Explore to Restore: Acupuncture
Written by Maxwell Barna, a writer in the men's lifestyle space, covering everything from food and booze to auto, tech, and the Great Outdoors.
Explore to Restore is a content series documenting Ned's search for the world's best restorative traditions and natural healing modalities. We'll be sharing our experiences of the good, the bad, and the just plain... well, you'll see.
If you had said the word “acupuncture” to a doctor just 15 years ago, they might look at you with that small judging frown they have—similar to the kind of frown they give you when they ask if you’ve done drugs in the last six months and your response is, “Of course.” Doctors still don’t like patients who do drugs, but as the years have gone by and more clinical studies about the effectiveness of acupuncture on issues like stress, chronic pain, and all the other issues acupuncturists claim the treatment alleviates, the more it seems the medical community has come to accept it as a legitimate form of treatment.
People's favorable dispositions toward acupuncture are understandable, especially once you realize acupuncture is an age-old practice that’s been around for more than 2,000 years. Hell, there are even people who think it could have been practiced as early as 5,000 years ago. Regardless, it seems acupuncture has been exceptionally well-studied and documented over the last several hundred years, and there are reasons modern acupuncturists have kept up with that tradition.
As someone who has quite a few friends and acquaintances who’ve used acupuncture to treat everything from nerve damage and back pain, to depression, stress, and even erectile dysfunction (Yes, seriously), I’ve been interested in learning more about it for quite some time.
This week, I met Jason Krantz, owner of Summit Acupuncture in Philadelphia’s bustling Olde City neighborhood. Krantz has been a certified acupuncturist for three years now, having earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Dietetics from Florida State University, and a Master’s Degree in Acupuncture from the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
He talked to me about the more clinical aspects of acupuncture, like what it’s used to treat and how he approaches therapy, before laying me down and sticking me with some needles—for my own good.
For Krantz, acupuncture is all about helping people. If you ask him why he’s such a large proponent of it, one of his primary reasons is because he believes acupuncture is exceptionally useful in helping people who are in pain.
“At this point in time we have all the research we need to demonstrate that acupuncture works,” he says as I take off my shoes and prepare to hop on the table. “There was a huge study that just came out that showed that acupuncture is more effective in the emergency room than morphine. Peer reviewed, on the cover of JAMA—it was a big deal. It doesn’t really get better than being able to say, ‘This stainless steel needle with no medicine can do better than morphine.’”
(Note: I couldn’t find that particular study, but there are several studies out there that discuss the effectiveness of acupuncture over morphine in the emergency room. However, it’s also worth noting there are people who are none too happy with those studies.)
But on a deeper level, Krantz believes in acupuncture because he tried it and it worked. Without delving too much into his private life, Krantz was going through a break up in college and felt he was battling some serious post-breakup depression—a feeling many of us know all too well. His grades slipped, his mother noticed, and asked Krantz to come home for the weekend to get some time away from it all.
When he was home, Krantz met with his cousin, also an acupuncturist, and received one treatment.
“He gave me one treatment and, no joke, I went from the way I was feeling for two months right back to my old self,” he says. “He gave me a follow-up treatment, and the depression from that has honestly never come back. That was a defining moment for me, so much so that I stopped trying to be a chiropractor and refocused onto acupuncture.”
By this point in the conversation, I’m excited about what I may or may not experience, and we decide it’s time to begin.
I begin by laying flat on the massage table. Krantz asks me if I’m experiencing any issues—chronic pain anywhere, swelling, soreness; whether I’m having sleeping or digestive issues; whether I’m stressed out; or whether I’m experiencing any chronic headaches or migraines.”
I tell him I feel pretty good and relaxed. He then asks me to stick out my tongue.
“I’m going to do a sort of wellness treatment,” he explains. “I’m going to look at your tongue, do a book diagnosis, and probably administer some kind of ‘tune-up’ protocol.”
According to Krantz, my tongue has a thin layer of white film over it called “Dampness.” My tongue also quivers slightly, is thicker-than-normal, and has mild “scalloping” on the sides.
“So, this is all indicative of a couple things,” he says. “The quivering tongue signifies what’s called ‘Liver Wind.’ It means your liver is distressed. Are you drinking a lot?”
Writers drink a lot, and I’m a writer, so that one makes sense.
“The dampness is also indicative that you’re eating too much fatty processed foods, too much meat, etc.”
Boom. Spot on again, Doc.
Since I’m not suffering from any centralized pain or other specifically treatable issues, Krantz decides that I’m going to get a pretty standard treatment based on the teachings of Dr. Richard The Fu Tan (AKA Dr. Tan), called the 12 Magical Points. He’ll also be sticking my ears with for an ear protocol (Technically termed “Aurical Acupuncture”) that’s sometimes administered to men and women who are experiencing high stress and PTSD.
Without getting too technical, in Chinese medicine, the body is believed to consist of 12 separate meridians, or “energy highways.” This treatment is believed to activate all of them. The result, Krantz says, should be super relaxing—a term he specifically refers to as “Acu-stoned.” The points he’s hitting should release a pretty good amount of dopamine and serotonin, and should create a kind of euphoric feeling similar in nature to runner’s high.
The needles are tapped into the skin on my left hand, then left foot, right foot, right hand, and at the center of my forehead, just above my eyebrows. He explains that this circular motion refers to the “yin and yang” areas of the human body. He inserts the several other needles into different points in my ears.
As he’s tapping me with needles, I ask him to explain a little more about what I should experience:
“We’re needling into nerve-dense tissue that will affect different nerves, by way of where I’m placing the needles,” he says. “To be honest, some people feel nothing, but others are very needle sensitive. If I put three needles in myself, I’ll see colors, feel super tripped out, etc.”
At this point, I joke about wanting 100 needles if it means tripping balls through lunch. He laughs and explains that’s not quite how it works. I am understandably bummed.
“I’m using filiform needles, which means there’s no medicine inside,” he says. “They’re simple one-time-use needles and are very flexible, and I’ll also use a guide tube to tap the needles in and make sure I’m hitting the right spots.”
Needles generally go in about one centimeter, but that’s largely dependent on the type of treatment and severity of the issue. Personally, the only “pain” I felt from the needles came when he inserted them into my ears. Other than some mild unpleasantness from that, I felt perfectly fine right after.
Krantz also noted that for different people, different types of treatment are necessary. There’s what’s called “Channel Theory,” where you needle different points on the meridian that can be used to trigger different effects in the body, but acupuncturists may also target specific muscles to help trigger them, reduce tension, and get them firing properly. He even showed me a device used in what’s called electro-acupuncture, where needles are given small electrical currencies to literally help trigger muscle reactions.
After all the needles are in me, Krantz asks me how I’m feeling and then announces he’s going to just let me rest for 25 minutes. The bed was comfortable, more Fleet Foxes was on the radio, and the sun coming in through the window felt good on my skin.
So, what did I experience?
I’m going to be honest here, guys. I didn’t really experience too much. I was relaxed, but I feel like that had more to do with the folk music, the warm sunshine, and the comfortable table than it did the needles.
Many people also say that the effects of acupuncture often don’t become fully present until the day after treatment, and that the night following an acupuncture therapy session is usually super restful.
Unfortunately, I didn’t experience that. The rest of my day was normal, I slept normally, and woke up as tired as I usually do.
However, this isn’t me saying that acupuncture is a sham or anything like that. It’s a very sensitive form of treatment that varies greatly person to person, and there are also a ton of studies out there that have concluded the amount of sessions you attend and the frequency by which you attend them largely play into effectiveness of acupuncture. I also wasn’t experiencing any specific pain or any of the issues commonly treated by acupuncture, which means I was essentially a smiling pincushion just going along for the ride—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, I didn’t feel stoned, I didn’t see colors, and I didn’t feel particularly de-stressed after. That’s just the truth of it.
Overall, I’d say that if you’re experiencing any of the issues discussed above, acupuncture is worth trying out. Anything that even might remotely help alleviate your symptoms without having to be prescribed chemical drugs is worth trying. Plus, while acupuncture isn’t really “cheap,” it sure beats a visit to the doctor’s office once every couple of weeks.