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              Volume 11 |Issue 10| March 09, 2012 |


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Straight Talk

Straight to the Point

Nadia Kabir Barb


Alternative medicine such as homeopathy, acupuncture, osteopathy, herbalism, reflexology etc. has always been contentious with many people. Some swear by it and feel that where other medication and conventional treatments fail, alternative medicine will prevail. Others are sceptical and feel that many of these practices have no solid scientific evidence that prove that they are effective and are “statistically indistinguishable from placebo treatments” (Edzard Ernst). I, however, have been amongst those people who have been sitting firmly on the fence and have been waiting to be persuaded one way or another. I think I can say that I have been of the opinion of Richard Dawkins who stated that "there is no alternative medicine. There is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't work…if a technique is demonstrated effective in properly performed trials, it ceases to be alternative and simply becomes medicine.” In my words — show me the proof and I'll become a believer!

As it so happens, a few months ago, I found myself in a situation where I was about to find out exactly what I thought about one particular type of alternative medicine — namely acupuncture. Having been a chronic migraine sufferer from the age of six, I had almost become accustomed to having severe headaches on a regular basis. Some of these headaches would hit me with the impact of a sledge hammer; others would gnaw away at my skull for days and some would set up a persistent drum beat in my head making my eyes feel like they were about to pop out of their sockets. I might go as far as saying they were downright debilitating at times.

Of course I had been in and out of the doctors, had the dreaded MRIs, and been given countless types of medication which were relegated to the back of a drawer as they were mostly ineffective. It was also suggested to me by my GP on more than one occasion that I should try acupuncture. I think I have a pretty high pain threshold and can function with a considerable amount of pain but needles and I just don't get along. The thought of blood tests and injections make me shudder so the thought of becoming a human pin cushion was obviously out of the question. Much to my consternation, I found that fate somehow has a way of taking things out of your hands. Fate, my mother and three of my aunts so to speak!

A family event brought all four of these exceedingly charming but somewhat formidable ladies to London and when they saw that my headaches had reached a point where I was almost unable to function normally, they decided to take things in to their own hands. My mother having had acupuncture in China many years ago with lasting effect has been an advocate and within days of their arrival I was coerced into calling a Chinese acupuncturist recommended by family friends and even booking an appointment with her even though her practice was situated almost an hour's drive from me.

On the day, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself accompanied by two of my aunts to see the Chinese doctor and to have them wait almost two hours while I went in for my treatment. I think that my mother and my aunts apart from being blessed with a very caring disposition felt that if I were not to be escorted to the doctor, I might do a Houdini act and not show up for my appointment.

We were met by a very friendly and cheerful receptionist who tried to make me feel at ease while I waited for the doctor. When I was taken into the treatment room I felt like someone being led into a torture chamber. I could see my aunts smiling at me and giving me 'it's going to be fine' looks.


For those who are not familiar with acupuncture, it is an alternative form of medicine that originated in China over two thousand years ago and has been an integral part of spiritual and religious practices throughout Chinese history. Acupuncture essentially treats patients by manipulating thin, solid needles that are inserted into certain pressure points or acupuncture points in the skin.

Once inside, the doctor sat me down and asked me about myself, my medical history and the lifestyle I led. Then she checked my pulse and also my tongue which I later learned were principal diagnostic methods in traditional Chinese medicine.

While the doctor wrote down my details, I asked her a little bit about the concept behind acupuncture and also lost no time in telling her that I had an aversion to needles and was only there under duress, thanks to my family. Her smile told me that I was not the first person who had stepped into her room with my scepticism and fear nor would I be the last. Somehow it was a rather comforting thought.

She explained to me that according to Traditional Chinese medicine, the natural energy of the universe is thought to flow freely through a healthy body and the underlying principle behind sickness and ill health is believed to be an imbalance or blockage of qi (pronounced chee). 'Qi' literally translated means life force, life energy or energy flow and stimulating these specific points can correct imbalances in the flow through channels within the body known as meridians.

At this stage there was nothing for me to do but give into the process. After an initial massage she did what is known as fire cupping on my back. Small glass cups are used and air inside the cup is heated and the rim is then applied to the skin. When the the air inside the cup cools, it contracts, forming a partial vacuum enabling the cup to suck the skin, pulling in soft tissue, and drawing blood to that area. This is supposed to be beneficial by helping with the blood circulation throughout the body.

Once that part of the procedure had been completed, she began to insert the needles. I am not sure what I had been anticipating but I had not accounted for having the needles being used all over my body. She inserted numerous needles in my back, neck, shoulders, stomach, head, hands, legs and even feet. I have been told by people that you can't really feel any pain and it is just like a pin prick. Well I would like to refute those statements and say that though some are like pin pricks and are mildly uncomfortable while others are far more painful and I admit to having flinched more than a few times. I also found out that there are different sizes of needles ranging from exceedingly fine to rather thicker ones than one would like to imagine. However, once the needles were in, there was no pain and at one point I actually found myself drifting off.

After my first session, I can't say that there was any improvement but having given my solemn oath to my mother and my aunts (to whom I am now eternally grateful) I found myself returning to the Chinese doctor for a few more sessions. The truth of the matter is that nowadays my headaches are far less frequent and I can go for a week or two without the hint of a drum beat or sledgehammer. This to me is a novel experience and one that I am not willing to give up hence I am still returning for my acupuncture every few weeks.

I have no idea whether there is any scientific basis to my pain relief or whether I am suffering from a type of placebo effect but whatever the reason, acupuncture appears to be working for me as it has done for countless others. It may not be permanent cure but just temporary pain relief but right now that is good enough...

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