Street Smart Chicago

Change Your Life: Acupuncture

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By Burt Michaels

The afternoon before my son’s wedding, he said he was stressed out about the reception, and asked if I’d go somewhere with him. I figured he meant a bar or maybe a climbing wall, but instead he pulled up to an acupuncture clinic. I didn’t see what acupuncture had to do with his jitters, but figured it was just another side of Berkeley’s kooky culture, like organic tofu and Tibetan prayer flags.

Sure enough, the clinic was seventies redux, with subdued lighting, New Age music and cushy recliners. The acupuncturist asked what was ailing me. My first impulse was to reply, “Nothing,” but then the foot pain I’d suffered nightly ever since a less-than-stellar surgery a few years earlier popped in my mind. She said she’d work on it.

I anticipated needles plunging deep into my flesh like some sort of piercing Thai massage, but didn’t even feel them go in. I expected her to stick them in my foot, which she did—but also in my ear, wrists, belly, back-of-the-knee and other surprising spots. Laying there, I figured I’d soon get bored, but instead zoned out, and when she returned some half hour later to remove the needles, I felt like I’d had a great vacation.

Before we left, she recommended I visit an acupuncture clinic attached to a school back in Chicago. I politely took the information and promptly forgot about it. Granted, that night was my first in years without foot pain, which didn’t return even after our trip; I was pleased, but chalked it up to placebo.

Months passed before I thought about acupuncture again. But when my wife suffered lingering pain after knee surgery, I suggested she try it, and volunteered to go with. The Chicago clinic wasn’t at all New Agey—rather sterile, in fact. But the treatments eased her pain, and more surprisingly, reduced her scar dramatically in both thickness and color. I couldn’t write that off as placebo. And I kept going for the fun of it—sort of an induced meditation once a week.

For several months my acupuncturist and I worked on aches and pains I’d been aware of at most subliminally—annoyances under the radar that surfaced, one after another, and then dissipated. In time the treatments shifted to other issues, like my digestion and energy level. I began looking to acupuncture less to relieve problems and more to enhance well-being. With higher standards for vitality, I found myself making unexpected lifestyle changes–in diet (no more Diet Cokes; bigger breakfasts, smaller dinners; more soups), in exercise (less intense, more frequent), in skin care (using lotions). Even, uncharacteristically, submitting to an occasional massage. When my dermatologist suggested I see a cosmetic surgeon to manage a stubborn facial irritation that wouldn’t respond to pharmaceutical ointments, I tried cosmetic acupuncture—some twenty-odd needles in the face and head, as well as a cohort all over my body—with results as striking as my wife’s scar reduction.

Some of my friends scoff and think I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but perfectly conventional Brits and Frenchmen I’ve met use acupuncture routinely—their health care even pays for it. Top infertility clinics and children’s hospitals in Chicago team up with acupuncturists. It’s getting around. And when I return to Berkeley, I feel needled right into the culture.

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