By Catherine Price
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I don't usually stick my tongue out at my doctor. But that is exactly what Bianca, a clinic intern at the Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California, has asked me to do.
The college offers a discount on acupuncture if you agree to let students like Bianca observe your treatment. And because nothing else seems to be helping curb my back pain, I've decided to play along.
"Like, really stick it out?" I ask, glancing at the five other interns clustered around Bianca, all leaning forward and staring at my mouth.
"Yes," she says. "We all want to take a look."
Reluctantly, I open wide and extend my tongue as far as it'll go. Bianca has already asked me about my menstrual blood and vaginal discharge in front of the group (both are pretty normal, thank you). Now, as the students debate various aspects of my tongue --like its color (dusky purple) and coating (thin and white). I think of a different question: What, exactly, does this have to do with my backache?
Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that's been practiced for at least 2,500 years. It's partly based on the idea that backaches (and any other complaints) aren't singular problems. "You're taught that what happens in one part of the body is reflected in the rest of the body," says Jill Blakeway, a renowned acupuncturist in New York. "It emphasizes the interconnectedness of everything in the universe." (Health.com: Feel better, naturally )
Acupuncture also teaches that the body contains two opposing forces: yin and yang. Together, they contribute to your chi (pronounced "chee"), a Chinese word roughly translated as "vital energy." If this energy flow is interrupted or blocked, it can cause pain and disease. This is part of the reason that Bianca's examining my tongue -- acupuncturists think your tongue can reveal energy imbalances in your body. Turns out a purple color suggests stagnation in your chi, which could lead to a range of disorders, including a sore back.
Acupuncturists try to restore balance in the body by stimulating specific points, often by inserting thin metal needles into the skin. Sometimes electrical currents are even added to the needles to increase their effectiveness.
No one is entirely sure how acupuncture works, but groups like the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization agree it's a useful remedy. The WHO lists more than 40 conditions for which acupuncture is often used, including addictions, nausea and vomiting, asthma, digestive issues, sinusitis, osteoarthritis, and allergies. It's also used increasingly for infertility. Some of the best evidence shows it may offer relief for pain -- from post-surgery dental pain to menstrual cramps, from migraines to tennis elbow.
"It's definitely effective in some cases," says Mehmet Oz, M.D., a heart surgeon and vice chairman of surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University, who recommends acupuncture to his patients. "What I love the most is that acupuncture makes us think very differently about how the body works." Oz and Blakeway both agree that acupuncture is worth a try if Western medicine seems to fail you. (Health.com: Immunity boosters )
After my tongue exam, Bianca and her classmates ask questions about my overall state. Do I have trouble sleeping? No. Am I generally hot or cold? I fluctuate. And how is my appetite? Healthy! Then their professor, Hua Ling Xu, chair of the AIMC Oriental Medicine Department, identifies treatment points on my wrists, shoulders, hands, ankles, and the backs of my knees. As I lie face down on the table, Xu swabs each point with alcohol, flicks it with her finger, and briskly taps sterile needles into my body.
I feel a slight prick when the needles -- inserted a quarter-inch to an inch deep -- puncture my skin. (If you experience pain, they need to be adjusted). I also feel what acupuncturists call a chi sensation, which I've heard described as "deep," "achy," "tingly," or "quivery." One point in my back makes my left hand twitch. Another, next to my thumb, sends what feels like a flash of electricity through my entire body. And in the 20 minutes I'm on the table, I notice something ironic: Having 14 needles stuck in my body is surprisingly relaxing.
I leave the clinic feeling energized, with the muscles in my back looser and my mind peaceful and centered, despite my microscopic puncture wounds. I return for two more sessions, and, although I don't feel completely pain-free, I've started recommending acupuncture to friends and family --no matter what their tongues look like.