by Lisa Hanfileti, LAc, MAcOM
I have a special place in my heart for the self-described acupuncture skeptic because I was one of them. If someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be an acupuncturist, let alone a successful one who loved my job, I would have laughed in their face.
When a friend suggested I try acupuncture for chronic headaches and insomnia I remember thinking (and I quote), "what a load of crap!". I could not think of anything more ridiculous than someone claiming that sticking needles in the skin could stimulate a healing change. I am a scientist, after all.
My background is in research. Real lab work. Collecting data, crunching the numbers, analyzing the results, writing research articles, and drawing conclusions based on the proof.
I spent 6 years as a PhD graduate student at Boston University in the Biology Department studying, "Ovarian Steroidogenesis in the Little Skate, Raja erinacea". Aren't you sorry you missed that exciting piece of literature? (If you are diligent you will find my research articles published in obscure scientific journals under my maiden name, Fileti)
In 1991, I got married and moved to Michigan. I took my piles of data and notes with me, determined to complete my thesis. After all, I had done all the work. I just had to write it up.
With my husband busy doing his pediatrics residency (yes, he's an MD, more on him later), I got a great job earning a wonderful income at an IVF Fertility Clinic in Ann Arbor (and later at a fertility clinic at OHSU in Portland, OR). I worked in these clinic laboratories as an Andrologist and Embryologist and loved it. More data, more research, more scientific studies to pour over and report on.
My thesis was still on my mind and every weekend I would sit at my computer to work on it, or more accurately, NOT sit at my computer and feel guilty for NOT working on it. The fact that Boston University classified me as "ABD", which stands for "All But Dissertation" never bothered me because I honestly intended to write my dissertation one day.
But I never did.
Years slipped by with me making half attempts at getting my thesis written but it never felt right. Eventually I became clear and realized that a PhD just wasn't what I wanted.
So to this day I am technically, "ABD". What that means in the PhD community is that I was crazy enough to do all the research, and pass all the examinations (including the written & oral comprehensive nightmares), but never passionate enough to complete the writing of my thesis.
The good news is that my scientific research skills remain with me. I've been able to apply my knowledge of biology, physiology, anatomy, and reproductive endocrinolgy to my acupuncture studies and in my acupuncture clinical practice.
Easy... I looked for proof. Real data that could be "measured".
And the data collection started with me.
I followed my friend's suggestion to try acupuncture for my headaches & insomnia, but NOT because I believed it would help me. As I said, I thought this stuff was ridiculous. But I was curious. And a part of me wondered if it could really help.
Even with this glimmer of hope I fully expected that I would soon be reporting back to my friend, "see it didn't work!".
Besides being very afraid of the whole process (who wants needles stuck into them?), my first acupuncture treatments were unremarkable. I don't remember feeling particularly good or bad. Just scared.
My acupuncturist told me that since the headaches and insomnia were chronic (e.g. I had them for years), I should receive treatments weekly for several months.
I later learned that the prevailing wisdom is, the longer you've had a problem (like pain, illness, whatever), the longer it takes to turn it around. So if it is a lifelong illness, be prepared for months, perhaps years, of regular treatments. If it is a recent illness or injury, then usually only a few treatments are needed.
The goal is to have a lasting effect that heals the body from the inside out. And that takes time. Which is not a good thing when you're impatient like me!
But I managed to get consistent acupuncture treatments, usually 1 or 2 weeks apart and I slowly started to notice changes. At first, I stopped needing as much medication for my headaches. Then I realized that I was having them less often, and when I did have a headache it was not as intense.
What really got my attention was about 3 months into my acupuncture treatments, I slept through the night! I put my head on the pillow at night and woke up 8 hours later in the morning. For anyone who has ever had insomnia, that is an amazing feeling!
Sleeping through the night changed my life. I did not realize how being sleep-deprived for so many years had affected me. I started to get more energy and more enthusiasm.
You would think that the disappearance of chronic insomnia and headaches made me a firm believer in acupuncture. But it didn't. In my mind there was still the possibility that it was all a coincidence.
Then something really amazing happened. Something that convinced me beyond any doubt that acupuncture really works!
One thing I did not tell my acupuncturist ever is that I had a fluid-filled cyst, a bit bigger than the size of a golf ball, behind my right knee. It had been there for about 6 years.
Before I had ever heard of acupuncture, I had two different surgeons examine my knee because at times it could be painful.
One surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and the another at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (both reputable medical institutions) said essentially the same thing: It is a benign, fluid-filled cyst that did not pose any danger to me.
They could not simply aspirate the fluid out because the cyst involved the synovial sac, (tissue in the joint space). Instead, the cyst needed to be removed surgically and they could not guarantee that it would not return.
So for years I had "planned" on having this surgery. I was waiting for a convenient 6-weeks when I could be off my feet but that time frame never happened so I never scheduled the surgery. Still, I knew some day I would have to do it.
It never occurred to me to tell my acupuncturist about this cyst because two top-notch surgeons had already told me it needed to be surgically removed. Additionally my acupuncturist never saw or stuck a needle in the back of my knee because I always was treated face-up (laying on my back) with my pant legs rolled up to just below my knee.
One day, several months into my treatments I noticed that my knee felt different. I looked at the back of my knee and the cyst was gone!
I felt for the familiar lump and it wasn't there. I showed my husband and he was as surprised as I was. I had no idea what had caused it to disappear.
At my next acupuncture appointment, I asked my acupuncturist if the treatments could have caused my cyst to disappear. She asked me where it was and the nature of the cyst. I explained and she launched into something like, "Oh yes of course! In order to treat your insomnia we have been harmonizing your Heart and Kidney meridians and the Kidney meridian runs up the back of the knee and controls fluid metabolism in the body."
My jaw dropped. I had no idea what she had just said. I asked her to repeat it. Instead she asked me to hold on while she stepped out of the room. She returned with a printed copy of a chapter out of one of her Chinese Medicine Textbooks. The chapter was called something like, "Harmonizing Heart & Kidney" and it listed all the patterns associated with this disharmony. I was shocked to read that I had just about every "symptom" of this imbalance.
Once I was handed that chapter out of a Chinese Medicine textbook, I was hooked.
All my preconceived ideas about acupuncture not being based in science were dispelled. Not only did I learn that Chinese medicine had a well documented history but volumes of modern research existed as well.
I was fascinated by this holistic healing method and decided that I wanted to know more.
And what better way to learn more than to quit my job, turn my life upside down, and do something that my friends and family thought was crazy?!
It just so happens that the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM) is right in my back yard.
At the time I was searching for a place to learn holistic medicine, I had no idea that acupuncture schools are few and far between. Most are located in California, Florida, Arizona, and New York. I was lucky to have one of the best within a 20 minute drive.
I am a huge fan of OCOM for many reasons. But like most acupuncture schools, OCOM needs to provide more information to students and graduates about the business aspect of opening, owning, running, and successfully managing an acupuncture practice.
Nonetheless, OCOM did prepare me to be an exceptional acupuncturist. I am not bragging when I say that. My experience with my classmates, teaching assistants, professors, clinical practitioners, and administrators taught me that ALL graduates of OCOM are prepared to be exceptional acupuncturists.
Unfortunately, that does not always translate into a successful acupuncture business (as indicated by "The Statistic"). My commitment to sharing the benefits of acupuncture and Chinese medicine with others along with my passion for its holistic medical model motivated me to open my acupuncture clinic, Points of Origin, PLLC. But that's a whole other story...