Needles and Pins




Editor’s Note: This story is from Mary Carpenter’s series last winter, sampling local healthy-body experiences.  

THE FIRST TIME I tried acupuncture was years ago for a minor complaint, but mostly I was curious.  I found it surprisingly restful to lie on my back with no possibility of moving, no interruptions, for 20 minutes in the midst of a hectic day. But the minor complaint remained after three sessions, and my life became too busy.

Then when my 9-year old son suffered almost a year of almost constant dizziness, unimproved by dozens of doctors and medical tests, six acupuncture treatments completely cured him.  The explanation: alternative treatments like acupuncture can sometimes cope better than traditional Western medicine with symptoms that are subtle and chronic.

When it was suggested that acupuncture might improve what I considered a non-symptom, because I couldn’t feel it — decreased sensation in my legs and feet — I began to investigate.  Also, I knew that my idiopathic (no known cause) peripheral neuropathy (malfunctioning nerves in the extremities) could be contributing to my clumsiness — though I have never been graceful — and an improvement would be welcome.

In a 2007 study by researchers in Germany and Portugal on 47 patients with peripheral neuropathy (PN), the 21 who received acupuncture improved “symptomatically and objectively” — objectively based on measurements of nerve conduction.

I felt silly seeking treatment for something that didn’t bother me: most PN sufferers experience unpleasant tingling and/or pain, which can include sharp shooting pain that interrupts sleep and affects mobility.  Common causes are diabetes and alcoholism as well as heart disease and various infections and toxicities.  Because ordinary analgesics often have no effect on nerve pain, the best drugs are those that target nerve cells, such as Cymbalta; anticonvulsants and antidepressants, especially Elavil; and topical treatments and injections — most of which have side-effects.

Acupuncturists believe that PN is due to trauma, “dampness” and anything else that obstructs the flow of Qi (chi – energy) and blood — and that it “is a symptom for many different patterns of disharmony within the body.” Energy flows through the body along meridians, or channels, which extend in either direction between the body’s organs and its extremities.  The goal of acupuncture for PN is both to treat underlying causes of the blockage and to improve circulation, so that the “tissues of the affected area can be nourished to repair the nerve functions and reduce pain.”

Retired after 25 years, acupuncturist Steve Phillips writes on his website that he treated peripheral neuropathy more often than any other condition, amounting to more than 3,000 treatments.  While almost 90 percent responded “very well to acupuncture,” Phillips says that “results are generally not immediate — the effects of acupuncture…are cumulative.  Usually the patient will be feeling some benefit by the end of the fourth treatment.”

The acupuncturist I chose, Nic Buscemi — recommended by experts and friends — estimated three months of regular, weekly sessions.  Buscemi has a four-year degree from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine and has practiced for ten years.  Every day, he said, he studies to learn more about Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture and Chinese herbs along with nutrition and exercise.

The majority of Buscemi’s patients come for relief from pain, mostly related to exercise injuries and aging.  He also treats people with symptoms that linger after Lyme disease, which affects different organs depending on where the spirochetes cause the most infection and which Buscemi thought might explain my PN.  Other patients come with stress-related issues, anxiety and specific sensitivities, for example, to seasonal changes.  Acupuncture helps “stimulate the body’s defenses and healing abilities,” he said.  “I try to get everything to function on a high level.”

Buscemi said his estimated time for my PN treatment was based on his experience, on the length of my complaint and on my coming to regular weekly appointments.  For longer-lasting problems, more time is needed for acupuncture to work, whereas “if it’s acute, the body usually responds more quickly,” he said.  But Buscemi repeatedly emphasizes that each individual responds differently. My PN may have been going on for years: the reduced sensation was only detected when I spied my GP, during a regular physical exam, sticking needles in my leg which I didn’t feel.

Buscemi’s first step was to check my pulse — actually six pulses, three locations on each wrist that correspond to different organs. On the left wrist, for example, the top pulse is the heart; the middle, the liver; and the bottom, the kidney.  “If one of the pulses is off –“soft, weak, wiry,” he said — that organ and that channel will be the focus of treatment.  In my case, blockages in the liver and spleen meridians were preventing energy from moving to my extremities.

Acupuncture from Buscemi was not painless, and I was not a good patient: I couldn’t go every week.  After three months, I felt no different, meaning no increase in feeling – which would have been subtle since I hadn’t noticed its absence.  On the final check of my pulses, however, Buscemi said things were flowing much better in my channels; also, the balance was better between my yin and yang, and among the five elements — earth, wood, water, fire and metal.  As a result I should have more energy — also subtle.

I did feel pretty good, though that could have many explanations — including saying goodbye to the needles.  But I left believing I could turn to acupuncture in the event of future issues too subtle for traditional MDs to diagnose or treat, or maybe for a tune-up as needed.

 –Mary Carpenter

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