Fear of needles affects up to 10 percent of people. I’m one of them. So, imagine my surprise when I signed up for an acupuncture session – a willing participant to be pricked with stainless steel needles, thinner than the width of a human hair.
It was a recent conversation with a friend that shifted my perspective. While I had always thought of it as something to help with pain, I quickly learned its benefits can be substantial. I was fascinated. And I’m not the only one. Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson recently said he, too, is trying acupuncture while he battles a turf toe injury. So, what’s the hype? I took a deep dive in search of answers.
‘It helps balance things out’
The tradition of acupuncture, which involves inserting thin needles at very specific points on the body, stems from the idea that energy flows within the human body and can be channeled to create balance and health. Acupuncture is but one component of traditional Chinese medicine where it is believed that the body can best heal itself, and respond well to conventional treatment, when it is balanced.
“We all know that past traumas or sources of anxiety, things of that nature, reside in our mind. But the Chinese medicine practitioners I've worked with say those emotions actually live in every cell of the body,” said Dr. Russell Greenfield of Novant Health Integrative Medicine. “When those hidden or pushed away emotions are released in a safe fashion, all of the cells in the body function that much better. Whether that release happens through therapy, or journaling, bodywork or acupuncture, if it can happen in a way that enhances balance, it appears that people will be better off for it.”
Acupuncture can help with myriad of health issues, including:
- Sinus problems.
- Digestive disorders including irritable bowel syndrome, nausea and vomiting.
- Hormonal issues including menstrual cramps, infertility and troubling symptoms of menopause.
- Joint problems including neck and lower back pain.
- Neurologic issues such as neuropathy and stroke rehabilitation.
- As an adjunct to treatment for cancer.
- Dental pain, and pain following surgery.
- Autoimmune or inflammatory disorders.
My experience with acupuncture
Some may get immediate benefits from a single session, but Greenfield said most people will need at least four to six sessions to experience a noticeable difference. I started with one to get a feel for what to expect.
I arrived a few minutes prior to my appointment and was greeted by a cheerful person at the front desk. Her smile eased any nervousness about the experience, as did the soothing voice of the Novant Health licensed acupuncturist who I would be working with – Amanda Nolff. As a licensed acupuncturist, Nolff completed more than 2,000 hours of training before beginning her practice. A major goal of training is to glean an understanding of the energy within the body and how to manipulate it toward balance and optimal health, including specifically where and how to place the acupuncture needles.
The room reminded me of that of a massage therapist: The lighting was soft, soothing music played quietly in the background. First, Nolff and I talked through my health history and interest in acupuncture. Then, she had me lay down on a neatly made table with white sheets – which was heated, much to my delight – and told me to relax. “Well, no turning back now,” said a tiny voice in my head.
Nolff began by taking the pulse on both of my wrists – something she did just by holding them – and immediately picked up on the fact that I am a cold-natured person. Ask anyone who knows me. I am ALWAYS cold. From that, she also gleaned that I experience mild, seasonal allergies. I was impressed.
As she began to insert the single-use stainless steel needles, it felt like a brief prick. It reminded me of a small insect bite that makes you flinch or swat at your arm. Maybe momentary discomfort, but nothing remotely like getting “stuck” with a needle – something I avoid at all costs. The needles, thinner than a human hair, were so fine that I couldn’t feel them once they were in. Within 10 minutes I had needles in my scalp, ear, arm and lower legs. “Not so bad,” I thought with surprise.
Nolff told me she would give me about 30 minutes to let the needles do their job and she exited the room, and I just enjoyed a few minutes of relaxation in the middle of a hectic workday. When she returned, I asked about needle placement and how she decided where to put them. She explained the goal is to balance the body’s yin and yang – the idea that opposite forces can be interconnected and complementary to one another.
“At its most basic, each person possesses a unique balance of the energies of yin and yang. We walk a wiggly path between the two,” Nolff said. “When they are of equal size, pressed together in balance, we are most likely to be healthy. When one gets a little too big, or a little too small, that's often when we see problems expressed through different organ systems in the body.”
I can say with confidence that acupuncture is something I would try again. My first session with Nolff proved to me that it’s nothing to fear.
Some other things to know:
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing.
- Eat something light prior to an appointment.
- Avoid caffeine, if possible, as well as any rigorous exercise directly following the session.
- Acupuncture can make you sleepy. An important meeting or event following a treatment may not be the best idea.
I also learned that acupuncture is often not covered by insurance. Greenfield said the fee for an initial acupuncture session at Novant Health is in line with community standards and costs $125. The follow-up visits are shorter in duration and cost $85. While insurance usually won’t cover it, you can tap into flexible spending dollars to help pay for acupuncture. Group or community acupuncture, where multiple people are in the room receiving treatment, is effective and more affordable. Greenfield said those group sessions cut the price of a treatment by more than half.
‘Open the gates’
Since acupuncture is known to ease pain and nausea, Nolff often works with cancer patients. There is also a concept in traditional Chinese medicine that acupuncture can “open the gates” for people receiving chemotherapy – meaning the medicine can get to places that it ordinarily might not be able to.
“The theory is that acupuncture allows chemotherapy to travel where it can do the most good,” said Greenfield. “While at the same time, helping to reduce the incidence of side effects.”
Research is ongoing; however, Greenfield said people seem to experience fewer and less severe side effects related to treatment when they have acupuncture compared to those who do not. More than 75 percent of people with cancer seen in the Novant Health Integrative Medicine Clinics are referred for acupuncture, but the treatment is not reserved only for those who have cancer. A number of acupuncture appointment slots are held open both in Charlotte and in Winston-Salem to help people with a variety of health issues unrelated to cancer.
Novant Health Cancer Institute
The Novant Health Sherry Strong Integrative Medicine Oncology Clinic, where acupuncture is offered, is now seeing patients at the Claudia W. and John M. Belk Heart & Vascular Institute and Agnes B. and Edward I. Weisiger Cancer Institute, located at 125 Queens Road near uptown Charlotte. This new facility brings together all outpatient cancer and cardiac specialists, treatment services and support programs in one central location.
Cancer and heart patients often have long, complicated medical journeys that require them to visit multiple providers at different locations and times, so consolidating these services in one Charlotte location streamlines care and improves the experience for patients.
“Novant Health is proud to open the doors of this premier facility offering leading-edge treatments, groundbreaking clinical research and personalized, whole-person care for patients with cardiovascular conditions and cancer,” said Dr. Eric Eskioglu, executive vice president and chief medical officer for Novant Health. “This is a historic moment for our entire Carolina community to celebrate.”
Alternatively, acupuncture is also offered at Novant Health Cancer Institute – Kimel Park in Winston-Salem.