After I was rear-ended in a car accident in 2001 my world quickly changed and I was put on an endless cycle of trying to find relief for the chronic headaches that set in following the accident. I tried seemingly everything. A laundry list of medication, physical therapy, massage therapy, bio-feedback, supplements and acupuncture. Nothing worked and after many years of trial and error I finally called it quits in my quest to rid myself of the headaches.
My Journey with Acupuncture + All Your Questions Answered
In recent years I have mustered the strength to once again attempt to address the chronic pain and in doing so I’ve re-visited acupuncture for both my headaches and my anxiety. This year I’ve experienced some major breakthroughs in my headache pain after I began to going to Common Point, an acupuncture and lifestyle medicine clinic in Tribeca. I’m a big believer in Eastern Medicine and have done cupping, Chinese herbs and gua sha in addition to acupuncture over the years. I’d personally much rather explore alternative treatments than trying drug after drug at this stage in my health journey.
I arrived at Common Point at the recommendation of a follower of mine on Instagram when I shared having had an awful experience at WTHN which was a new acupuncture studio getting a lot of buzz when it opened in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. (For those wondering why I didn’t like it: they didn’t have fully enclosed rooms and in Chinese medicine you will discuss with your provider things like bowel movements and your menstrual cycle and personally I don’t like discussing these things for everyone to hear. They were also nearly 30 minutes late starting my appointment which at any time is unacceptable in my book but particularly in the middle of the day when people have places to be and are trying to carve out time for self-care. Overall I left realizing they cared more about their merchandising and Instagram buzz than the act of the patient care.)
After sharing my experience, this follower messaged me saying enthusiastically I “must go to Liz at Common Point on Jay Street” and her endorsement was convincing enough for me to book a appointment.
My life has been greatly improved since starting to see Dr. Liz Carlson regularly and I’ve come to look at the appointments as one of the most important things I do for myself. I also want to note that I am, in general, terrified of needles when in a medical setting but acupuncture is different and I don’t fear the needles. I know what great benefit they provide me and having them inserted is nowhere like getting a shot or getting blood drawn. My first session back in high school was anxiety ridden with the unknown but I’m hopeful that today’s post will mitigate the fear and anxiety associated with the needle aspect of acupuncture.
One of the reasons that I love Common Point is that the patient experience is laid back and comforting. You’re put at ease and really listened to. There’s a lot less of the traditional transactional experience when seeing doctors. Liz makes a point of remembering your conversations, following up as needed and making you feel really heard. All of these things are largely lost in doctor’s offices these days in my opinion. Finally, the price of Common Point is right. Historically acupuncture I’ve received has been around $150 an appointment which I found cost prohibitive at times.
Common Point offers two different types of sessions at either $70 (a quick health chat and acupuncture – usually about 20-40 min) or $130 (a deeper dive into your health + acupuncture and any additional therapies you may require). I book both depending on what my body is telling me but I definitely recommend beginning with a Deep Dive session.
Since a lot of you expressed interest in acupuncture and had a variety of (great!) questions I asked Liz to share her expertise with us all today and answer the questions you submitted via Instagram.
For a bit more on Liz’s background: Liz attended Bowdoin College and studied psychology with the intent of becoming a child psychologist. It was her mother’s journey with Parkinson’s disease that opened her up to the world of functional medicine and as a result she became a doctor of acupuncture + Chinese Medicine. She co-founded Common Point as a place offering a modern approach to acupuncture. The goal of Common Point is to make acupuncture + Chinese Medicine more accessible. All of their programs have a foundation in “the Basics” –– simple rules in health that you should always return to: eat real food, drink plenty of water, move daily, breathe deeply, sleep enough, detox daily and celebrate often.
What is acupuncture? What are its greatest benefits?
Sometimes, the term acupuncture refers to –– you guessed it –– the physical act of acupuncture: hair-thin needles placed into specific, electrically active points to elicit a variety of responses from your brain and body. But more often, the term acupuncture is used to refer to the practice of Chinese medicine as a whole. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a complete medical system, functional in its approach. This means that we ask “why?”, and identify the root causes of imbalance. Traditional Chinese Medicine is a holistic medicine that considers your entire system –– mind and body. We like to call it “the original lifestyle medicine.”
Beyond acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine entails herbal medicine, dietary + exercise therapy, moxibustion (heat therapy), cupping and other manual therapies.
What does a typical acupuncture appointment entail?
Typically, your acupuncturist will start by conducting a holistic health evaluation to better understand your health goals, your entire system and your lifestyle. Think of it like an interview for your mind, body and soul. Chinese medicine uses its own diagnostic system to arrive at a “pattern diagnosis” that will inform your treatment plan.
You will then receive your acupuncture treatment! Typically, you lie down on a warm, comfy massage table, lying face up or face down, depending on your treatment focus. Your practitioner will swab the points, ensuring clean skin. As a result of your overall health goals, your Chinese medical pattern, your current symptoms, your tongue, your pulse (so many things!), your practitioner chooses the points. All needles are sterile and one time use, always! As you will read below, the insertion of these hair-thin, solid needles elicits a sensation like pressure, ache, warmth or tingling but rarely the painful pinch like the hypodermic needle you know and hate and may imagine.
After the insertion of the needles, you will be left for a wonderful snooze or just some quiet time where you can think or listen to your favorite tunes or meditate. Your session may also include additional therapies like breath-work, moxibustion (heat treatment), cupping or other manual therapy.
How do you know if acupuncture may be right for you to explore?
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are really good at filling in for the deficiencies of Western medicine and treating conditions that you wouldn’t necessarily run to your doctor for –– or conditions that your doctor wouldn’t have much of an answer beyond writing a prescription.
Some of these conditions may be:
- hormonal imbalances like PMS + acne
- fertility challenges
- digestive disorders
- pain like headaches/migraines, musculoskeletal injuries + tension
- anxiety, depression + overall manifestations of stress
It is a perfect time to explore acupuncture when you are hoping to feel better but wanting to try something first before going on medication.
How fast does acupuncture take to work to release pain/tension?
For acute pain/tension, it is possible to experience immediate relief but most often the results are seen within the first 24 hours. For more chronic pain conditions, we typically see a change within the first 3-4 acupuncture sessions.
Is acupuncture painful? Are there typical symptoms or side effects during or after?
You are experiencing the worst pain right now –– the anticipation of what the needles might feel like! An acupuncture needle is actually more of a pin than a “needle”. Acupuncture pins are solid, hair thin and meant to push muscle out of the way. You may feel a slight pinch, but nothing very bothersome. It is normal to feel pressure, aching, warming or tingling in response to the insertion of the needle When the needle is releasing tension, it feels downright amazing. Side effects are minimal if any. Some needles may leave slight bruising.
What should I look for when trying to find an acupuncture provider? How do I find a reputable acupuncturist in my area? How do I know about insurance coverage?
Make sure that your practitioner is a Licensed Acupuncturist (LAC) and that they have a Masters or Doctoral degree in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Start by asking your primary care physician or physical therapist for a referral. Your friends might just have the perfect referral for you as well!
Insurance coverage varies so widely. The best way to understand your coverage is to call your insurance company and ask:
- Do I have coverage? If so, do I have out-of-network or in-network coverage?
- What is my deductible?
- What conditions are covered? (It is common for a plan to cover pain only)
Note that most acupuncture practices accept Health Savings (HSA) + Flex Spending (FSA).
What benefits does acupuncture provide for migraines/migraine prevention?
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine provide a great way to identify and relieve ongoing headache or migraine pain. As a result of your intake, your practitioner will understand what acupuncture channels (also called meridians) are involved in your headache.
Think of the channels like electrical lines, and the acupuncture points like outlets. These electrical lines refer back to your internal organs through a network of nerves, blood vessels, fascia and ligaments and the outlets allow access. That’s why we can access your liver function by way of your foot, for example.
Meghan (who gave me her permission to write about her), sometimes comes in with headaches caused by deficiency –– in this case, we don’t even needle into the head. Instead, we needle channels that will help her absorb more nutrients and water, and help her sleep more deeply that night. Other times, she comes in with headaches caused by stagnation that require teensy needles locally in the face and head along with needles further down those channels to increase overall circulation.
The insertion of the needles ideally will help reduce the headache during the session, by physically reducing tension in the area and accessing the organs and channels involved in causing headache.
The functional approach of Chinese medicine will help you not only learn why the headaches might be occurring but also what herbs, foods, and lifestyle changes are best to treat your type of headache.
How can acupuncture help with sleep? With anxiety?
The insertion of the needles helps the body shift from the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) to the “rest + digest” (parasympathetic) nervous response. Often times, when we feel anxious or restless at night, it is our nervous system in overdrive. Acupuncture helps to relax your body on a chemical and an electrical level.
Your practitioner will ask you specific questions about how your sleeplessness or anxiety (or both) manifest. Are you falling asleep easily but waking hot + sweaty? Do you have trouble falling asleep but sleep fine once you do? These are very different patterns and would yield two very different acupuncture protocols and lifestyle plans.
Does your anxiety manifest as a giant knot in your stomach? An eye twitch? A tight chest? An inexplicable uneasy feeling? All of these? None of these? Again, your practitioner will identify your pattern based on your unique manifestation, and choose the points that ultimately aid your sleep and release of your anxiety. For example, if your practitioner sees that you are experiencing a digestive deficiency and you are not absorbing nutrients properly and therefore the malabsorption is affecting brain chemistry, there would be work on the digestive channels. That’s why the specific point for anxiety or sleep may be different for each person. Most importantly, your lifestyle program, herbal formula, diet or mindfulness technique will support your efforts between acupuncture sessions.
Are there areas of the body that acupuncture is most effective on?
Neck, shoulder and back pain respond incredibly well to acupuncture.
Would acupuncture relieve neck and shoulder tension?
Most definitely, yes. Adding cupping + tuina (Chinese medical massage) will help too!
What supplemental treatments such as cupping can an acupuncturist provide?
As mentioned, acupuncture and Chinese medicine look at one’s health holistically. And make recommendations based on what the patient may need at any given session. Your provider may recommend cupping, Chinese herbal medicine or heat therapy. All of which can work in harmony with the needles.
Every acupuncturist most likely offers cupping –– it’s an important tool in our toolbox! Think of cupping as the opposite of massage. Instead of pushing muscles, the cups are pulling. This is often more effective than massage because the pulling creates space in the muscle. Room for new blood and oxygen to come in and sweep away sticky calcium deposits that often cause what you experience as knots.
Do you need consistent appointments to see a real change?
Like exercise, acupuncture is cumulative in its effect. A single acupuncture session will give you temporary relief but yes, you must seek consistent treatment to see real change.
Better yet, following your Chinese medicine / lifestyle program will yield the most change. Acupuncture only occurs only 1-2x a week but you can make decisions that better your health multiple times a day.
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A huge thanks to Liz for sharing her expertise today and I hope you all found it insightful!
I am so happy to report I am headache free on the right side of my face since I began seeing Liz. Which has dramatically improved my quality of life and has given me hope for some day living without chronic headache pain.
For those of you in New York, Liz has been kind enough to extend a 15% discount on either a Deep Dive or Restore session booked between now and October 15th. Use code W+W when booking here.