The Point of Acupuncture: Needling the Body to Heal

Note:  names have been changed to protect patient privacy.

Janice was blind-sided by migraines. She was at work when, suddenly, she couldn’t see.  Her vision became choppy and broken.  Numbness crept through her left hand, up the side of her arm, and into the left side of her face. Just 20 years old at the time, she thought she was having a stroke.

Her supervisor called 9-1-1.  It took the emergency room doctors hours to deduce that Janice had experienced an ocular migraine.

By the time she was 30, migraines were a regular part of her life.  “Stress was a major cause,” she says.  She was on a preventive medication for three or four years, and after that, she relied on over-the-counter medications whenever a migraine would flare up.

In 2004, the migraines became so severe that Janice, a resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, went to a headache clinic in Chicago and was put on a new medication.  However, the medication caused severe constipation, ultimately triggering an anal fissure, or rectal tear. Spasming ensued in the levator ani muscle in the rectum, resulting in stabbing pain. Her doctor diagnosed the problem as levator syndrome.

Anal fissures are supposed to heal in time.  But when time and traditional treatment didn’t help, Janice’s colorectal doctor referred her to Tim Rhudy, a licensed acupuncturist with Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pain Management.

While doing her intake, Mr. Rhudy asked the 51-year-old Janice where else she had pain, and she told him about her migraines.  She said she couldn’t turn her head from side to side without pain.  “He immediately said he could help with that,” she recalls.  “I felt like I had nothing to lose.”

Stimulating Pathways

Acupuncture is the stimulation of precise points on the body with hair-thin metal needles. These points, most of which are near nerves, fall along the body’s meridians — linear pathways throughout the body reminiscent of a subway system: the meridians are the subway lines; the points are the subway stations.

Different styles of acupuncture hail from many cultures. Mr. Rhudy practices a modern American style called Acupuncture Physical Medicine, or APM, as developed by Mark Seem, Ph.D.  This potent style blends Western physical medicine techniques and classical Chinese acupuncture, incorporating trigger point therapy with acupuncture.

Inviting Qi

APM is a very tactile style of acupuncture. The acupuncturist palpates the body to find active trigger points – hyper-irritated locations within muscles.  “I rely on exploration with my hands and open dialogue with the patient to locate trigger points,” says Mr. Rhudy.>

Hitting an active trigger point recreates the symptom in the patient.  For example, the acupuncturist might palpate around the hip/buttocks area, causing the patient to feel pain moving down the leg. 

As trigger points are located, needles are inserted. The muscles either cramp up right away or yield a slow, dull, achy, distending sensation, like the “good” hurt after a massage. This represents the arrival of qi (pronounced “chee”), the Chinese word for vital energy or life force (see Brief History of Acupuncture sidebar). 

During her first treatment, Janice was told that her body would twitch as the acupuncture needles were inserted into trigger points – hyper-irritated locations within muscles.  “Mr. Rhudy told me there was so much stress in my body, that it immediately reacted,” she says.  He explained to her that the warm flow she felt was the release of qi.

“The sensation of the experience was indescribable,” recalls Janice,  “There was beautiful music playing and warmth from the blanket that covers you once the needles are in. It puts you in a place where you are so relaxed and comfortable.  I could feel the pain ebbing away, little by little…like the pain was going up those needles and out of my body.”

Untying Muscular Straightjackets

APM is most effective when the source of dysfunction is myofascial — in the connective tissue that connects to body structures like muscles, organs and bones. “With this style of acupuncture, you’re seeking and untying muscular straightjackets,” says Mr. Rhudy.

APM can help patients with acute pain such as a sports injury.  It also can be effective against chronic pain conditions such as migraines or back problems. 

After acupuncture, Janice was stunned to discover she could indeed turn her head left and right without any pain. “I hadn’t been able to do that in years,” she says.

She wanted to come back the next day, but Mr. Rhudy said treatments were too intense and that her body would continue to heal itself throughout the week.  “He warned me that I would be sore and that the treatment might trigger a migraine – which it did, but it came and went quickly.  He suggested I take a hot shower and go to bed,” she says.

Janice underwent two more acupuncture treatments in the next few weeks, which she believes cured the levator syndrome.  When the anal fissure tore open again approximately nine months later, she immediately turned to acupuncture, receiving two more treatments. 

“Acupuncture fixed it again,” she says.  “I just passed the one year mark and haven’t had a problem since.”

Restoring Balance

Acupuncturists consider themselves conduits for self-healing, navigating the body to unblock “holding patterns” in muscles and restore balance.  “It’s prodding the body to remember what it feels like to not have these accumulated aches and pains,” Mr. Rhudy explains.

Many patients try acupuncture after exhausting their options with medical doctors. An acupuncturist is not a doctor, so it’s important that patients be thoroughly checked by a physician to confirm they don’t have an underlying disease or condition.

Some people use acupuncture not for medical ailments, but to ease stress and tension. “Patients tell me they think more clearly or feel more relaxed or energized after a session,” says Mr. Rhudy.

Like yoga or tai chi, acupuncture is a discipline and requires commitment, whether short term or long term. And, arguably, a discipline that keeps the body and mind healthy is worth exploring.  Just ask those who got their balance back.

“For me, acupuncture was phenomenal,” says Janice.

For an acupuncture appointment, please call contact Tim Rhudy.