Acupuncture 101: with Suzanne Husami
Up until a few years ago, neither of us had ever attempted acupuncture. We knew about it in an abstract sort of way, but didn't really know what it consisted of (besides getting needles stuck in you in that over exaggerated way you see in movies). During a particularly rough flare up, my best friend (who's a lifelong fan of acupuncture) urged me to go in for a session to see if it provided me any relief. After that, I was a total convert. I left the session feeling similar to how I feel leaving a massage and miraculously (to me), in much less pain. I became good friends with my acupuncturist and still find myself fascinated over the fact that she can place a few needles in specific places and give me so much relief. I recently asked her if she would let us interview her about this centuries old practice and provide a little insight into what acupuncture actually entails..
For those who have never done acupuncture before or don’t know that much about it, can you give a brief summary of what it is?
Acupuncture is the centuries-old practice of placing single-use, hair-thin needles along points on the body to relieve various ailments: from low back pain to infertility to migraines and depression.
How does acupuncture work?
Acupuncture increases blood flow to target organs and systems, it reduces stress and blocks pain receptors in the brain. It’s a fascinating medicine and more research continues to be completed to help us understand its effects. Ultimately, it appears that acupuncture seems to access neuro-hormonal pathways and even areas of the brain like the pituitary to create a more balanced hormone profile and lessen inflammatory markers.
Where on the body do you put needles?
All over the body! Generally they’ll go in hands, feet, ankles, arms and even the belly, face and the outside of your ear. I don’t tend to use more than 25 needles total in any given treatment. So those images you’ve seen of football players with 200-300 needles inserted… that’s not representative of the way most acupuncturists treat – nor is it necessary. Where the needles go depends, in part, on what you are being treated for and what points your acupuncturist decides are necessary to use. It’s important to remember that they are sterile to begin with and are removed and disposed of properly after treatment.
What do you suggest someone wears to an acupuncture session?
I suggest loose, comfortable clothing – most of my patients come in really comfy clothing because it’s what they’d wear to relax at home! It’s always helpful to wear items that can easily be pulled up above the elbow and knee. I also always offer a sheet for my patients to lay under should someone wear clothing that I can’t work around – but each acupuncturist is different.
What can someone expect after their first treatment of acupuncture?
Expect to share your story! Acupuncturists take very long intakes – this helps us get a better understanding of how best to treat you. After the intake we’ll feel your pulses at each wrist and take a good look at your tongue. People find this part really interesting! The tongue is simply the opening to your digestive tract so we gain a lot of useful information from looking at the color, the coat on it and even the size of your tongue. Finally, you’ll hop onto the table and the treatment begins. Generally, you’ll have needles placed around your body and you’ll relax with them in for anywhere from 20-40 minutes. You may have something like electrical stimulation added to some of the points or cupping done as well. Then the needles are removed and you talk with your provider about rescheduling, should your case require it.
How quickly should one expect to see results from acupuncture & how often would you recommend going to keep up positive effects?
This is a really common question – and unfortunately there are no set answers. It depends on each individual and on each issue we are treating. Some people have seen significant results with pain after one treatment (although this is not as common – generally you have to come in for a series.) I tend to treat more complex syndromes (my specialty is women’s health and fertility) so it tends to takes some more time for people to see effects. However, I always like to see some positive changes as a result of treatment after the 3rd session. I usually have my patients come in to see me once/ week in the acute phase and then when I move them more toward a maintenance phase treatments can be spaced out.
Are there any specific health conditions that you think respond to acupuncture more than others?
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine tends to excel at treating a lot of chronic issues that western medicine may struggle with: migraines, digestive complaints, infertility, low back pain (or any chronic pain), stress, anxiety and sleep issues are just a few complaints that we tend to see positive changes in frequently. But that is certainly not an exhaustive list!
Are there any negative side effects to acupuncture?
Just like any modality of medicine there can always be side effects – the biggest with acupuncture may be an infrequent bruise. Other than that acupuncture is a very safe medical modality that has very few side effects (of course when performed by a licensed provider.)
What would you say to someone who is scared of going to acupuncture because of the use of needles?
First of all, I’d say you are not alone. Most of my patient didn’t love the thought of needles when they first started. But now they love it – and can’t wait to come and relax for an hour. It’s not like these people are somehow magically okay with pain all of a sudden – they are able to relax because it isn’t painful. That being said, a good acupuncturist will know how to walk a first-timer through the process and get it done quickly and painlessly. Just tell your provider that you’re nervous about the needles and they should know how to help you feel more relaxed – if they can’t then go see someone else. Just like so many things, you need to find the right acupuncturist for you – start with one who listens well and has good bed-side manner.
What are some pressure points for at home relief that someone could do?
My favorite for minor headaches or any kind of pain (acute or chronic) is LI4. To locate, press your thumb next to your index finger (as if you were giving a tight salute), find where the crease between these fingers ends and move directly up and over that fleshy area toward your index finger until you reach bone. Right off the bone is that point. Rub, rub, rub!
Will my health insurance cover acupuncture treatment?
It depends on your insurance carrier and your specific plan – as well as what issue you are seeking treatment for. For example, many insurance carriers who do cover acupuncture only cover it for chronic pain. The best way to know if it’s covered is to call your insurance company directly (with your membership card handy) and try to get an actual human on the phone – ask them if your plan covers acupuncture and if there are any providers that accept it in your area.
Why would you suggest acupuncture for someone who is dealing with an autoimmune or autonomic disorder?
Chinese medicine excels at treating complex syndromes that western medicine may struggle with. One of those areas is autoimmune and autonomic disorders. That’s because of the way we diagnose and treat – we attempt to treat the whole person and therefore we can catch and treat things that a medical doctor simply might not be able to focus on – like side effects of a medication or persistent issues that you may complain of but that simply are not pressing matters for the physician (or aren’t within their specialty.) Western medicine is incredible and incredibly important. It simply excels at different things – that’s why the two are wonderful in concert with one another. A good acupuncturist knows how to work with your physician to provide you the best care. Seeing an acupuncturist? Great! You’ve added a new specialist to your wellness team… just don’t stop seeing your physician. We can help address different things to ensure you are getting the best possible care from every angle.
Is it important is it to go to an acupuncturist who has an understanding of your health condition?
Absolutely. Look into their credentials, check out their website…call their office and ask to speak with the provider about what they do and what their experience is with your condition. Remember – you are ultimately in control of your wellness team – look for the providers that you want on it.
There’s a lot of non-believers when it comes to acupuncture being a beneficial form of treatment for ongoing conditions. what would you say to those people?
Chinese medicine, and acupuncture specifically, is just like any other system of medicine – there are areas where we have a greater understanding of how it works, and areas where we need further research. For instance, regarding the treatment of pain, we have a lot of research that helps explains how acupuncture works. At this point most practitioners of medicine accept that acupuncture has shown to be helpful for things like chronic pain because of that body of research. What I tell people who are hesitant or skeptical of the medicine is – sure, you should be! I think it’s crucial that we continue to question how things work- especially in medicine. More research needs to be done – and we need to change the type of research trials we’ve relied on in the past. It turns out that acupuncture does not lend itself well to placebo trials – the reason being that what we’ve used for placebo in the past (namely sham acupuncture or similar) is no placebo at all. The very act of placing a needle in the body or against the body (even when it’s not an acu-point) has a therapeutic effect on the body – this has been borne out of the literature. That’s a problem – the point of a placebo is to have no therapeutic effect so you have something to compare the treatment with. Future research should now be focused on trials that compare acupuncture with standard of care or no treatment at all. Luckily more and more research is being done in this manner to help shed some light on how this fascinating medicine works. In the meantime my patients keep coming in because most of them simply feel better after a treatment. To me that’s pretty important.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
Thank you so much for being open to learning more about acupuncture! If you haven’t checked it out go give it a try – you may be surprised by how much you enjoy it.