Since I started my journey learning acupuncture, many people have asked me, “Does acupuncture really work?” Back then, I used to only give a strictly scientific explanation. In brief, there are plenty of research studies that show acupuncture changes blood flow, nerve conduction, and hormone balance in the body. When you stimulate an acupoint it stimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary- adrenal axis, or in short it helps to regulate all bodily processes. It works locally to bring blood and oxygen to injured tissues and release tight musculature. It also works with the central nervous system to block pain signals. These days, my answer is a bit more simple. Today, I’m going to tell you how I know acupuncture works by sharing a powerful experience I had more than 4 years ago.
In April of 2013, I decided to pursue graduate school full-time. I left my then full-time veterinary technician position to pursue my dream of becoming an acupuncturist. Graduate school was tough! Each day was a marathon consisting of long hours in class, even longer hours studying and, you guessed it -- even more hours of practicing and nerding out about all things acupuncture.
As I progressed through school, the countless hours started to feel more and more normal. Until one morning, during my second year of school, I woke up and everything changed. Still in a bit of a haze, I went through my usual morning routine and noticed that my face felt weird. As I yawned, I realized that the entire left side of my face wasn’t moving. I rushed to the mirror and after countless attempts to spring my face to life, I experienced wave after wave of emotion. I was in shock and in disbelief; my heart dropped as I asked myself aloud: “What if my face stays this way?”
As quickly as the words left the right side of my lips, I could feel the type A, get things done and handle it side of me taking over. “I don’t have time for this! I have Biophysics class in an hour, I can’t be late!” Looking back, I realize that I needed to shift my focus or I was going to lose it. I got ready, caught my train, and headed off to class in a blur. By the time I arrived to school, I managed to scour every corner of the internet to try and confirm my self-given diagnosis. I tried everything from WebMD to Wikipedia. I even stalked a Facebook support group for stroke sufferers looking for answers. Finally, it became clear that I was suffering from Bell’s Palsy.
Bell’s palsy is a form of temporary facial paralysis that afflicts roughly 40,000 Americans each year. Affecting the 7th cranial nerve, it usually causes paralysis on one side of the face, or in rare cases, both sides of the face are affected. Common symptoms include: drooping of the eyelid and mouth, loss of taste, and excessive tearing on the affected side. Bell’s palsy occurs when the nerve is swollen, inflamed, or compressed. Most doctors believe it is caused by a viral infection, and can be associated with high blood pressure, influenza, Lyme disease, chronic ear infections and trauma to the face or skull.
Looking to start treatment as soon as possible, I headed down to the student acupuncture clinic. One of my teachers took my chart, and the first thing she said to me was, “How did this happen?” You see the question was a bit rhetorical, as she already knew the answer. As mentioned previously, in Western medicine, Bell’s Palsy is usually linked to a virus, or even exposure to cold air. In the Chinese medicine diagnosis, Bell’s Palsy is usually caused by a combination of being deficient in Qi (busy college student running on fumes – check!) and invasion of Wind Cold (Traditional Chinese Medicine lingo for exposure to wind, fan or air conditioner). With her years of experience, she knew a depleted student, mixed with windy Spring weather was the reason I couldn’t move my lips, nose or left eyebrow.
The morning before I experienced any symptoms, my face was exposed to extremely strong wind on an outdoor train platform. Later that day, I remember feeling a moving sensation going from my left eyebrow (acupoint Gallbladder 14) to the back of my neck (acupoint Gallbladder 20), which is a strong indicator of “Wind Invasion.” I came from a Western medical background; I had spent the last 7 years working in animal hospitals learning the names of Western medications and diagnoses. I understood the theory behind most Eastern Chinese medicine diagnoses, but I just could not wrap my head around the very literal diagnosis of “Wind Invasion”. This diagnosis was something I memorized for a test, but I couldn’t fully understand it. It seemed too simple to be true. Now that it happened to me, I understand completely!
Following my acupuncture diagnosis, I also met with a neurologist. He confirmed the Bell’s palsy diagnosis, but like many Bell’s sufferers, I left feeling unsettled and with no clear route for recovery. The doctor told me to take Prednisone, but warned me that there was no real cure. He also recommended that I wait 3 months, but emphasized that there were zero guarantees. Say what?!! Waiting helplessly was not an option. I’d already been forced to cancel my first date with a cute guy I met online. How was I supposed to eat pasta, or even drink water out of a glass with paralyzed lips (cue embarrassing moment)? As you can imagine, you take it for granted when all your facial muscles move. When you have Bell’s, your eyes water nonstop, you can't taste anything, you can't pucker your lips, wink, smile or raise your forehead on one side. And you tend to be embarrassed and super tired.
I was determined not to let Bell’s defeat me! I received a treatment plan from trusted practitioners and I went to my acupuncture appointments faithfully. For five weeks I received treatments 3-4 times a week. I received acupuncture wherever I could, during class from a sympathetic professor, in our school clinic, or in private acupuncture offices. The team of amazing people that helped me during that time were such a blessing. Not only did they help to deepen my understanding of the nature of “Wind Invasion,” they also helped me to fully appreciate the nuance that goes in to effectively treating it. During those five weeks, I received local and distal acupuncture, acupuncture estim and even moxa (a warming Chinese herb). By the end of the treatment, my energy improved, the moving sensation in my head was gone and I could smile a little. During those five weeks I experienced cool things during my acupuncture sessions. I felt qi move more than usual, warm sensations traveling down facial meridians and even immediate movement from once paralyzed muscles.
Now when people ask me does acupuncture work, I sometimes skip the long scientific answer and say, “It worked for me!”. The situation wasn’t ideal, but it made me realize that yes, the books say acupuncture works, research studies say it works and patients confirm that it works. But there is nothing like experiencing it so strongly as I did during those intense 5 weeks. Were my results 100% perfect? No. Once the treatment concluded, I recovered about 95% of my facial motor function, and 100% of my sense of taste. However, there was an added bonus: I was finally able to go on that date! The cute guy is now my boyfriend of over 4 years! (Thank you Acupuncture!) After my experience, I’ve become much more cautious with Wind Invasion. When I travel to a windy city or beach, I pack my acupuncture needles to give myself a tune up—just to be safe. You can't tell by looking at me but my left eye still does have some weakness, but it is very slight. I can say for those experiencing this, sleep well, take better care of yourself, get acupuncture, learn how to let stuff go. And go on that date, but don’t order the pasta!
Written by Taisha Gonzalez L.Ac., L.M.T.