It never occurred to me before, to voluntarily lie down and have tiny needles pricked into my skin. But that’s exactly why I’m sitting in the waiting room at Neal’s Yard Remedies. You see (much like everyone else), I’ve felt my stress levels rise over the last few weeks, thanks to boiling hot heatwaves, sleepless nights, irritated skin and the end of summer bringing with it the back-to-school blues. And, after feeling more tired, achy and generally run down than usual, I’d been looking for a way to give my body a full MOT.
Thus, acupuncture: needles, slotted into skin to help relieve stress and manage pain. Sounds implausible, right? Hardly the softly, softly approach I’d imagined when looking at ways to boost my wellbeing, but countless friends and colleagues have waxed lyrical about the success they’ve had when they’ve let go of preconceptions and submitted themselves as a human pin cushion.
Ka Hang Leoungk, the Hong Kong born, Greek raised, American educated practitioner I visit is so thoroughly versed in the traditional Chinese medicine that I’m immediately put at ease. I’m handed a form to fill out (five pages, that query everything from how well I sleep, to how regularly I use the loo) to get a broad overview of the state of my health.
She takes my pulse, examines my tongue and says “yep, that confirms everything you’ve told me.” On asking, Ka Hang tells me that the tongue can tell you almost everything that’s going on in a person’s body. Specific pointers can reveal everything from pain in the hip (“I can locate the exact place, by looking at someone’s tongue,” notes Ka Hang), to whether they’re anaemic, or (guilty) over-indulging on chocolate and wine.
Over the course of our chat, Ka Hang established that I regularly suffer from broken sleep – waking up most nights, wandering to the bathroom, then heading back to bed. My problem, she said, is a block in the flow of my qi (which you’ll hear more about below), preventing me from sleeping through the night and leaving me feeling tired when I wake up. To address this and to help move along the flow of qi, Ka Hang inserted a series of hair-fine needles into my scalp, between my eyebrows and into my legs, ankles and knees.
Pain-wise, I hardly felt anything, just a shock of energy when the last needle went into my left ankle. Other than that, it was a 2 out of 10 on the pain scale. During the hour that the needles were left in, I could begin to feel a heaviness in my legs – they felt harder to lift, almost like I had a heavy duvet over me, and you have the option of either chatting to your acupuncturist, relaxing, or even falling asleep (surprisingly common, says Ka Hang).
After – once the needles were removed – I felt calmer and more relaxed. While I was there, I didn’t think once about work deadlines, home admin or the growing pile of emails in my inbox. That night, I slept better than ever. No midnight loo run or aimless wandering. And the nights that followed, I continued to sleep through. It didn’t erase my stress – my commute is still hectic and work is busy – but I found myself able to unwind more quickly in the evenings.
Perhaps it’s a placebo effect, but there’s growing evidence, especially in the west, confirming that this ancient Eastern method is on to something. Either way, I’ll happily take the extra hours of kip.
Here’s what I asked Ka Hang while I was there:
What is acupuncture?
“There are two ways to approach the explanation: one using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the other with western biomedical functions. Traditional acupuncture works on the premises of channel theory: that qi (pronounced chee) travels in pathways (we call them channels) through the body. Qi is often mistranslated as energy or “vital force” which is incorrect as it implies that acupuncture is an energetic healing therapy. A better interpretation of what the ancient Chinese called qi is oxygen in the vessels (qi literally means air or breath in Chinese). The basic fundamental of acupuncture and TCM is that a lack of qi and blood not reaching an area of the body leads to pain or an ailment.
Sometimes, due to lifestyle and environmental reasons, this flow of qi can be disrupted or blocked which can result in some symptoms of pain or illness. In certain instances, traditional acupuncture can be an effective therapy to help restore balance and promote physical and emotional harmony.
At its simplest, acupuncture is the practice of inserting sterile hair-fine needles to an acupuncture point but that is like sticking your hand out to hail a taxi when there are none around. Now if you catch a cab driver’s attention and they take you as a passenger you have achieved success. In the same way, acupuncturists believe stimulating the qi in the channels somehow signals to the body’s system what it needs to do to resolve the condition.”
How does it work?
“In spite of some excellent research designed to answer how acupuncture works, there are currently no clear, simple answers available. This is largely due to the fact that acupuncture has a variety of therapeutic effects on the body and so the action depends on the type of pathology. Pain (and therefore pain relief) is the area in which the most research has been done; hence most of the theories about the mechanisms of acupuncture relate to issues of pain.
The most popular modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points stimulates the nervous system to release morphine-like substances to help deal with the pain. Nerve fibres travel from the acupuncture points to the spinal cord, and from there they continue on to the brain stem and hypothalamus-pituitary gland. Stimulation of these areas in the brain and spinal cord cause the release of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, that cause inhibition of nerve pain fibres.
Animal studies have shown that acupuncture can alter the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters. These affect the parts of the central nervous system related to sensation and involuntary body functions, such as immune reactions and processes that regulate blood pressure, blood flow, and body temperature.”
Where did it originate from?
“Acupuncture is a system of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that dates back over 2,000 years. During that time, different opinions to theory and technique led to different styles developing from the traditional, TCM style of diagnosis and treatment. These include Japanese style, Five Elements, Korean hand technique and French auricular (ear acupuncture) styles of acupuncture. The TCM style is the ‘grandfather’ of them all: the source from which the other styles branched out from.”
What can it help with?
“In the West, acupuncture is most commonly identified as a treatment for pain management. This is true, and many people turn to acupuncture to relieve specific pains like osteoarthritis of the knee.
However, more and more people are realising that traditional acupuncture’s approach at treating the whole person rather than just specific symptoms in isolation means it can be effective for a range of conditions. Traditional acupuncture can help if you have a specific symptom or condition, feel generally unwell but have no obvious diagnosis, want to maintain good health, as a preventative measure or want to improve your general sense of wellbeing.”
How does acupuncture work with energy?
“Imagine a traffic jam during rush hour. Cars are blocking the road and no one can get anywhere. You start to feel tense around the neck and shoulders, you’re getting tired and annoyed, and now you need the bathroom as well.
Blocked, or a weak flow of qi in your body is just as bad. Illness or pain can result when this flow of qi is disrupted. Acupuncture works on rebalancing the body’s qi naturally without medication.
Now, if the traffic jam was suddenly removed: it would be a great feeling, right?
Along the channels are acupuncture points which are like junctions on a motorway, allowing access to the meridians. The acupuncture points are gateways to influence, redirect, and increase or decrease the body’s flow of qi, blood and vital substances to address many of the body’s imbalances.”
How painful is it?
“Acupuncture needles are very fine and almost hair-like, unlike hypodermic needles which are thick and hollow. Patients generally do not feel the painful pricking sensation associated with an injection, blood sample or other medical procedure. Only sterile, disposable needles are used.
When the needle is inserted correctly in the proper location, your body’s qi will grab onto the needle. Some people don’t feel very much, but most will feel a dull or heavy sensation, while some will feel an energetic sensation similar to a mild electric shock. However, most people find the general length of treatment quite relaxing and it is perfectly fine if you doze off.”
How are you able to ascertain which maladies face each of your clients in order to give them the treatment that they need?
“During the consultation, questions are asked (or filled in a form) which may sometimes feel irrelevant to your symptoms or condition, but to a traditional acupuncturist, it provides me with a fuller picture. When you talk about insomnia, is it difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep? Do you have issues with it all week or you’re fine on weekends? Are you waking up because of noise or because you need the bathroom? Have you been overworking, or feeling a bit blah when friends arrange to meet up for a drink? These are some questions you might get asked.
But most importantly, every session will involve taking your pulse and looking at your tongue. These two factors help confirm the diagnosis for the practitioner.
How would the acupuncture differ for different problems, e.g. stress vs pain or fertility vs IBS?
“At its most basic, the body either needs nourishing (think of the Victorian patient in a dark, still room) or needs to be rebalanced (visualise the crankiest flatmate you’ve ever had). In the same token, acupuncture can be quite relaxing and soothing, or quite dramatic. This is why some people can doze during a session while their friend can feel constant buzzing of energy up and down their legs, or a crampy-ache.
IBS, fertility and stress are systemic issues which so they tend to need rebalancing and nourishing. Pain relief is all about moving the traffic (injury, inflammation etc) and these will be all about reducing the flow or moving it along.”
How does it feed into Chinese culture, is it more accessible and how often do people tend to have it?
“In the Chinese culture, TCM theory is embedded within the culture of food is medicine. Not everyone knows the reason for it, but most people know when they should eat what. Hence food, and Chinese herbal medicine are most people’s first port of call.
Chinese medicine as a whole, including acupuncture, is much more integrated in China. When I did my internship in Beijing hospitals, outpatients were being seen by both Chinese medicine doctors and western medicine doctors. There is less of a either/or mentality; it’s much more what would work best for what.
I will say though, that needles used in China are much thicker! Maybe they’re more used to the sensation so it doesn’t feel as thick?”
Have you seen a rise in interest in the field?
“There has definitely been a rise in interest in the past 10 years. It’s wonderful how much more mainstream it’s become, and people are realising more and more that acupuncture isn’t just for pain relief, but that it can help with stress. I do think it’s partly due to society being much more stressful, with people having a much fuller work and social schedule. People are exploring more alternative ways to improve their wellness like acupuncture, yoga, meditation, just mindfulness and being more aware of nature even if it’s just a walk in the urban park.”
How often would you recommend patients have it?
“The great thing about acupuncture and Chinese medicine is that the aim is to help the body work better until it is better. The aim is never to have it forever, so for acute conditions, weekly or maybe twice a week is recommended. Some patients may only need weekly sessions for one month, others for 6 months. It depends. I have patients who came regularly and now come twice a year.
It’s important to discuss with your acupuncturist though. If they say you need weekly and you go once a month, then you’re not really getting the cumulative effect of acupuncture. But do raise concerns or questions, don’t go weekly for 5 months if you feel or see no difference. A practitioner should be able to explain/discuss your progress every 10 sessions or so. And if something doesn’t feel right, don’t be embarrassed to move on and find a different practitioner.
Here in the west acupuncture is often used to treat a problem, whereas traditionally it’s about prevention and maintenance. It’s always a good idea to have an acupuncture session to adjust to the seasons, especially summer into autumn or autumn into winter. Spring is a big one for some people, because our systems have adjusted to the cold long days, so they may come in for a tune up.”
How should patients feel after?
“Most patients feel nice and relaxed (I’m one of them!) but some feel energised like they’ve had the most refreshing rest. You can do anything after a session, you could run the marathon if you wanted to, but I suggest taking it slowly for the next hour and seeing how your body feels. You can go back to work, but I probably wouldn’t schedule in a very important meeting right after.”
Is there anyone who wouldn’t be a good candidate for acupuncture?
“The only people who really shouldn’t have acupuncture are those who are really needle-phobic. Otherwise, almost anyone can have it, just be sure to let your practitioner know if you have hypertension or are taking medication like blood thinners. Pregnant women can have acupuncture from the first trimester onwards, again just let the practitioner know.”
Are there other things we can do to compliment the acupuncture to help us stay healthier?
“Yes! That session of acupuncture means nothing if you’re spending the rest of the week burning the candle at both ends. Practice self care, whether that’s exercise, meditation or window shopping. Make sure you schedule some time for yourself. Some people really benefit from nutritional advice, and others could try other forms of complementary medicine as well. Ultimately, recognise areas of contentment in your life and find ways to appreciate it.”
Where’s the best place to go to find an acupuncturist who is properly qualified?
“The British Acupuncture Council is a registrar of qualified acupuncturists practicing in the UK. Their website is a good place to start.”
Elle visited Neal’s Yard for acupuncture with Ka Hang Leoungk