Acupuncture? Needlephobics have nothing to fear

Who's afraid of the big bad pointy things?

By Tim Bastable - how much he really, really doesn't like them and how his dislike of needles finally persuaded him to try acupuncture.

Well, me actually. I’m not exactly needle phobic, but saying "I’m not a fan" is an understatement on a par with: "The Canaries aren't doing too well at the moment are they?" It was no surprise to me to find that a British Acupuncture Council survey found the the use of needles creates a negative public perception of acupuncture.

Apparently “needles in a clinical setting" are associated with painful interventions and, while we don’t always remember the details, subconsciously, "we carry the scars and intuitively avoid repeating the experiences”.

I can vouch for these findings. I don’t remember what triggered my dislike of injections, but I know  it’s strong enough for me to choose to have fillings without an anesthetic. It’s so strong that when my acupuncturist friend bet me she’d be sticking needles in me within six months I bet her my house it wouldn’t happen - ever.

Being a very kind person she said, “OK - two years - if you are on my couch within two years I get your house”.

I bet you can guess what happens next...

Now I’m a complementary therapy sceptic - not a cynic - but I want evidence. At the time of the bet , I had no idea I would be running the website for her clinic. 

Since I started working here I’ve been impressed by the number of people who report great results from acupuncture…

... and, I have a long term problem with tendonitis…

... and, people kept telling me I should try acupuncture...

... and, I’ve already had one round of cortisone injections…

... and, the needles for that are so big you have a local anesthetic with a different needle before they even start with the steroids.

Yes, you were right!

I’ve finally been persuaded to let someone stick multiple needles into my body to stop pain (having carefully checked the two years were up).

For fellow needle avoiders - it’s worth knowing needles used in acupuncture are very fine, between 0.12 and 0.30mm in diameter, finer than even the smallest hypodermic needle. It’s also worth noting that much of the discomfort from injections is caused by the material injected into the muscle or under the skin and from anxiety surrounding the circumstances in which the the injection is given.

The circumstances surrounding acupuncture are anything but stressful. The treatment room was tranquil, with a residual perfume of essential oils and a very calm reassuring practitioner who took a detailed medical history. By the time I was directed towards the treatment couch I was already feeling relaxed. The super-comfortable mattress and fleecy blankets added another layer to my inner calm, despite the now inescapable needling ahead.

I was shown two packs of needles and asked to check the expiry date and that the packs were sealed, as per The British Acupuncture Council rules (I blanked out the length). The Acupuncturist had suggested she treat my long standing lower back pain as well as the tendonitis in my wrist and we started with the back. She explained exactly what she would do and what feelings I had to look out for as the needles went in and told me she was about to insert the first needle in my leg.

As it went in I felt - nothing! Not a thing - not even a pinprick. I was told the needles were going to be manipulated to find the point where they would be effective and that I had to say when I felt a sting, a dull ache, or a tickling sensation. More needles went in. Some were painless, some were like an ant bite - one or two felt more intense than an ant bite sting, but it dissipated quickly and there was no long term discomfort.

But did it do anything?

As the treatment progressed I discovered that the left side of my body was 5 times more sensitive to the needles than my right side - apparently a common occurrence. (I was also told women seem to be less sensitive to pain than men - a gentle way of saying men are big wussies - it’s true!). Only one, close to the hand, felt uncomfortable initially but it was only temporarily. I started to feel incredibly relaxed, the damaged tendon in my left wrist developed that hard to describe, warm, slightly itchy feeling wounds and injuries seem to get when they are mending. With needles in place I was covered in a space blanket and left alone. I drifted, not quite sleeping, more in a deeply relaxed place, very calming and very enjoyable with no pain from the needles.

20 minutes later my therapist returned to remove the needles, taking great care to count them out and disposing of them all in approved clinical waste containers. She warned me that I may feel unusual sensations. Sure enough, when I stood up I felt I was almost floating. It was mildly euphoric, and more importantly, my back was far less painful - instant result! I was pleasantly surprised by the experience and can honestly say “needlephobics - don’t worry”

Acupuncture is usually more effective after a course of treatment. I’m booked in for another treatment next week. It works by stimulating the release of natural pain killers, endorphins, and there’s a growing body of evidence about its effectiveness. There’s a lot more information about acupuncture and its effectiveness on the British Acupuncture Council's website. With only one treatment I can’t say how effective it’s been for me, but I do know it helped ease my back. The needles weren’t a problem and I’ve seen enough to leave me feeling positive about continuing with the treatment.

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