The best nap I ever took while pregnant was on an acupuncture table with twelve needles in me. I kid you not.
Aside from the obvious, this is a particularly strange admission because I am a control freak with a phobia of needles. I usually need a white noise machine, at least three pillows, and humidifier to make it through the night. My first acupuncture session changed all that.
Friends of mine have been raving about the benefits of Eastern medicine for years. Given I am frequently burdened by ailments traditional doctors can’t seem to treat (insomnia, anxiety, constant sinus pressure – need I go on?), I probably could have benefitted from acupuncture treatments my whole life. But it wasn’t until pregnancy with most medicine off-limits that I finally gave it a shot.
Does it hurt? Not really and I’m a wimp. It’s more a psychological hurdle that you have to just accept and surmount. More than the needles, there’s something about having to lie absolutely still that is frankly a liberating experience from our frenetic lives. Once I was able to relax, it was surprisingly blissful.
I’ve now been a patient of acupuncture for over three years. Through two pregnancies, Chinese medicine has helped me through dozens of symptoms – from sciatica pain to the common cold. Sometimes I felt relief just hours after a session, if not during treatment itself.
Surprised by the degree and rapidity of results, I sought validation of my experiences and found a trove of supporting information. For women specifically, acupuncture has demonstrated statistically significant success in bolstering fertility, as well as increasing the number of eggs retrieved during IVF cycles and yielding higher quality embryos (see results of an October 2015 comprehensive literature review).
Not pregnant or trying? Recovering from delivery? Acupuncture may do wonders for pain across your body. One review of literature from 1997 to 2006 saw a mean reduction in primary care back pain of 67 percent from baseline from acupuncture treatment, with patients suffering from acute pain enjoying the greatest relief (see abstract).
To learn more, I recently caught up with Jennifer Moss, founder of Moss Acupuncture in San Francisco, specializing in both women’s fertility and pediatric treatments.
Can you explain how acupuncture works in plain English for those of us who are relatively green to the practice?
All living beings are made up of energy, or qi. The qi runs through the body in channels that connect to your blood vessels, organs, muscles and tendons, and nervous system. When the qi is flowing properly, there is balance. If there is disruption to the flow of qi, there is imbalance. By placing tiny metal needles along the channels, acupuncture helps to improve the flow of energy and blood thus allowing the body to optimize its propensity to heal itself and stay in balance.
Why do you start by taking a patient’s pulse?
Thousands of years ago, we didn’t have all the technology that we do today. We feel your pulse because that was all we had to go on in the past for observing patterns of how the body works.
A pulse is a really good way of figuring out someone’s blood and energy flow. There are probably 100 different qualities of the pulse. Is it tight? Is it weak and soft? All of those things offer clues. Each different pulse corresponds to a different organ system, i.e. digestive, respiratory, liver, circulatory, etc. If someone has asthma or weakness in his or her immune system, we’ll often feel something in that area. If there’s something really glaring, we’ll usually be able to narrow down where the problem is.
Acupuncture is special in that we can read someone’s pulse and take a look at their tongue and know 50 things about them before they even say a word. Just looking at someone’s tongue – is it dry, red, wet, pale? All those things will be a reflection of what’s happening internally.
Where do the needles come in?
It’s the placement of the needles that helps to keep the energy and blood flowing properly. There are areas of your body where there is weak circulation of energy, blood, and nerve conduction. In those areas, needle stimulation can help to enable better blood flow and nervous system activity. Messages also get sent to the brain to release neurotransmitters for pain relief and relaxation.
There are meridians all over the body. They run from chest to arms; abdomen to legs. By placing a needle into a vessel, you’ll get blood and energy flow all through a particular channel. That’s why oftentimes we’ll put a needle in your foot to treat a digestive problem. That channel runs through the foot all the way up to the belly.
How big are the needles?
They’re hair thin. I once had a doctor come in and remark that she’d never seen a needle so thin in her hospital. Most of our experiences with needles through childhood involve thick gauge needles that push vaccines into our bodies. These are nothing like that but some are thicker than others, depending on what part of the body they’re going in. Areas with more muscle tone usually require thicker needles. Sometimes we’ll use different gauges to get different responses. They vary by practice. Japanese needles tend to be on the thin side; Chinese needles can be a little thicker. Depending on someone’s sensitivity to needles – what his or her body is like – we’ll decide which to use. You may feel a little pinch or prick, specifically if it’s a tight area. But it should not be too painful during treatment and, in fact, because of the endorphins that the needles create, people tend to zen out.
I’ve noticed that some needles hurt more than others. Are some sensitive areas universal or are they based on individual symptoms?
Sensitivity is really driven by your own constitution and how your body is made up. Some points will be more sensitive based on what’s going on with you at the time. In general, points on the extremities – hands, feet and face – tend to be more sensitive just because there’s less of a cushion there. Some people don’t feel the needles at all. Often those who have a really weak constitution or a lot of depleted energy won’t feel much. Overtime, though, sensation will pick up, which is a good thing.
What should one look for when searching for an acupuncturist?
Anyone who is doing acupuncture must be licensed by the state or nationally. California is highly specialized. They have their own certification. You can and should check this out online to ensure they’re registered. I have a sub-certification from the American board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine (ABORM). Anyone who specializes in fertility should have this or something like it.
What does it take to become a licensed acupuncturist?
It requires a four-year graduate program to get licensed. Some programs have a doctorate program. In those, you’re required to perform didactic hours and classroom hours. Built in are many, many practical hours of observation, training, and interning.
What are the ailments do you most commonly treat in pregnancy?
Often women don’t have a lot of traditional medicine options during pregnancy. Chinese medicine is safe throughout an entire pregnancy with a licensed practitioner. We start with many women to help with fertility. In the first trimester, most often we get morning sickness and nausea. Then comes heartburn, constipation, and back pain. Later in pregnancy, we treat blood pressure regulation, as well as itching and rashes. Toward the end of pregnancy, acupuncture can help to turn breach babies or avoid version and cesarean section. We also help women to prepare for labor with techniques intended to relax their bodies.
How often should someone come to see the best results?
The number of sessions varies, depending on the needs of the individual. Generally speaking, for fertility, patients often come in weekly for at least three months. Patients often come in weekly or every other week for the first trimester during pregnancy. After that, monthly or as needed until around 38 weeks when they will come in weekly again for labor preparation.
How does acupuncture work on babies?
My partner, Mia Weinberg, specializes in pediatrics here. It’s really quite amazing. Babies often don’t have the negative association with needles that we do. And they really don't hurt that much! Babies are also different in that a little stimulation goes a long way. The needles really only have to stay in for a few seconds. There are also special non-needle techniques that are similar to acupressure that are very effective. In addition, we recommend herbs and provide nutritional consultations for both baby and mom, especially if she’s breastfeeding.
How common is fertility treatment in acupuncture?
I’ve been in practice here for 15 years. When I started, it was quite small. Now it’s really a growing field. There’s been a lot more attention of late. There are a handful of us in San Francisco, which is great. We all do continuing education for Chinese medicine and fertility, so we see each other for that. We also contribute to online chat groups (anonymously, of course) to get more insight and information about cases.
Can acupuncture treatments be insured?
It depends on your policy. Some policies do cover us. A lot of patients use their flexible spending accounts or HSAs/FSAs. We are not in network with insurance policies but some companies provide out of network coverage. It also depends on what you’re coming in for. Some policies are symptom-specific.
What differentiates acupuncture from traditional medicine?
Part of the beauty of Chinese medicine is that we don't just look at one thing like your uterus or ovaries. We look at your whole body and how things are interconnected. We look at external sources of stress like diet and relationships. Everything helps to paint a holistic picture of what’s going on.
Can you recommend any literature for those of us who might want to learn more?
Books to read that explain Chinese Medicine: Between Heaven and Earth - A Guide to Chinese to Chinese Medicine (Beinfeld and Korngold); and The Web that Has No Weaver (Kaptchuk). Books for Chinese Medicine and Fertility: The Infertility Cure (Randine Lewis), Making Babies (Jill Blakeway)