The finer points of acupuncture

Postscript explores the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture and the mysterious ways it helps us

Though some are wary, acupuncture helps treat back pain, the flu and many chronic diseases.
Though some are wary, acupuncture helps treat back pain, the flu and many chronic diseases.

With exams around the corner and the temperature outside dropping every day, students are feeling the effects of stress and sickness.

Most of us a looking for any opportunity to nap and popping as much Advil as we can justify, but there might be a more traditional way to fend off seasonal bugs.

Over 3,000 years ago, ancient Chinese medicine developed acupuncture to help relieve pain and stress by strategically placing long, thin needles in a certain pattern on the body—according to recent research, they may have been on to something. published an article in May that reported on a study in which 25 per cent of patients with osteoarthritis symptoms no longer needed knee surgery after trying acupuncture. The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends acupuncture to treat over 40 different conditions, such as asthma, nausea and even chemotherapy, the article said.

Wendy Zhang, an acupuncturist and owner of her own acupuncture clinic in Toronto, said according to the traditional concept, an energy called Qi flows throughout the body.

A healthy body has a balance of Qi, which flows through “meridians” or “channels” in the body, along with the rest of the body’s fluids, like blood.

When there’s an imbalance of Qi, the body becomes sick or at least more susceptible to illness.

“From the Western medicine [perspective], the Qi concept doesn’t exist,” she said, adding that Western medicine refers to the nervous system to talk about this energy flow.

“Because Chinese medicine is from thousands of years ago, people used different language to describe the body,” she said. Regardless of the terminology, Zhang said pain is caused by a blockage of this energy flow.

“The [acupuncture] needle can open up the energy channels … make the energy flow better and restore the balance.”

Pauline Vaughan is the owner of Limestone Community Acupuncture in Kingston and a certified acupuncturist and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.

“The ancient Chinese probably discovered it by accident, that by inserting needles into different parts of the body they can have an impact on people’s health,” she said, adding that they eventually mapped out a pattern of over 360 pressure points.

“They found that these points line up in straight lines,” she said. “The Chinese surmised that they must be working with the energy in the body.

“The purpose of acupuncture is to balance the movement of energy … so that it flows smoothly in the appropriate direction and the appropriate quantity.”

Vaughan said when there is a deficiency in one meridian, there must be an excess in another, and acupuncture helps to provide balance.

According to the Acupuncture Foundation of Canada Institute, the acupuncture needles are able to stimulate certain points along the meridian paths, or points that connect paths, to restore Qi flow.

The 360 pressure points on the body are not as difficult to find as one might think, she said.

“It is fairly exact. You learn over time how to feel for the acupuncture points … they feel like slight depressions in the skin,” Vaughan said. “Often they’re tender when you press on them.”

There are certain common acupuncture points on the body that people can massage themselves for three to five minutes, according to, to help with certain types of aches and pains.

One of these points, located on the “Gall Bladder” meridian, can be found by pressing down on the spot where your shoulder and neck meet. This pressure point can help with headaches, dizziness and neck and shoulder pain.

She said finding the right spot can depend on patient feedback because it’s common to feel a slight burning sensation if the needles are placed incorrectly.

“Acupuncture points are not particularly dangerous,” she said, so no severe consequences should come from not getting the right spot at first.

The three main reasons people seek out treatments are for pain, anxiety and stress, she said.

“We treat all kinds of chronic pain all over the body. We also treat allergies and other chronic diseases,” she said, adding that she frequently treats ailments including sinus infections, the common cold, the flu, bronchitis and menstrual problems, but that’s not all.

“Sometimes people will get an injury, and theoretically it’s healed,” she said, but years after it can still bother them. She said acupuncture treatments can often treat this chronic pain.

“Most of my patients tell me that they’ve tried everything else and it hasn’t worked,” Vaughan said, and they’re often surprised at the quick results.

Although it has been effective for a lot of people, she said many also avoid trying it.

One reason for people’s wary attitude towards acupuncture is the concept of needles piercing through the body, she said.

“I have had a number of patients with needle phobias,” she said, and she even had a man come to her a few weeks ago who had a needle phobia.

She said that he usually faints whenever he has to get a needle at the doctor’s office.

“He had a pretty frozen shoulder,” she said. “Not only did he not faint, his pain was totally gone when he left and he felt great,” she said, adding that getting an acupuncture treatment is also in a very different environment than a doctor’s office.

“The needles are about as fine as a hair,” she said. “When you get a needle from the doctor you can feel it. [But with acupuncture] the needle goes past pain receptors so fast that you don’t feel it,” she said.

What that means is that instead of pain, you just feel endorphins, she said. Deb Thompson, a psychologist and owner of her own private practice in Kingston, said needle phobias affect at least 10 per cent of the population in North America.

“There’s an evolutionary preparedness for what used to be insect stings… some ancient fear of being pierced by a sharp needle-like thing, which back in the day would have been dangerous,” Thompson said, adding that acupuncture needles may not cause as much anxiety.

“Acupuncture, with the tiny, hair-like needles ... it’s entirely different,” she said.

“In people’s actual lives, the most common cause is an actual negative experience [with needles] … especially in childhood and adolescence.”

Phobias in general can be a predisposition in families as well, she said, in the sense that they are a form of anxiety that children may learn from a parent or sibling.

So why are so many of us anxious at the thought of needles?

One reason is often just the pain, she said. But for others, just the thought of something piercing the skin can cause a plethora of physiological responses.

“I think that if somebody anticipates something being difficult, their nervous system goes into a fight or flight [response],” Thompson said, which can include a racing heart, shallow breathing, fainting, nausea and muscle tension.

“The fear is initially a mental phenomenon,” she said, but as the physiological responses continue to follow, this fear may become reinforced.

“You get a loop between the thought and the feeling,” she said.

Because avoiding needles throughout life is fairly easy, Thompson said she doesn’t see a lot of patients seeking treatment.

“They don’t want to do the treatment … treatment involves exposure,” she said.

Although it may be difficult at first, she said people can definitely get over their needle phobias.

“What they’re going to need is a more gradual exposure, or what’s called a systematic desensitization,” she said, adding that this can include practicing with a capped syringe and allowing it to touch you or looking at pictures of needles.

“It is a highly treatable disorder.”

Overheard at Queen’s

Guy 1 to guy 2 on Union St.: “So wear socks.”
Guy 2: “I wear socks! That’s the one thing I wear ...”

“Everybody move back, there are lots of pretty girls back there so it won’t be difficult to squeeze in close. I know because I saw them.”
—Kingston transit employee on the bus.

“I wasn’t even sure he was that cute, but at that point I just wanted to hook up with someone so it really didn’t matter.”
—Logical girl walking down University Ave.

Girl 1 at Starbucks on Division St.: “Make sure you pay me back for this.”
Girl 2: “Please. You should be grateful that I’m taking you out in
public at all.”

“The ‘Stauffer Friends’ girls are starting to piss me off. Now they’re just bitching about everything.”
—Guy on University Ave.

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