Tucked into the side of Colorado Avenue is a cozy, nondescript red adobe building. Inside is a softly-lit room with eight lounge chairs, white noise and relaxing music playing faintly in the background. It is here that Hannah Beachy first inserted needles into my body.
Beachy is the founder, owner, and one of three full-time acupuncturists at Springs Community Acupuncture. In this little red sanctuary, acupuncture treatment takes place in a group setting. Patients lie down and relax together in the same room—with, of course, tiny needles poked into them.
The first time I got acupuncture, I sat nervously as Beachy looked between her notes and my body, as if she was sizing up how to needle me. As it turned out, the needles were practically painless. A few on the left ankle. A couple on the right ear. One on each wrist. And one right in the middle of the forehead. Then, something washed over me—a wonderful, calm feeling that’s difficult to describe.
Colorado College junior Caroline Li says that the first time she got acupuncture, she drifted in and out of sleep. “Every once in a while, I would feel this hot wave through my body. It was both painful and really exhilarating.”
Annabelle O’Neill, a CC senior, sought acupuncture treatment at Springs Community Acupuncture two years ago for recurring yeast infections. “I tried every remedy known to womxn, and nothing was working,” O’Neill says. She says that during her first treatment, “Within two minutes, I was filled with this overwhelming sense of calm. It felt luscious like nothing else had. And then I took the most divine nap … it felt like there were curls of healing and loveliness going through me, and I still feel that every time.”
I first visited Springs Community Acupuncture last fall in search of a one-hit solution, or at least a bit of relief from stress, anxiety, and insomnia. I never imagined that walking into a room full of sleeping adults and having a near-stranger stick tiny needles in me would be the apparent solution. But I walked out of my first acupuncture session a convert.
The theory behind acupuncture is based on ancient Chinese teachings about qi, the life force energy that flows through the body. It is believed that inserting needles into carefully chosen access points called meridians can correct the imbalances and blockages in qi, thus providing relief for a wide variety of health problems ranging from musculoskeletal pain, to stress, to neurological disorders, to headaches, to allergies, to irregular menstruation.
Acupuncturists thus speak about the body using a language of organs, pathways, channels, yin and yang, and elemental imbalances. According to Beachy, each acupuncturist draws on different practices and schools of thought to determine where to place needles, depending on the patient’s specific symptoms and context. Beachy, for example, often uses the five elements of Chinese medicine (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) to understand what is going on in her patients’ bodies. “All the elements have complex relationships with each other that help us explain our outer and inner worlds, and dynamics of health and illness in the body,” Beachy says.
Needless to say, these terms aren’t always compatible with the way modern Western science analyzes the body’s functions. This is why medical researchers often criticize acupuncture as a pseudoscience, attributing the perceived benefits of acupuncture to the placebo effect. Over the past few decades, hundreds of studies have been commissioned to try to figure out whether acupuncture actually works. Some medical researchers believe that acupuncture is effective, attributing its benefits not to qi flows but rather to a yet-unknown mechanism. But a large portion of the medical establishment seems determined to prove that acupuncture is entirely a scam. The message is that acupuncture (and other homeopathic remedies such as Chinese herbal medicine) can’t be explained by the Western medical logic we understand, so they must not work.
Beachy is well aware of these debates. She just doesn’t really care. “I just tell [those who doubt acupuncture] to try it … If it didn’t work, why would so many other [medical practitioners] be trying to practice it?” (She’s referring to the numerous physical therapists, veterinarians, MDs, and chiropractors who often seek acupuncture certification—they hardly view acupuncture as a scam. Some local practitioners also work with Beachy and refer their patients to the clinic.) Beachy trusts her training, her personal experience, and the feedback she gets from her clients more than the inconclusive and skeptical medical studies. She knows she’s helping people feel better, and that’s enough.
Beachy’s approach to verifying the efficacy of her practice may sound subjective, but that might not be such a bad thing. The fact that acupuncturists usually put more weight on how patients say they’re responding to treatment is one of the many ways acupuncture can challenge how we think of medicine, our health care system, and the kind of healing we expect from it.
The history of acupuncture is hard to pin down—partly because many sources within the acupuncture world only vaguely describe its roots, while sources from outside often vehemently deride them. There are a few certainties: the medical practice of acupuncture appears formally in texts as ancient as the Huangdi Neijing, a dialogue between an emperor and his physician dated around 200 B.C. Acupuncture was widely practiced in China for millennia—but there were never any formal, wide-reaching standards of how to practice it. Rather, Beachy says, family lineages would pass on and develop their own traditions, resulting in a huge variety of acupuncture practices.
However, from the 17th century onward, interest in acupuncture steadily declined in China. In 1929, it was even outlawed as a subversive, irrational practice. Then came the 1949 Communist Revolution, which had the double effects of stoking nationalist pride and provoking trade restrictions that limited the inflow of Western pharmaceuticals. Under the direction of Chairman Mao Zedong, medical authorities commissioned standards and an educational method for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which compiled and streamlined practices from various family lineages. “They wanted it to create a cohesive, unified medicine,” Beachy explains, so that it could be easily taught in universities and administered in a uniform way. Somewhat ironically, Mao was trying to revitalize ancient practices by molding them to fit the expectations of both Westerners and urban Chinese elites for standardized, scientific medical care.
Mao’s nationalist medical project had the unintended effect of pre-packaging acupuncture just enough so that it could be accepted not only in China, but in the West. Chinese immigrant communities in the U.S. had long practiced forms of acupuncture based on their family traditions. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century, when China nudged its tourist doors open, that Westerners “discovered” the benefits of acupuncture. The formalized version of TCM that Mao had commissioned proved to be a hit in the Western market.
Beachy explains that acupuncture was largely appropriated and brought to the U.S. by, “young white males going over [to China], doing something ‘adventurous’ by studying Chinese medicine.” Beachy doesn’t mean to deride them as ignorant or dismissive of Chinese culture; “by and large, they were doing their best, learning Chinese, learning how to translate texts … They came back and founded schools, wrote the early textbooks and tried to get everything in English so that we could all learn it and have it be more reproducible.” But at the same time, in taking the already-streamlined version of TCM and submitting it to a national system of certification and regulation, Beachy explains, “people who had been practicing traditionally couldn’t practice it anymore.”
Another effect of trying to make TCM appeal to Western audiences was that, Beachy explains, “They sort of changed the model to be more of a private-room, elite practice.” The pioneers of acupuncture schools in the U.S. figured that Western consumers, accustomed to privacy in all health matters, would be averse to undergoing acupuncture in a group setting, as it was often practiced in China. That change made acupuncture increasingly expensive. Today, the average price of a single treatment at a private clinic is $75, ranging up to $250, and it often isn’t covered by health insurance.
Thus, not only is today’s form of acupuncture attacked as pseudoscientific, it’s also unclear how far it has strayed from its roots. Both of these facts contribute to the dichotomy of views about acupuncture: as Caroline Li, who grew up in China, puts it, “In the U.S., people either think it’s this spiritual thing or the biggest lie in the world.” People tend to either fawn over Chinese medicine because of its mysterious allure or scoff at it because of its lack of rigorous proof. Rarely do people view acupuncture as just a normal way to try to heal pain and injury. Li continues, “In China, it’s more like, when people are having trouble, when your kid is sick or something, let’s go to the acupuncturist.”
The inaccessibility of acupuncture was on Beachy’s mind when she graduated from Southwest Acupuncture College. She was in debt (a three-year master’s program in Chinese medicine is expensive) and facing a competitive job market with little turnover. She knew she would probably have to start her own clinic to begin practicing, but became dismayed when she realized that she herself wouldn’t even be able to afford treatment at regular private acupuncture prices.
The solution she found was community acupuncture, an established and growing way of practicing acupuncture led in the US by a nationwide co-op called People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. A group setting allows the acupuncturist to treat and supervise multiple patients at a time in the same space, thus increasing client intake and decreasing amount the clinic needs to charge to keep running. Springs Community Acupuncture operates on a sliding scale model, in which you pay what you can between $17 and $35. The treatment room in Springs Community Acupuncture is often nearly full. The acupuncturist transitions constantly from patient to patient, balancing their individual needs.
But community acupuncture is much more than a cost-saving model. Annabelle O’Neill, for example, explains, “You’re in this room with about 8 other people, and there’s this feeling that ‘we’re all in this together.’” O’Neill says that when she mentions that aspect of Springs Community Acupuncture to others, “often times they reel back, and I think that’s our modern response; fear of dealing with healing around other people. I think that in breaking down those walls and sharing in that, so many beautiful things happen … People show up and they’re being vulnerable in ways that humans usually aren’t these days.”
Part of Springs Community Acupuncture’s mission is to offer treatment to marginalized and underserved populations. “We get people who can’t afford to go to the doctor,” Beachy says, “which is hard because we’re not trying to take the place of primary care, but we do what we can. A lot of seniors, a lot of veterans.” I recall one visit to the clinic in which I sat next to a very frail, elderly woman who spoke little English. When Beachy removed the needles at the end of her treatment, she exclaimed, “Hannah, that felt good!” It was as though she was astounded that she had actually found something that alleviated her pain.
The clinic offers periodic discounts for teachers, military service members, first responders, and seniors. The clinic is also in the final stages of becoming a non-profit, which means it will broaden its mission and commit to more community outreach.
The clinic’s emphasis on inclusiveness means that the acupuncturists have to be conscious about how they practice. “We kind of strip it of the mystical stuff,” Beachy explains. “I totally acknowledge that [a spiritual aspect] is also happening, but I don’t want to bog my patients down with thinking that they have to believe a certain thing for it to work.”
Beachy wants her practice to stray away from a common tendency in alternative medicine to criticize people’s lifestyle and health choices to the point of discouraging them from coming back. For example, instead of lecturing people about how they should really quit smoking, Beachy would rather work with them to ease their anxiety. “People are where they are, and we try to meet them there … We want to give them the tools to have more agency in their own health.”
Throughout my research on the issues of acupuncture’s legitimacy and cultural boundaries, I came across so many articles that were decidedly negative on what appear to me to be still-open questions of acupuncture’s effectiveness. One 2013 editorial in Slate accused acupuncture of being a Communist lie that Mao used to “swindle” the Western world. The author pointed to acupuncture’s “idiosyncratic” roots to dismiss it as unproven and unprovable, arguing that, “In truth, skepticism, empiricism, and logic are not uniquely Western, and we should feel free to apply them to Chinese medicine.”
I agree that non-Western ideas can also be subject to logical critique and standardization (so does Springs Community Acupuncture, for the record, which is implementing practices to better track people’s responses to acupuncture treatment). But look at the polarizing, exploitative, impossible-to-navigate state of the U.S. healthcare system. Look at people like myself and O’Neill, who went through so many empirically proven tests and tried Western medical solutions, to no avail. Are we really so sure that the West know the way to logically provide medical care? (Or anything else, for that matter?)
Instead of seeing what we can learn from acupuncture and other traditional medicines, we seem to be so desperate to hold onto the notion that Western medicine is an all-encompassing, totally rigorous science that we’re vehemently discrediting teachings that, when stated simply, seem obvious. The core idea of acupuncture is, after all, that your body is an integrated system and that different conditions and systems affect one another.
I’m not saying that acupuncture can replace primary care, or that you should boycott your doctor. It’s likely that not everyone will respond to acupuncture in the same way that I do. (Beachy explains that they want patients to know that acupuncture is a process and usually works best in a series of treatments: “There’s such a range of what can happen, but there’s enough of a pattern.”) And personally, I think it’s entirely possible that part of the positive effects I feel are because I associate Springs Community Acupuncture with the calm and meditative environment of the room.
But the fact is that I walk out of every acupuncture treatment feeling at peace and confident that I’ll sleep that night. Acupuncture is the only thing that’s been able to do that. It helps me feel better, and for me, as for most people, that’s what affects my life and well-being more than knowing exactly what to call my symptoms. Why would someone try to tell me that’s not legitimate?
Finding a way to seek acupuncture treatment responsibly while respecting its roots may be tricky. Beachy acknowledges that trying to create a new cross-cultural profession from something so ancient is “kind of like stumbling in the dark.” But I think she makes a good case that it’s worth the confusion. Her approach focuses on the good that her clinic can do: “We’re trying to make acupuncture available to as many people as possible, break down those barriers, and expand our reach and our access.”
I’ve found that acupuncture offers something that is all too often desperately lacking in Western medicine: the sense that health care providers actually take how you feel into consideration. So, at the very least, we can learn something from the way acupuncturists approach pain as something to be treated holistically, and their efforts to make healthcare accessible to everyone. And at most, we can learn a better way to heal.
Blue Issue | February 2019