Misadventures In Acupuncture

Due to a mix of my desire to experiment and of my past acupuncture student status, I have experienced a LOT of acupuncture treatments. Some were wonderful, and some were sorely lacking. At this point in my career, however, I am glad that I have had so much experience on the other end of the needle, because I now know what works-and what will send people running, never to return. The first time I had acupuncture, I had no idea what to expect. Like many of you out there, I had expectations of an ancient Chinese man performing some type of incense-filled ritual over my needled body. I was quite surprised when my acupuncturist turned out to be a young blonde woman who looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. She was perky and chatty, and asked me a series of questions before putting the needles in. I will say that her technique was good; at the time I was rather squeamish about needles, and nervous about the process in general, but I barely felt a thing. That was the positive part of the treatment. The bad part? Well, she left the room shortly after, never to return. Okay, she returned after forty minutes or so, but as a patient who had no idea what was going on, it felt like an eternity. I had no buzzer or bell to alert her if she was needed, and I felt kind of...well, abandoned. I tried to relax, but then the needles started popping out...and when I say "popping", I mean that they were literally flying across the room. If this happened today, I wouldn't think anything of it, but as a first-timer, I really wanted someone there to tell me what was going on. In the end, I didn't enjoy the session at all, because I simply couldn't relax in that strange environment, with no one around to explain the details of what was happening during the treatment.

Fast-forward to a few years later. After starting grad school, I went to the school clinic for some back pain. The acupuncturist turned out to be one of my professors, who asked if she could treat me in front of a few other students. I agreed, and at that point she told me to take off my pants. When I asked for a drape, or a sheet, she just smiled and gave me a speech about how being naked wasn't a big deal, and how her experience in nudist colonies taught her that we shouldn't fear exposing our bodies. I didn't want to argue, so I simply laid on the table while she pulled down my underwear and needled my back in front of five students and an open window facing a courtyard full of students.

You would think that the previous episode would scare me away from student clinics forever, but apparently I'm a slow learner. About two years after the enforced nudity incident, I went to the school clinic to get treated for a cold. I had your basic issues: body aches, sore throat, headache, but my nose wasn't stuffy or running. After all the other needles were in, the student attempted to put a needle into the tip of my nose. When I asked her why, she said that it would help my stuffy nose. I explained, again, that my nose wasn't stuffy at all, and she insisted that the point was necessary. I quickly realized that that was an acupuncture point we had learned about in school that week, and this student simply wanted to use me as her guinea pig. I patiently repeated that I would prefer if she didn't stick a needle in the tip of my nose, please, and finally she gave up (although not without some huffing and eye-rolling).

I later learned that poor bedside manner isn't just an issue suffered by the inexperienced practitioner. At one point I went to a practitioner who is famous in our field. I expected a life-changing treatment. What I received was jarring, uncomfortable, and completely intimidating. He yelled at me from the moment I walked in the door. I know that was just his way, but I prefer soothing tones and reassurance when I'm at the acupuncturist's office. If I want to get screamed at, I'll join a boot camp. His palpation was so strong and uncomfortable that I think he may have flattened a few organs. After he diagnosed me, he ran out of the room and left an assistant to finish the treatment. And then I was left there, sore, freezing (I was too afraid of him to ask for a blanket) and all alone, with the occasional screams of other patients as my only company.

Please don't misunderstand: for every acupuncturist who gave me a treatment bad enough to warrant a good story, there have been ten others who have done a wonderful job. Most acupuncturists really care about what they do, and therefore excel at it. However, I have found that I often learn more after bad experiences than good. To this day, I always drape my patients, I never leave them alone, and I try my best not to hurt them (or scream at them until they almost cry.) I also don't use crazy points that may hurt just for my own experimentation. You can give someone the best treatment in the world, but if you hurt/humiliate/frighten them in the process, it will be the only time you will get a chance to treat them.