Can You Get Acupuncture If There’s Nothing Wrong With You?

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When I arrived for my acupuncture appointment with practitioner Jasmine Stine, she was wearing a loose-fitting all-white outfit, with a red beaded necklace, and her office was soothing and peaceful. (Except for my entrance: The elevator had been out, and I sort of burst in through a side door, forcing it open with a loud bang.) There were white-noise machines spaced along the hallways, one of which I also have in my bedroom — the same model — and I made some awkward small talk about how there was a funny Strategist post on how great they are, calling them “homely” in the title, which is a perfect descriptor.

I kept making nervous and deflective jokes, and Stine kept gently sidestepping them, guiding me toward a more direct way of communicating. We were sitting in her office by then, and the session had begun. After we spoke for a while, she looked into my eyes, took my pulse — listened to my pulse, really, with both of her hands on both of my wrists, focusing first on one side and then the other — looked at my tongue, and asked me questions about my life and my body. My periods, my bowel movements, etc. This went on for almost an hour, although to me it flew by. By the time we got to the first round of acupuncture — on my back (I was lying facedown on her table, my face through one of those padded loops) — I had basically given her my whole life story and felt off-kilter and exposed, but good, too. She tapped a dozen or so needles into various spots on my back, which she measured out with her hands. Most of the needles going in felt like nothing, but one went in with a startling ping, or a zap — “ooh!” I think I said — although once they were in, I felt nothing.

I’d thought that acupuncture was used mostly for pain, but Stine told me that acupuncture has traditionally been used as a preventive measure, something that people would get “once a season” or so, to help themselves remain or get back in balance. I’d figured there wasn’t anything explicit that it could help me with, since I wasn’t in pain, but she told me that pain was a relatively small part of what acupuncture can treat.

Acupuncture originated in China during the Shang dynasty (1600–1100 B.C.), when it was discovered that stimulating certain areas of the skin can affect the function of other areas of the body, to paraphrase a summary in the journal Practical Pain Management. Typically, an acupuncture session involves a patient talking with the practitioner about illness, stress, and general disharmony (in all aspects of life — not just physical discomfort), and then, eventually, being needled, which takes only a few minutes, after which a patient rests with the needles in (for 30 to 60 minutes), allowing them to do their thing. Acupuncture’s popularity in the West is often traced to 1971, when the New York Times ran a cover story in which political journalist James Reston described an emergency appendectomy and acupuncture session he had while in China reporting on something else. Acupuncture also arrived in the United States in the ’70s by way of the Black Panthers, some of whom studied it in China and brought it back to New York City.

While I lay facedown on Stine’s acupuncture table — we were waiting for the “toxic energy” to drain out of my back, which would be signaled by the redness around the needles subsiding — I thought about all the weird stuff I’d told her (how could acupuncture help me with my anxiety about work/failures, about my ex-boyfriend, about my low confidence, my general sense of fear that I was lost or didn’t belong or otherwise doing stuff wrong), but I also kind of maybe dozed off, I am not actually sure. It was peaceful and time went by at a strange pace. It was fast and then it was slow, and I felt completely at peace but also sad, in a state of submission. It took a long time for the redness to fade; Stine checked in on me a couple times. Then I flipped over and we did another session on my hands and feet.

The NIH’s official stance on acupuncture is that it appears to be helpful for pain alleviation, but from a Western perspective, the science so far is unclear on how it works. (Acupuncture’s effectiveness is often cited in placebo studies.) The NIH is also funding research into whether and how acupuncture can relieve symptoms associated with menopause and chemotherapy. “I mean, we know how it works!” Stine told me. Needles in one spot affect the flow of energy from one area of the body to another, she said, which is why a needle in the elbow can affect the function of digestion, for instance. “Chinese medicine is based on the study of nature,” she said. “Patterns that we can observe in nature — energetically or otherwise — can be observed and influenced in human beings, since we are also a part of nature.” She also emphasized that traditional Chinese medicine differs significantly from Western medicine in that it takes a more holistic approach to health: In Chinese medicine, organs aren’t seen as disparate but rather as inseparable parts of a system. What Western medicine might see as a liver problem, Chinese medicine might consider a liver-system imbalance, affecting the eyes, the tendons, and the gallbladder (for instance) as well as the liver itself. I liked the summary in a story from the South China Morning Post: “Western medicine generally aims to isolate the cause of a disease and treat that directly, while TCM has a holistic approach, perhaps similar to the recent Western concept of wellness.”

Toward the end of our session, Stine told me that my body signs — my pulse, etc. — were indicating that my liver system was dragging a bit. I asked her what I should be doing differently in my life aside from that, hoping she might tell me the answer to my life problems was to stop drinking coffee or something. “Nothing,” she said. She told me that what I was looking for couldn’t be found in dietary changes, or in a new exercise routine. I paused. Okay, I said. Then she told me that I was looking for a purpose, and that I needed to commit to something. She recommended meditating on it.

I’m not sure what the needles did or if they necessarily did anything, but I’m open to having things beyond my understanding work in harmony with other things I don’t understand. It was also nice to be listened to and considered in that way; I hadn’t been expecting it. Later I felt like I could finally see what to commit to, although a few days after that, I was confused again.

Can You Get Acupuncture If There’s Nothing Wrong With You?