On acupuncture

OVER the past few months, I’ve had a condition called plantar fascitis (plant-tar fass-sigh-tis) in my feet. It’s basically a pain in the arch of my feet that is most pronounced when I first wake up or after sitting for longer lengths of time. After seeing an ad on Facebook (a great way to find a doctor, by the way) I decided to see what Eastern medicine could do.

Photo credit: acidpix (Flickr)

I had made an appointment with the foreign patient liaison, and we bounced e-mails back and forth about the clinic’s location, my reason for visiting, and so on. Upon arriving, she was easy to spot, and soon set upon the first test – a stress test.

A stress test. Huh. I was just coming to get my foot looked at, but what the heck, sure, whatever. A couple of large clothespin-like devices were gently clamped on my arm, along with one on my ankle. This would be a five-minute test, she said, and I was told not to move or speak. This is harder than it sounds – especially in a tiny room the size of a bathroom, where there’s no easy way to get comfortable. After five minutes (and some minor struggling with a printer), she produced my results – an array of charts and graphs, none of which made the least bit of sense. This one means you’re not under much stress, she noted, but this one was high – do you feel stressed?

Something about a cup of coffee back in the waiting room was enough to take the edge off, or so it seemed. With her part done for now, Sunny turned her attention to another foreign patient, a woman who seemed a personal friend as much as a patient. While I question the appropriateness of openly sharing one’s medical history or issues in an open waiting room, I was the only other one that would have understood their English conversation.

Once the doctor was free, he asked the expected questions: what is your complaint, is this your first time seeking treatment, and so on. This was all in the e-mail exchange between Sunny and I, mind you, so it became clear there had been little communication or preparation despite making an appointment. To his credit, the doctor pulled out an encyclopedia of medical conditions (like your grandfather’s doctor may have done), and told me everything I had already found out via the internet. He also clearly laid out the treatment, which was a nice contrast of never knowing what to expect.

After changing into an absolutely hideous outfit (think a jimjilbang outfit with wavy rainbow-colored lines), I got comfortable on a warm padded table and waited for the first round – apologies, but the name escapes me, and I wasn’t taking notes. A nurse entered with a cart, and attached four suction cup devices to my legs, one on either side of both calves. After turning them on, she left the room as the machine started up. Imagine, if you can, the feeling of a waterfall trying to give you a hicky – a tingling, suction sensation, complete with the feeling of water without actually getting wet. While the room was peaceful, the sensation was unusual enough to make relaxing difficult.

Next up, the acupuncture. I was secretly a little concerned, though the non-chalant side of me had agreed to take it as casually as possible. Take life as it comes at you, I thought. Before that, however, the doctor took a wooden hammer and stake, set the stake on my lower back, and told me to say something if it got to be too much pain. If a 1 on the pain scale is the a minor bug bite and a 10 falling off your motorbike and skidding along the pavement for a few hundred meters, this ’pounding of the stake’ was about a 5 – maybe a 6 when it reached its worst. I’m no wimp, but he found a few sensitive spots that grew more sensitive over time. This helps to release any blocked spots, or something along those lines. Creating a pain in the back to fix a pain in the foot? OK….

The acupuncture needles themselves were a 2 to 3, based entirely on their location. It was somewhat like a pinprick with a twist (what felt like a quarter turn to keep the needle in place) Most, like the ones in my feet, were almost unnoticeable once in place; with the back, I found that the more I moved, the more I felt them. That meant trying to read or do something else was out – then again, it is a Friday afternoon, and I’m here laying in a quiet, dark room, relaxing to some overhead classical music.

It was perhaps 15 minutes later when a nurse came in, wordlessly removed the needles, and left as quickly as she worked. The doctor then came back in to tape my feet and pass on the news that the acupuncture needs to be continued. This sounds suspicious – apparently one session isn’t enough to unblock the qi – and so I naturally asked for how long. Twice a week for two months, he said. At this point, I’m happy to have had the experience, but it feels more like a sales pitch than a prescription. The cost, considering the hour-plus of treatment, is a mere 11,000 won (about $11 USD) per session – apparently acupuncture is covered by nationalized Korean insurance. I walked out with tape on my foot (“the same sort that athletes use”), still gingerly walking as I did when I walked in. Maybe it really does take 16 sessions of acupuncture, each one lasting an hour-plus, to make a difference, but there was no difference felt from a single session – and I didn’t have an urge to spend almost $200 to figure out if it would work.

Is it for you? There’s no reason not to try it out – personally, I’ll be sticking with hot foot baths and massages.

Have you tried acupuncture? What did you think of it?