The first time I fainted was a couple days before my eighth birthday. My mom allowed me to get my ears pierced, a rite of passage for a girl in the early 90s. The event itself was unremarkable and unmemorable. It was later that night, in our bathroom at home, when I had to spin the sparkling purple studs in my lobes to keep the holes from closing up that I hit the floor. Flat out.
Mom thought I was joking, messing around, being dramatic. “Come on, Amanda, get up. We have to do this.”
It wasn’t until I didn’t respond that she realized I’d truly passed out.
I recovered without incident, and several years passed before I had another episode. It wasn’t until I passed out in the front of a classroom in middle school (what a great place to make a scene, huh?) that I went to the doctor and got a diagnosis: vasovagal syncope. It’s a generally harmless condition in which my body hits its Reset button when it gets overstimulated by certain triggers. It’s the same response that triggers people to faint at the sight of blood.
My trigger? Pain. Intense, sharp pain.
My doctor’s advice was straightforward: “As long as you don’t hit your head on the way down, you’re fine.” Simple enough.
A variety of painful incidents have triggered me to faint over the years: ear piercing, flu-related stomach ache, cramps, a dislocated kneecap, vaccines, and a time I had to have an IV inserted prior to surgery.
When I’m close to fainting, I can feel it coming. In the span of, say, 10 seconds, I feel weak, my joints ache, my ears start ringing, blood drains from my face, I break out in a cold sweat, the world around me slows, and my vision narrows in a dark, closing tunnel before all the lights finally go out. I usually awaken 30-60 seconds later with startled, wide-eyed faces hovering over me (most often my mom), but it takes just a few minutes for me to feel pretty normal again.
You can imagine how much psyching up it requires for me to get my flu shot every year.
With this history in mind, you now understand why this intrepid activity is particularly significant: I tried acupuncture, a process which includes having 45 needles stuck into my skin and left for 24 minutes.
People say, “It’s different. It doesn’t feel like getting a shot.” But those people don’t have my pain tolerance. I didn’t fully trust it until I experienced it myself.
I can now say, it’s different. It doesn’t totally feel like getting a shot.
Acupuncture: An “Alternative” Therapy With a History Centuries Older than “Western” Medicine
I decided to try acupuncture when I became frustrated with the amount of stress- and anxiety-triggered sweating I was experiencing. While I work on controlling those triggers psychologically (like everyone else in America), I didn’t want to just throw more chemicals at the problem (i.e., medications, anti-perspirants). I wanted to fix the issue, not just cover it up.
I got a referral from my massage therapist (she has an appointment of her own every week) and made an appointment. In preparation for my first visit, I filled out a 12-page form that covered my major medical history as well as more nuanced questions: do you have cold hands and feet? Take water to bed? Have nose bleeds? Worry? Anger easily? The form was extensive, but I was fascinated to see what sensations and occurrences we shrug off or ignore on a daily basis can point to a condition or malady.
At my first visit, the practitioner reviewed the form with me and talked through it, then she did two things that she’s done at the start of each subsequent appointment: 1) she checked the speed and strength of my pulse, using three fingers, on both of my wrists; and 2) she examined the top and bottom of my tongue, specifically its shape, color, and coating. Our conversation and these two physical checks help her decide where to place needles that day.
For the needling itself, I wear a tank top and shorts so she can easily access my arms and hands, legs and feet, and collarbone, as well as my face and ears as needed. For my particular needs, she inserts 4-5 needles in each ear, one on the very top of my head, one near my elbow, a couple on my hands, one near my knee, a few on my feet, and others in various locations that usually add up to 45 total.
When I had a bad cold, she put some around my sinuses to ease congestion. When I was preparing for a flight, she added a couple additional around my lungs to keep them strong against airborne pathogens.
How does the needling process feel? Some really sting, I’m not going to lie, but that’s the minority, and the sensation fades within a second. Those, particularly a couple spots in my ears, feel like a hard pinch. Others I can’t feel anything more than the pressure of her hand. Most fall somewhere in the middle of the sensation-and-pain scale.
Take it from someone who knows how to judge the intensity of pain: I don’t find it to be troublesome at all.
When all the needles are in, she puts a heat lamp over my feet to keep them toasty and comfortable, turns on some gentle music, dims the lights, and leaves me to relax on the table for 24 minutes.
Why 24 minutes? That’s the length of time it takes the energy in our bodies to make a complete circuit through all channels or meridians and return to where it started. I’m usually so relaxed by the end of those 24 minutes that I could almost slide into a nap.
The timer beeps, she comes back, and one by one she removes each needle, stopping to count them at the end to make sure she got each one.
I usually have one or two specific points in my ears that bleed a little bit when the needles come out—the same location on each ear, a point associated with anxiety. She said that bleeding is a sign that the body is “clearing that channel”, and in traditional Chinese medicine, it’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a sign that the body is at work. I find this particular element of the experience fascinating but difficult to wrap my mind around.
With that, I’m done and on my way.
I’ve had five treatments so far, each 2-3 weeks apart. I can honestly say it’s helping me, and I’m thrilled. Before my first appointment, I figured at the least it wouldn’t make things worse, and unlike so many Western medicine treatments (medication, lasers…), I didn’t worry about adverse side effects or permanent damage.
I may get faster results if I had my sweat glands destroyed with a laser treatment… but that sounds like a treatment I want to save as a desperate, last resort.
Until then, I’m willing and open to having 45 little needles stuck in me every two weeks. Coming from me, that’s one of the highest compliments I can give.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1