I live with chronic migraines. These days I get them anywhere from one to five times a week. Oddly enough, this doesn't seem so bad anymore.
In the summer of 2008, I began experiencing migraines daily. These weren't my normal migraines, but something much worse. Having lived with migraines for as long as I can remember, I've learned to function despite them. But I couldn't function with these migraines. I only left the couch for visits to the doctor or the chiropractor. The chiropractor was much more help than the doctor, especially once he convinced me to try acupuncture.
At that point, I was visiting him three to four times a week because adjustments were the only thing that seemed to help at all, and they didn't last. Finally, he asked if I wanted to try acupuncture. Until then I'd been hesitant to try it. Why would I want someone to stick needles in me? And how could that possibly help anything? But now I was desperate and willing to try anything.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a form of ancient Chinese medicine that involves inserting small needles into the skin at strategic locations along what are called meridians. These meridians (or paths) connect the body to itself. You can picture it similarly to the nervous system, but it's not quite the same path. It's unclear why it works, but multiple studies have supported that acupuncture does, in fact, relieve many types of pain and other problems.
Shortly after the chiropractor put the needles in and left the room, I felt a huge release and relief. It wasn't uncommon for me to be in tears in his office because of the pain, but these tears were different. These were tears of release.
After he removed the needles he let me stay in the dark room as long as I needed. I laid there feeling better than I had in weeks. My head still hurt, but the pain had gone from a 10 to tolerable. From that day on I've been a believer in acupuncture and what it can do.
Doesn't it hurt?
Surprisingly, it doesn't hurt. Most of the time. Many times my doctor will insert a needle and I won't even feel it. If I do feel it, it's usually just a stinging pain. Nothing in comparison to the pain that it relieves. What I've learned is that the needles that hurt the most are also the ones that help the most.
Every once in a while when the needle is removed there will be a small dot of blood, but that's also rare and not too concerning.
How fast does it work?
The needles are usually left in for about 20 minutes. I almost always feel improvement during that time. I wouldn't say that one treatment takes away my pain completely, but sometimes it does. During that summer of the worst chronic migraine ever I returned a couple of times a week for adjustments and acupuncture. These days I may receive acupuncture once a month or less.
Because my doctor is a chiropractor he doesn't just use acupuncture, but there are many who do. Because he's a chiropractor my acupuncture treatments are covered under insurance. In addition to treating migraines, he's used acupuncture on me to treat temporomandibular joint syndrome (which we found to be the cause of the migraines), neck and shoulder problems, lower back pain, and even anxiety.
I was half joking when I visited midway into a panic attack and asked my doctor if he had a needle for anxiety. I was surprised when he said yes and promptly popped one into the top of my head. Sure enough, it worked. The anxiety went away, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm.
It's unclear why acupuncture works, but study after study has indicated that it does. It's not just a placebo effect. Evidently, the ancient Chinese doctors were onto something. Maybe one day we'll figure out what that something was. Until then we'll just continue to enjoy the benefits of their discoveries.