What Is Acupuncture & How Does It Actually Work?
Jun 20, 2017
Disclosure: We attended an acupuncture appointment with Dr. Zachary Hurt to test out the treatment and review our experience. Here's what we learned.
If you're involved in the Work For Your Beer community, you may know that we recently hosted a Free Cycle, Bootcamp, Acupuncture Trifecta + Free Beer event with our friends at JustCycle, Flex5, and Lenny Boy Brewing. This event featured a 25-minute bootcamp-style workout, a 30-minute indoor cycle class, and a 30-minute chair acupuncture session (and of course, free Lenny Boy Beer).
A lot of people we spoke to were thrilled specifically about the free acupuncture and told us that they swear by the treatment for a whole host of ailments. Having never tried acupuncture, this got me wondering: what is acupuncture, and how exactly does it work?
So, we reached out to the acupuncturist from the trifecta event, Dr. Zachary Hurt, to set up an appointment and to learn more from him about this Eastern medicinal practice.
Why Do People Try Acupuncture?
I was a strange choice for this experiment, because I'm terrified of needles. When Mel told me that she had tried acupuncture at the trifecta mentioned above and that she thought I should try it out, I laughed. Me? The girl who passes out every time I have blood taken at the doctor? No, thanks.
But then I started doing more research, and it seemed like acupuncture actually offered a variety of health benefits. In fact, Dr. Alison Warren at OrthoCarolina wrote that acupuncture has an anti-inflammatory effect that can help with pain, digestion and disease prevention. She also wrote that it can "help release the muscles that tend to become tense with chronic stress, including the muscles of the neck and shoulders where we often carry our stress."
That concept intrigued me, so I reached out to Dr. Hurt and asked him the primary reasons that lead people to consider acupuncture treatment. "Individuals seek out acupuncture for many different reasons. Chronic and acute pain, autoimmune disease, mental and emotional disorders (like anxiety and depression), acute illness (such as colds or the flu), infertility and reproductive disorders, allergies, digestive disorders, and neurological disorders, among many other common conditions," Dr. Hurt said. "Some individuals also seek acupuncture for general stress management and wellness."
The possibility that acupuncture could relieve stress was what finally convinced me to give it a shot.
Preparing for Treatment
I was incredibly nervous when we arrived for our appointment. We spent the first five minutes filling out paperwork that detailed our medical history and any current issues we were experiencing. Then we were walked back to the room where the acupuncture treatment would occur, and I felt my heart start racing.
I immediately told Dr. Hurt about my fear of needles, and I was sure to mention that the fact that his name was "Dr. Hurt" wasn't helping to quell those fears. He wasn't amused, and even my own laughter was basically just nervous tittering at that point.
Mel assured me that the needles were tiny and wouldn't be painful at all. "Almost everyone is nervous the first time they have acupuncture, but most people typically fall asleep during their first visit," Dr. Hurt said.
Dr. Hurt walked through the medical paperwork I had completed, confirming everything I had written. Mel and I both noted that we were interested in the stress-relieving component of acupuncture, so he talked to me a bit more about that before we began.
We also discussed how he got into the field of acupuncture. Dr. Hurt earned his Masters in Acupuncture and his Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and he originally decided to pursue a career in alternative medicine after losing his father to esophageal cancer at a young age. "I've always believed medicine should be preventive, striving to treat the underlying cause, rather than focusing on palliative care and symptom management," he said.
As Dr. Hurt explained it, "Acupuncture is one of the four pillars of Traditional Chinese Medicine that focuses on maintaining proper movement of energy (qi) throughout any of the fourteen meridians along the body by stimulating acupuncture points with very fine needles. Any blockage or misdirection of the flow of energy can cause disease or pain. The other three pillars are nutrition, exercise, and herbal medicine, which are all very important for maintaining health and preventing disease."
Dr. Hurt then asked me to lie back while he took my pulse, then began cleaning off the acupuncture points where he would insert the needles: my feet, ankles, wrists, arms, neck, shoulders, ears, and forehead. Each of these points corresponded to different issues I had noted on my medical paperwork, including stress, allergies, and difficulty sleeping.
My Acupuncture Experience
Dr. Hurt continued talking to me while he inserted the needles in the acupuncture points on my feet, and I was surprised when he moved up to my arms—I hadn't even felt the needles go in! There was no pinch or painful sensation, like I had been expecting. Knowing that the rest of the insertions would likely be equally painless, I felt myself un-tense and begin to relax. The only physical sensation I had as he applied needles to the remaining acupuncture points was an overall heaviness, like I was sinking into the bed.
"The most common reason someone might be hesitant to pursue acupuncture is because they are worried it may be uncomfortable or painful. But nine times out of ten, I will have patients fall asleep on the table—sometimes while I'm still inserting the needles," Dr. Hurt said. "Yes, there are occasional points that may be more sensitive than others, but the goal of the treatment is to diminish overall discomfort and bring the body back to health."
Once all of the needles were in place, Dr. Hurt dimmed the lights and left me alone in the room with some calming music playing. He told me it was common for people to fall asleep, but I was still in my own head about the fact that I was stuck with several needles all over my body, like an anxious porcupine. I worried that if I fell asleep, I might move and jostle the needles, pushing them too far into my body or making them fall out altogether. So, I laid completely still with my eyes closed, wondering what I was supposed to be feeling other than sleepy. It felt like savasana at the end of a yoga class, but more intense.
When Dr. Hurt came back 30 minutes later and asked if I had fallen asleep, I told him no and explained my nervousness about moving the needles. He told me that in the future, falling asleep wouldn't do any harm to the needles or allow them to hurt me in any way. He asked me how I felt, so I evaluated: I felt calmer, my limbs a bit heavier, my heartbeat certainly slower. He told me I would likely have a good night's sleep thanks to the treatment, and that I may remain in this calm, relaxed state for the rest of the day. As it turned out, he was right; I felt exceptionally zen for the remainder of the afternoon, and I slept like a baby that night.
Would I try acupuncture again? I'm not sure. The experience itself caused me stress thanks to my needle phobia, which was ironic given that it was a treatment meant to alleviate stress. I can certainly say that I saw positive results and that the treatment wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I expected. I am happy that I tried it and that I got to learn more about the practice overall, but I'm not sure it's for me.
That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing! Mel had such a positive experience that she asked about pricing for ongoing treatment. To each her own.
Should You Try Acupuncture?
As with any treatment, whether traditional or alternative, the answer to that question varies person to person depending on your body and your needs.
Orthopedic surgeons at OrthoCarolina say that acupuncture can be "a remarkably effective method to relieve pain and improve function" and use it to treat all kinds of things, from myofascial back pain to tendinopathy and beyond.
Even if you're not suffering any physical maladies, acupuncture has been found to offer mental and emotional benefits as well. "Acupuncture works incredibly well for depression," Dr. Hurt told us. "I've had patients that were able to slowly wean off their medications with the use of acupuncture. I'll often also incorporate herbs, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling into the treatment."
Have you been considering acupuncture, but avoided it because you were worried about pain or discomfort associated with the treatment? Take it from me, the girl terrified of needles: you should go for it. You'll either find that it's for you or it isn't. There's no harm in trying it out to see how it can help you in living a healthier, more balanced lifestyle!