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My first experience with acupuncture and cupping

I've always been curious about acupuncture. So many people tell me how awesome it is and how well it works. I've been having problems over the past year with what is probably a torn meniscus in my left knee and tendonitis in my right shoulder. I figured I should go ahead do it while I happen to be where it was invented -China. (ok, well technically I am in Hong Kong..)

Shoulder with acupuncture needles
Relaxing full of needles. It doesn't even hurt!
Is it just the placebo effect?
I've heard all this talk about  how qi (energy) moves through the body through areas called meridians. We have problems when there is a blockage of energy moving through a meridian. Sounds like hocus pocus to me, and not based on anatomy or physiology. Before submitting to the needles, I decided to do a little googling to get a better understanding of the technique. Ironically, one of the first hits when I googled "why does acupuncture work" was a blog by a doctor I greatly respect. His name is Chris Kresser. I highly respect him for his holistic view of health- and he is on the research-based bandwagon. Everything he says is based on our fundamental biology and peer reviewed, replicated research. He explains that we in the west have just radically misunderstood Chinese medicine because the translation of the ancient Chinese medical document was done by some French bank teller who had no understanding of human anatomy and physiology. Considering no Chinese people at the time even understood Ancient Chinese, I would wager his fluency in that language was more than lacking as well.

Dr. Kresser wrote a really wonderful series of articles on this topic. They start with the history and go on to explain how and why acupuncture works. I was 100% sold on trying it after reading them. If you would like to read the articles, go here.

Chinese acupuncture is actually physiologically based medicine. 
If you don't want to read the series, here is a summary. Chinese acupuncture is not based at all on "energy meridians" as most acupuncturists will tell you. Acupuncture is based on the same physiology that western medicine is based on. Ancient Chinese doctors knew about different organs and systems and how they worked. They understood that the lungs draw in air, take something the body needs from the air, and that the heart pumps it through the body. They knew this before Christ was born. The had a comprehensive understanding of how the body worked. The Chinese have just treated the body as a big unit of systems that all impact each other, where in the west we tend to treat individual systems, well, individually. I am not saying that all forms of traditional Chinese medicine work and are founded in physiology- only acupuncture. I learned from Chris's blog that acupuncture brings blood to the areas where they put the needles. Those tiny pricks don't alarm the body enough to think it has a major injury, but because it is a tiny minor little injury, the body does send blood to help heal and protect against infection. Acupuncture is great for healing scar tissue and areas with inflammation. I also learned that acupuncture can help to decrease systemic inflammation and that even work done on one specific body part, say a knee, will help holistically as well. I was sold. Where do I sign up?

Again I turned to google. I found a place that was stupid easy to get to and find in Central. This sounds silly, but in Hong Kong things are never simple and Google Maps often fails me. They also had reasonable prices, a clean, professional office, and highly educated doctors. The place is called Oriental Health and its literally across the street from exit B of Shueng Wan station.

Even the doctors repeat the "meridian"'s what they learned in school. 
When I showed up I was asked to fill out a questionnaire to determine what "body type" I had. More of this meridian mumbo jumbo. So their theory isn't spot on, but the diagrams from the text are still the basis for acupuncture points. Thankfully the French guy didn't have to translate those. The doctor asks me all sorts of questions as doctors always do. They ask about my stress levels and how I sleep at night, when my period is. Typical doctor stuff. She recommends that I do cupping because it will help immediately with stress and my shoulder pain. I've seen videos of cupping on TV- probably the Travel Channel or something and man it looks painful. But I figured if I'm gonna go, go all out. So I said sure. I'm down for whatever.

Time to get stuck
First, they had me lie down on the equivalent of a massage table. She told me that if it hurt to let her know. They put needles in my neck, my right shoulder, my lower back, my left knee and I think maybe a couple in my right knee too. The needles I felt the most were the ones in my shoulder and neck. Those didn't hurt until she turned the needle. Then it felt like a bit of an electric current making my muscle tighten and burn in one tony spot. Again, it hurt far less than a shot, a bee sting, and a lot less than getting my eyebrows waxed or threaded. If you can handle eyebrow threading, acupuncture is no problem. The back of my knee felt more like a mosquito bite and so did my lower back. They turned the lights out, and put these warming lamps over my problem spots and left me alone for 15 minutes. I had a little remote in my hand so I could press a button if I needed anything. It was a very odd feeling knowing that I couldn't really move because there were needles stuck in me. Once they were in, I couldn't tell where they were. The heat lamps are warm but not hot and helped me relax. I was nearly asleep when they came back in.

Prepare for the worst: time for the cupping
After removing the needles, it was time for cupping. I was nervous about the cupping because so many people say how painful it is, and it leaves big bruises that look painful. A woman who specializes in cupping came in and rubbed my back down with some soothing balm. It smelled like something similar to Tiger Balm She would seal a cup to my skin near my neck or shoulder, and run it down my back along tense muscles and then lift it away when she reached my pant line. She ran cups all over my back in tense areas near my shoulder blades, my obliques and lower back. She did it over and over again. To my shock, it felt amazing. It was like getting a massage but in reverse. Instead of someone pushing my muscle towards my body, it was being pulled away by the cup. I told the two women how good it felt. They told me that most people cry or yell or scream during this part, and there I am giggling like a small child at the fart noises the cups make and moaning because it felt good. Needless to say, they got a kick out of my reaction. I was relieved that the cupping didn't hurt. After the cupping "massage" they put several cups on me to sit for a couple of minutes. I thought this part would really hurt, but it just felt uncomfortable- like my skin was really tight. When they came back in to remove them, they said my skin had turned very dark. Tony said I looked like a spotted mushroom.
marks from cupping
The marks the cups left on my skin

More needles
After the cupping I had another acupuncture session, this time on my front. The needles in my knee hurt a bit more this time because there is much less fat in those areas than the back side. She also did my shoulder again and my lower stomach.

Initial Reactions and Feelings
I did feel a bit, floaty, afterward. Almost like I didn't know what to do with myself. It was my day off and I had no itinerary after my appointment, so it could be correlation without causation. The skin on my right shoulder was a bit sensitive- not in any particular spot, but similar to the way my skin feels when I have a fever. My backpack straps hurt a little bit, so I put on my rain jacket to protect my skin from the scratchiness of the pack.  I got VERY lucky and caught the last ferry back to Lantau before they shut down all transportation because of the typhoon. Once I arrived home, I realised that the right side of my neck was very sore. It feels quite bruised like a sore muscle combined with a bruise. My knee doesn't hurt one bit. My right shoulder has a greater range of motion, but I have pain in the muscles inside my arm pit. There is a very low level soreness in my shoulder. The best way to describe the feeling is "superficial." When I closed my eyes while washing my hair in the shower last night, I felt a bit spinny. Again, this could be correlation but not causation because I had just been on a very rocky ferry ride. I was slightly concerned about my neck pain, so I googled common symptoms after acupuncture. I don't know why I didn't think to do this before my appointment.

Some common side effects of acupuncture are:
-Temporarily worse symptoms (this happens when cutting out sugar too!)
-Muscle Twitching
-Emotional Release

These side effects are not common, are not life threatening and are completely temporary. And acupuncture is proven to work. Totally worth it, in my opinion.