned for treatment of moderate, chronic premenstrual syndrome. Exercising and laying off caffeine were the best advice I gleaned from my doctor. They both helped. Only not enough. I was accustomed to feeling awful – with many of the classic PMS symptoms, including fatigue, mood swings, difficulty concentrating – for two weeks out of every month. Certain birth control pills are sometimes used to treat PMS, but meds would only be a last resort.

In Chinese medicine, the belief is that the penetration of the needles moves energy (or chi) through the body. If energy is blocked, there’s an imbalance. Acupuncture encourages energy to flow and regain balance, hence this extract of a Chinese aphorism: “If there is free flow, there is no pain.” I wasn’t afraid that the acupuncture needles themselves would hurt – and they didn’t. The sensation is described, accurately to my mind, as similar to a pinprick.

The prospect of acupuncture, with which I had no experience, was less harrowing than ingesting hormones. It’s not hard to find links online to studies concerning the effects of Chinese medicine on PMS. It’s not a premenstrual cure-all, but I can say from many sessions with the needles that it has reduced the number of days of misery.

My first exposure to acupuncture was with a physician who had some acupuncture training, but was not a certified practitioner of Chinese medicine. It turned out to be a rocky introduction that resulted in “needle shock,” a reaction that apparently happens rarely but includes symptoms of nausea, sweating and faintness. (My advice: Don’t go to a dabbler, but a certified practitioner of Chinese medicine.) After I switched to a certified practitioner (recommended by friends who were patients), I learned that good hydration, and not being hungry, or excessively tired before a treatment, can lessen the possibility of needle shock.

The long-term alleviating results for which I sought acupuncture did not follow in one session, or in five, though I felt better – more relaxed and centered – after each treatment. From my experience, “the needle store” is not a place to visit expecting overnight returns. But it depends on why you’re seeking treatment. My acupuncturist told me I’d need to commit to a few months of weekly treatments to feel consistent improvement. She was right.

Insurance companies are increasingly green-lighting acupuncture coverage. Eventually, I cut back because I was footing the bill, shaving my sessions down to once a month as long as I continued to feel relief.

I’ve read Internet threads in which people debate the efficacy of acupuncture – to some, it’s a sham science in conflict with modern Western medicine.

I don’t care what detractors say. Needles are powerful, and a forceful tool in the hands of a competent acupuncturist. You only need to experience needle shock once to know that.

‘Moving The Needle’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a brand new addition to the Milwaukee Magazine family.

Find Milwaukee Health on newsstands Nov. 2

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.