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Have You Tried Community Acupuncture?



Have You Tried Community Acupuncture?

Did you know that some of life’s most common health conditions – depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, emotional issues, neck pain, back pain, joint pain, allergies – can be treated with acupuncture? “The goal of an acupuncturist is to balance the body — up and down, left and right, external, interior, big and small,” says Daniel Katz, co-founder of Wildwood, a holistic, integrative health practice on India Street in downtown Portland, Maine.

Community acupuncture is really for the every-person. It’s a relatively new movement here in Maine, even though it has been practiced in China for thousands of years, says Daniel. In fact, acupuncture was never meant to be an elitist, hard-to-access treatment, and community acupuncture provides a route to finding balance conveniently and affordably.

What is Community Acupuncture?

Community acupuncture is a way to be treated by an acupuncturist in a group setting. At Wildwood Community Acupuncture, people enter a large room and settle into one of the many recliner chairs. Then, a Wildwood acupuncturist will take a short intake with each person, find out what’s going on, and provide treatment. Because the treatment takes place in a group setting with other patients, the cost is far below the cost of treatment in a private setting.

Community acupuncture is like the social justice of medicine, says Daniel, “because we treat everyone and literally everybody gets the same quality treatment.” This is a departure from a health care system that often gives the most comprehensive care to those with the best insurance coverage.

In the Wildwood Community Acupuncture clinic, patients stay clothed while the practitioner uses needles to access powerful points below the knee, below the elbow, on the head and ears. Once the needles have been inserted, the patient rests comfortably for about 45 minutes. Daniel notes that many people fall asleep as the treatment takes effect. Many of the benefits are felt immediately, while others take time.

Why do people like Community Acupuncture?

People enjoy the group energy, the lower costs, and the easy, flexible access that community acupuncture provides. Also, because community acupuncture costs so much less than a private treatment, patients can come in more frequently and find faster relief for their conditions. At Wildwood, community acupuncture is offered almost daily, so people don’t have to wait days or weeks for an advance appointment and can usually come in for an injury or illness on the same day.

The group dynamic is really quite profound, says Daniel, and the word community in community acupuncture is a central to the appeal. “There’s this sense that everybody is in it together,” he says. “It’s kind of like doing yoga in your living room as opposed to going to a class.” The group energy heals.

What Are the Barriers to Getting Healthy?

There are plenty of barriers to health, explains Daniel, which is why Wildwood offers community acupuncture to everyone. The barriers to getting healthy include work and time constraints, physical barriers, such as distance and transportation, restrictions in insurance, social barriers, and even mindset.

Some people are locked into their own idea that their illness is part of them as opposed to something that can be treated,” says Daniel. “I see a wide variety of barriers to people getting well, but I see that as part of our job – to break down those barriers and see if we can help.”

Wildwood treats all sorts of common conditions, including patients who want to avoid surgery and people who cannot get relief in traditional therapy. Their practitioners treat people who want to access deeper relaxation, those suffering disease, illness, and the pain of life.

Why Portland, Maine?

Portland has an interesting community of people who are thoughtful in how they want to be treated,” says Daniel. A lot of people do not want a complicated plan of care. They want a simplified, down-to-earth way of looking at their health. Wildwood’s location in downtown Portland offers a one-stop holistic option. The practice comprises a doctor, five acupuncturists, several physical therapists, a massage therapist, and you can get supplements there too.

We don’t have a preconceived idea of what people will want when they come to Wildwood,” says Daniel. “We look at people with a holistic point of view and we meet them where they are on their road the health so that they can ultimately reach their destiny.”

To sign up for community acupuncture treatment, visit:



The Iceman, Modern Medicine and Ancient Acupuncture

Have you ever heard of Ötzi the Iceman? If not, this is the perfect story to explore as glacial winter weather settles upon us here in Portland, Maine.

Preserved in the Ice

Ötzi’s well-preserved, naturally mummified remains were found accidentally by hikers in 1991 on the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley glacier in South Tyrol, Italy, where researchers believe he was shot in the back by an arrow more than five thousand years ago! This means that the Copper Age mummy, whose tools and clothing were preserved alongside him in the ice, predates ancient sites such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.


Otzi’s remains (Wikimedia Commons)

Medical Mysteries

The Iceman’s body was so well-preserved in the mountains that researchers have painted an incredibly clear picture of Otzi’s life and death – they were even able to discern that his final meal was one of fresh or dried ibex twelve hours before he was killed! Along with ibex, the bacteria H. pylori was found in his intestines. While modern research has linked this bacteria, which is present in 50% of humans, to ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues, scientists studying the Iceman believe H. pylori may have aided in the digestion of raw meat. Another interesting digestive discovery was that the Iceman was lactose intolerant. 1

Connection to Acupuncture

The origins of the ancient healing art of acupuncture have generally been traced to China during the Warring State period, about 770-221 B.C.E.2 Stone tools and ancient texts that reference a system of meridians from that era had previously supported this claim – until Ötzi, that is. One of the most interesting discoveries associated with the Iceman is a series mysterious tattoos, sixty-one in total, located near points that correspond with modern acupuncture points. Researchers consider these tattoos to be medicinal, in particular to help alleviate pain associated with degeneration in Ötzi’s lumbar spine (if you have ever seen an acupuncturist for low back pain, you most likely have been needled near your ankle – similar to some of Ötzi’s tattoos!) If researchers’ suspicions are correct, a system of acupuncture may have been known to inhabitants of the Alps thousands of years before acupuncture can be traced to China.

More Questions than Answers

Studying Ötzi has opened a doorway into the mysterious ancient world in which he lived, providing scientists with as many questions as answers. What do you think about the Iceman?

1Sturdee, Simon. Stone Age mummy still revealing secrets, 25 years on. September 2016.

2Run Ming, Yan. The Origin and Development of Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion.

Acupuncture for Inducing Labor?

In the community clinic, we have helped many a pregnant person through the process of gestation and birth. This post is specifically about how acupuncture can help the body prepare for and enter into labor.

It’s become a common event in the community clinic for a person with a big pregnant belly and a big pregnant sigh to partially recline into one of our chairs and say, “I’m ready to be induced, but can you tell me one more time how this is gonna work?”

Great question!

I was going to write a blog post all about it, but then I realized it has already been written, so instead I’m sharing!

Below is part of a great piece written by Melani Bolyai of Natural Qi Acupuncture.

See the entire post herePregnant woman holding wall clock. It's time. Isolated on white.

Though acupuncture is a natural way to encourage labor, acupuncture needling will not cause labor before the baby is ready to be delivered. The process of natural labor is actually triggered by signals from the baby’s body. Acupuncture needling works on the mother’s body, not the fetus; so acupuncture merely prepares the mother’s body to be as ready and supported as possible for when the baby is ready to trigger the labor process. Labor will not occur if the mother or child’s body is not prepared.


Rethinking Addiction

“Not every story has a happy ending, … but the discoveries of science, the teachings of the heart, and the revelations of the soul all assure us that no human being is ever beyond redemption. The possibility of renewal exists so long as life exists. How to support that possibility in others and in ourselves is the ultimate question.”
? Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Addiction: Facts and Fictions
Cigarette vector on orange background with smoke

Let’s talk about smoking for a second, since it’s a perfect way to start off a conversation about how we think about addiction. Quitting smoking isn’t easy, though some of the typical approaches to smoking cessation might have you thinking that dropping the habit should be a simple matter of common sense, but sometimes alternative approaches need to be taken. “I don’t understand why he just doesn’t stop,” a patient once lamented. She was talking about her son, who’d been smoking for almost 20 years.” A cigarette has thousands and thousands of chemicals in it. He also has two beautiful sons! If it were me, I would have quit a long time ago.”

I’m sharing this anecdote because it’s a good example of a common approach to addiction. A sobering fact delivered alongside a hefty slab of judgment and whoolah, the addicted person should be able to see the light and shed their habit. Aside from illustrating a rudimentary understanding of addiction, these types of stories also tend to use the language of us and them. If we don’t struggle with a nicotine addiction, we pat ourselves on the back. If we do, we feel a surge of self-loathing and step outside for a smoke to lift our mood…and because, well, FU.

I’m not trying to skirt around the fact that smoking is detrimental to the health of the smoker, as well as to anyone exposed to secondhand smoke. We know that all forms of nicotine are harmful to health. I also support limits on the public spaces where people can smoke. And yes, of course I understand why a mother would express concern about the health of her son.

But consider this anecdote again, and apply that flawed logic to another encounter with addiction, but this time make the addict a stranger. How many times have you heard someone, let’s say it’s your neighbor (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call him Ronald Rump) volunteer a running commentary on the homeless man who stands by Starbucks and jangles a bucket of change. Or that woman’s husband, who blah blah blah. Or that kid’s mom, who blah blah blah. Some of the cruelest jabs and gratuitous critiques are often directed at people entrenched in a world of pain, poverty, and addiction. And in my opinion, that’s far uglier than smoking.

Shaming and scaring people into stopping a behavior, as you might imagine, generally doesn’t work. It’s barbaric. And mostly it acts as a trigger. Yet, somehow, it’s the common way we express our “concern.” Consider this excerpt from an article titled “Taking in All the Pain of What They Witness.” It was co-written by Gabor Maté, MD (author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction) and Danny Glover (yes, that Danny Glover, the actor, producer, and humanitarian).

Addiction, whether to drugs or other behaviors, Glover says, is always a compensation for the sense of being devalued as a human being. “That’s basically it. Feeling alienated within the system: a system that demeans people, marginalizes them, exploits them, and creates a situation in which our value depends only on our capacity to consume.”

The chief reason we condemn drug users so vehemently may be simply that we do not wish to see our similarities to them. We want to perceive our own forms of self-soothing as somehow morally superior, or we just do not want to recognize how much our entire way of life resembles the frantic search for relief of the user. I define addiction as any behavior that, for the short term, we crave or find relief and pleasure in, but we are unable to give up despite the negative consequences incurred in the long term. By that standard, how many of us are not addicted?

So, perhaps the 1.1 billion people who smoke cigarettes aren’t simply irrational, inconsiderate, or spineless. Perhaps this is not an issue of valuing a drug over family, or personal health. Perhaps the 24.6 million people (9.4% of the population) who live with substance dependence or abuse aren’t just a statistic of weak-willed people who just don’t care enough.

What would happen if more of us considered these kinds of painful statistics from a place of compassion and reason, rather than from a place of judgement and fear? Perhaps we’re simply a planet full of humans who struggle due to real, identifiable reasons. Perhaps things would change for the better if we could talk about addiction from a place of compassion and connection rather than shame and fear. And perhaps we’d make even more progress if we identified and talked about the systemic issues that deeply influence our lived experiences.

“We see that substance addictions are only one specific form of blind attachment to harmful ways of being, yet we condemn the addict’s stubborn refusal to give up something deleterious to his life or to the life of others. Why do we despise, ostracize and punish the drug addict, when as a social collective, we share the same blindness and engage in the same rationalizations?”
? Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

A Different Approach to Addiction

Unsurprisingly, I find that the most engaging information on this subject is coming from those experts in the field who are considered ‘radical.’ Dr. Gabor Maté is a staff physician at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver, a residence for people who struggle with mental illness and severe drug addiction (Maté also works in harm reduction clinics in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside).

In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Maté tells the stories of his patients – who represent one extreme of the spectrum of addiction, often heavy needle users – and who share one thing in common: childhood abuse. Coming from a theoretical framework that acknowledges the biological and socioeconomic roots of addiction, Mate argues that “early adversity” (stress, mistreatment, and particularly childhood abuse) increases susceptibility to addiction. In other words, those born into more disadvantaged circumstances have a higher risk of becoming addicts.

My years in the community acupuncture clinic support Maté ‘s theories wholeheartedly: The violence of our social and economic systems are inscribed on people’s bodies, minds, and spirits. And those that require the most care are too often those that go without.

Rat Park: The Experiment

Then there is Carl Hart, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, and first tenured African American professor of sciences at Columbia University. Hart is known for his research in drug abuse and drug addiction. His book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society challenges the myths surrounding drug abuse and addiction.

“I thought that I was going to solve the problem of drug addiction,” he told the New York Times. “But it turns out that drug addiction wasn’t the biggest problem; the biggest problem, I found out, was actually drug policy.”

Hart was initially inspired by the results of research on addiction done in the late 70’s. (For a beautifully illustrated and engaging explanation of this experiment, see this link.) In short, the research of Rat Park showed that rats in an “enriched cage” (which means that available to the rat were mates, exercise, and play) self-administer morphine at far lower rates than rats kept in solitary and desolate cages. In other words, if the rat was in an environment that provided healthy options of engagement, that environment became far more important than the drug itself – meaning that the rats used far less of the drug. In other words, they were far less likely to become addicted.

This research prompted Hart to dig more deeply into the research of addiction. Lives and relationships are often destroyed by addiction, especially when addicts refuse to enter drug rehab, and Hart wanted to investigate this situation further. His conclusion? Addiction may not be the inevitable consequence of drug use, but rather an attractive distraction for those without preferable alternatives. In other words, for someone growing up in poverty, with little access to support and little to lose, the lack of access to healthy options could provide the external conditions for addiction to take hold.

From The Guardian:

Hart unravels the common perception that drugs and drug addiction are the cause of many of society’s problems. While he doesn’t argue that illegal drugs have no negative effects, he takes the reader through his journey of discovery: that the pharmacology of the drugs themselves is not the cause of our social ills – rather, drugs are the symptoms of a broken society, masking the underlying issues of unemployment, lack of education, poverty, racism, and despair. He argues that anti-drug policies are causing more harm than the drugs themselves, and are directly marginalising black people, poor communities and other minority groups.

He has seen this first hand, growing up, and his experiences are backed up by staggering statistics – that black people are up to five times more likely to be arrested than white people on drugs charges, and over 10 times more likely to be sent to prison for drugs offences, despite the fact that white and black people use drugs at similar rates.

Enter Community Acupuncture

I’ve already written about the community acupuncture model a bunch, and out of risk of being annoying, let me just say this: community acupuncture clinics provide accessible, affordable healthcare for all – and we can help. This is an example of a non-medicinal approach to combating addiction that is seeing results. For more alternative addiction recovery solutions, visit

To sum up this post, I’ll leave you with a quote from Lisa Rohleder, co-founder of Working Class Acupuncture, People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA), and POCA Tech. This quote is from her keynote speech at the most recent gathering of community acupuncturists affiliated with POCA.

Paolo Freire (more about him in a minute) says that it is everyone’s vocation to become more fully human. Injustice, exploitation, and oppression make us less human — whether we are in the role of oppressors or of oppressed. And we know that in this society most of us, often, are both. We have so many opportunities, here in late capitalism, to treat each other and ourselves as if we weren’t actually human beings. But for the most part, community acupuncture clinics are the opposite. They’re set up so that we meet each other primarily as human beings rather than as numbers or roles or images or income streams. We recognize that everyone suffers, everyone has needs, everyone is struggling with limited resources. And so for the most part, at least on our good days, our POCA clinics are humanizing environments.

Which means they are also, potentially, radicalizing environments. Once you start GENUINELY believing in and valuing the human dignity of people who don’t have a lot of money, people with whom you would not otherwise be having relationships, people of different ages and genders and ethnicities and races and backgrounds, people with whom you share, despite those differences, an awareness of suffering — at that point, my friend, the work you’re doing as a volunteer or a receptionist or an acupuncturist, at that point your work has dangerous potential.

Because liberation is a process. Once it starts, it doesn’t want to stop. Once you start treating all kinds of different people as human beings, it gets harder to stop, it gets harder to turn it off when society tells you to. You’ve put yourself in a situation where you can’t quite look past people who are supposed to be invisible. When you’re in the grocery store, you notice that the checker is wearing wrist braces and you realize she’s in pain. You think about her working conditions, about whether she has to stand all day and besides her wrists, how’s her low back?

You get to the point where you can’t look at another person without wondering, what hurts?

If more people wondered that, if they acted on it, capitalism might not function. What would happen if we insisted on treating people like people, and stopped treating people like things?

If you’re in Maine and trying to find affordable or free services to get well, please see here and here.

Acupuncture and Smoking Cessation

Quitting Smoking with Acupuncture

Acupuncture as an approach to smoking cessation has continuously growing support. In some states, acupuncture is a court-mandated treatment for addicts due to the recognized benefits of how acupuncture can help alleviate withdrawal symptoms and curb cravings. Of course, acupuncture is not a magic bullet in the treatment of addiction, but if you’re motivated to stop a habit, acupuncture can make it easier to quit. But if you have tried a number of methods like nicotine patches and nicotine gum and they have not been effective, maybe this is the solution for you. But if you haven’t and the first solution that came to mind was Acupuncture, maybe it is worth trying other methods of quitting. For someone who has recently made this decision, this method should be your last resort. Of course just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean it will have the same effect, but you never know if you don’t try. Why not check out sites like, where you may be able to find an easier way of quitting. It is definitely worth a try, especially if leading a healthier lifestyle is your main goal. When it comes to Acupuncture, treatments focus on everything from withdrawal symptoms (jitters, irritability, unpredictable emotions, insomnia, fatigue, and restlessness) to helping you stay grounded through triggering events or periods of high stress.

What Acupuncture Points Are Used?

Most often, a combination of body points and ear points are used, though in some cases, it’s possible to bypass the personalized approach and use the “NADA protocol.” The NADA protocol consists of five points in the ear. In the illustration below, from the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association UK, the white dots imply that these points are “under” or “deep” to the part of the ear that are shown in this picture.

From the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association UK. www.
From the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association UK.

NADA Protocol Ear Points:

  • Shen Men (“Doorway to the Spirit”): good for stress, anxiety, “hypersensitivity”
  • Kidney
  • Sympathetic: helps access the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”)
  • Upper Lung
  • Liver

Common body points:

  • Tian Mei: an extra-meridian point located on the wrist between LU-7 (Lieque) and LI-5 (Yangxi), a specific point to quit smoking.
  • Four Gates: (Large Intestine 4 and Liver 3), used to circulate qi throughout the body and calm the nervous system.

Typical treatments last about 30-40 minutes, with the patient being treated 1-3 times a week for the first month of smoking cessation. Most patients wean from such frequent treatments once they begin feeling more grounded and able to stay the course, and will come for “tuneups” when necessary.

The NADA Protocol: My Experience at Wildwood Community Acupuncture

lauren at work
Real live acupuncturist who harbors, deep within her heart, the incorrigible belief that together we can recover, heal, and find more moments of peace in our lives. So let me poke you!

The NADA protocol was initially used to aid relaxation and well-being for people suffering with substance misuse problems, and/or in recovery. I use it for these purposes every day in the community clinic.

The NADA protocol can also be used for many other areas of treatment. I find it extraordinarily helpful for general stress and anxiety management. It’s also helpful for trauma recovery, PTSD, pain management, and for ameliorating side effects from drug treatment in cancer. 5NP (standing for 5 Needle Protocol) is one of the most frequently requested treatments. My patients LOVE IT. (And for the record, so do I.)

Practitioners of all stripes understand that pain, stress, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common and costly complaints in the world of medicine. One of the reasons the NADA protocol has received global recognition as an effective treatment for these costly complaints is due to this simple fact: The NADA protocal has calming effect on the central nervous system.

Disrupting the Stress Response

“Interruption” of the stress response is one thing acupuncture does best. What does that mean? Well, simply put, it’s easy to get caught up in the vicious cycle of stress, which can include disrupted sleep/digestion/mood/energy. We know that if we can’t break the cycle of stress, our health declines. We need moments of rest and rehabilitation in order to recover and stay well, but sadly, we live in a world that make that difficult, and even tries to make it impossible for some. If you’re unsure about what I mean by this, please see here or here or here or here.)

From a physiological perspective, consider that one major effect of the stress response is elevated levels of glucocorticoids (like cortisol). The parts of the brain most susceptible to the stress response are the areas loaded with high-concentrations of glucocorticoid receptors; these very same regions are involved with common mood imbalances, like anxiety and depression. Acupuncture can help re-calibrate the primary central nervous system – in other words, for many it acts as a physical, mental, and spiritual “reset” button.


Christian Nix, and acupuncturist and a tireless advocate of Hospital Based Acupuncture (his Community Pain and Stress Center is the first private model of community-style practice to be integrated into a major hospital system), often writes about acupuncture from a biomedical perspective. Much of this blog post has been inspired by his writings and his collection of research. If you’d like to see a list of the research that’s been done on acupuncture and the stress response, please see his excellent article in Acupuncture Today, which can be found here.

Botox or Acupuncture for Migraines?

Suffer from Migraines? Skip the Botox and Try Acupuncture

If this were my Gramps, I'd tell him to go get acupuncture for his migraine. Based on research.
If this were my Gramps, I’d tell him to go get acupuncture for his migraine. Based on research.

If you deal with migraines, your doctor may have suggested Botox as a form of treatment.

Botox is an injectable drug made from a toxic bacterium called Clostridium botulinum (yes, the same toxin that causes botulism). Initially introduced to the cosmetic market as a “wrinkle-cure,” some people who used Botox treatments to de-wrinkle their wrinkles reported unexpected side effects: less migraines.

Years of research was done to investigate these claims. The results were…let’s just say, problematic. Of course, we didn’t hear much about the problematic details, but we did hear all about Botox for the prophylaxis of chronic migraines, even though it’s quite possible that it was simply the needles, and not the Botox, that was providing the migraine relief.

Wait, what?

Read this fascinating piece by Mel Hopper Koppelman, and see what conclusion you reach…


Treating Acute and Chronic Pain

What in tarnation IS THIS THING? Whatever it is, it's  NOT REPRESENTATIVE of acupuncture.
What in tarnation IS THIS THING? Whatever it is, it’s NOT REPRESENTATIVE of acupuncture.

Pain sucks, no doubt about it. Whether it’s acute or chronic, it can cloud your thinking, mess with your sleep, disrupt your ability to get around, and affect your relationships. In the community acupuncture clinic, pain is one of the most common things we treat.

Before going into the details about how to best treat pain, I do want to take a moment to share one essential piece of advice: Try to be compassionate toward others who are experiencing pain, especially those who deal with the chronic kind. People experience and handle pain differently. Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid assessing the “validity” of another person’s pain, since that would be insensitive and annoying.

Try not to do that.

Also, understand that people in pain are not always confined to their beds. You may see them out and about, trying to live their lives despite their pain. People who experience chronic pain are often grouchy, anxious, and/or depressed.  Before judging them, take a moment to consider how you might feel if pain greeted you every morning upon waking. If you think you’d be consistently chipper and glass-half-full, well, you’re probably a Cylon.

So…what is the best way to treat pain?

Well, if you haven’t tried acupuncture yet, here’s my shameless promotion: GET POKED! Acupuncture should be a relaxing, rejuvenating, pain-reducing experience. And in case you’re wondering, an acupuncture treatment will not leave you looking like Pinhead from Hellraiser. And yes, I have been asked that.

Herbal medicine can also be helpful in managing pain. More on that in a bit.

Treating Pain With Conventional Medicine

Ideally, we’d always treat pain the same way: identify and remove the cause. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Sometimes, we don’t know the cause of pain. Sometimes we know the cause but there’s little we can do about it. And sometimes, whether or not we know the cause, symptomatic pain relief is a priority (such as in the case of traumatic injuries, acute migraine, cancer-related pain, and surgical procedures).

Analgesic medications are usually the first line of treatment for pain; thankfully, many of them work quickly and well. An analgesic drug relieves pain and, very-generally-speaking, can be divided into either opioid or non-opioids. No matter the type of pain medication you use, they all have potential for side effects, especially when used over time. Since we’ve already established that pain sucks, the fact that common pain meds can come with nasty side effects is a double suck.

Adverse Drug Reactions

White pills on black
I, for one, was thankful for the stronger class of pain meds after my caesarian section. I refused at first. About 6 hours later, I changed my mind.

All pain medications come with a list of potential adverse drug reactions (ADRs). An adverse drug reaction is an injury caused by taking a medications. Adverse drug reactions are one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in health care.

Many patients want to know if there is anything they can take to treat their pain more naturally. In most cases, the answer is yes. That being said, natural does not necessarily imply safe; it’s best to consult with your PCP before adding anything into your regimen, especially if you have any chronic conditions or are taken any other medications.

With that necessary (but generic) advice given, the reality is that some conventional medical practitioners will know very little about herbs and supplements for treating pain. If that’s the case, it’s up to you (and your CAM practitioner, if you’re working with one) to make informed decisions if you decide to try an herb or supplement for pain.

Herb-drug interactions do exist. In most cases, some simple guidelines can help you avoid that. More on that here. And here.

All of that out of the way, let’s look at some other options for treating pain.

Start from the Beginning: Your Daily Fuel

What we eat can affect how we feel. That’s a no brainer. Put simply, your diet can contribute to inflammation, and inflammation is always at the root of pain. As much as possible, relax when you eat, chew your food, and take a moment to embrace the inherent pleasure of flavor. Try to incorporate community around the table; in other words, if possible, share, and enjoy the company of those with whom you decide to break bread. Being mindful of the experience of eating, rather than obsessing about what to eat, is a manageable starting point for most.

For patients who want to know more about specific dietary advice – simply put, you want to decrease food choices that contribute to inflammation. Below are some of my favorite resources, if you’re interested in reading more. Experimentation is key to understanding what works for your body. Detail of a man shopping in a supermarket

I do not think there is a single “diet” that is best for everyone. My intention here is not to preach; I would, however, like to provide some good resources for you to peruse in order to make a decision about what works for you, and seems sustainable. Remember, the blue zone areas (five regions in various parts of the world identified as having the highest concentrations of centenarians) have quite different diets from one another. (Read this short but fascinating piece on those populations who specialize in longevity here).

Let’s start with some simple guidelines: 27 Health and Nutrition Tips that Are Actually Evidence-Based

Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammation diet: Free, full of info, including a food pyramid you can print and hang on your fridge. Includes animal products. Anecdotally-speaking, seems to have worked well for many of my patients in regards to shedding pounds, feeling energized, and having less pain.

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Recipe Book: One of my favorite books, easy-to-read, concise information and devoid of self-aggrandizement or markety gimmicky crap. Tried and true recipes. I have many patients who report that reading this book helped immensely with their health problems, and helped them understand what can help fight inflammation.

Forks Over Knives: A whole-food, plant-based diet heavily influenced by The China Study. In my opinion, good for some constitutions, not good for others (to be clear, I think whole-food, plant-based food is great for everyone, but not always at the expense of all animal foods, especially if you tend to be “blood deficient” or “yin deficient” according to TCM). Patients with excess constitutions (if they can muster the discipline and support), can thrive on this diet. A revolutionary way of looking at food for many.

Low-Carbohydrate Diets: So, is it a dietary fad, or not? A body of favorable research does seem to be growing for the low-carbohydate diet. But again – this diet it most likely good for some, not great for others (one issue that I’ve come across when talking to my patients is that some felt like they did well on this diet but couldn’t sustain it).

So, yeah….choosing what to put in your mouth can be complicated. If you find this overwhelming, start with these simple rules.

Now let’s take a look at herbs that can reduce inflammation.



The Qi Sensation: What Should Acupuncture Feel Like?

Does Acupuncture Hurt?

Stop thinking about hypodermic needles.

No, really… stop it.

An acupuncture needle is as similar to a hypodermic needle as an earthworm is to a python. Associating the two types of needles can breed unnecessary anxiety that can deter some people from trying acupuncture, which is a cryin’ shame! During a typical acupuncture experience you should feel relaxed enough to drift into a restful state – a state so relaxing that it will often turn into a little nap!

And speaking of naps – because patients so often fall asleep during acupuncture, some community clinics market themselves as Nap Time for Adults. Yes, that’s nap time. For adults. So, tell me. When is the last time you napped while donating blood? Never?


So, Should Acupuncture Feel Like…Nothing?

No! Although acupuncture shouldn’t hurt, it should feel like something. At many of the points, you should feel the sensation of qi. You might feel qi moving, expanding, or dispersing. Other times, you might feel a more generalized sensation, like big waves of energy moving back and forth in your body. Sometimes it’s a slow, deep sinking feeling that will leave you feeling like you’re weighed down to your chair. Sometimes it’s floaty and light and leaves you feeling ecstatic but calm (a personal favorite of mine, and many others). I have one patient who refers to himself as an “old hippy,” and he loves to share how acupuncture is a million times better than LSD. I told him to make a bumper sticker, and I’ll stick it to my car.

Gallbladder 34: Yang Ling Quan Fotolia_95895810_XS

In order to give you a clear picture of what I mean by “the qi sensation,” let’s talk about a commonly used point called GB34.

Gallbladder 34 is located on the lateral leg, near the fibular head. When I needle this point, the patient normally does not feel the insertion. If I want the patient to feel a significant qi sensation at this point, I will adjust the needle until the patient can feel qi moving up the side of their thigh or down the side of their leg (following the Gallbladder meridian). Adjusting the needle means that I turn the needle ever so slightly in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction. For those of you who might be wondering…it does NOT MEAN that I jab you until you feel pain.

Normally, I ask the patient to say “ok” as soon as they feel qi moving up or down the meridian. Once they say “ok” I stop adjusting the needle and move to the next point. Patients new to acupuncture are always surprised by this – they are surprised that the experience isn’t painful, and they’re surprised by the qi sensation (which is often unlike anything they’ve ever felt). I’ve never had a patient report that this was a negative thing; in fact, most people love the sensation of clearing out a clogged meridian.  Think about removing a large beaver dam from a bend in the river – the water would rush forth since it is no longer obstructed. This is similar to the sensation that patients report when qi begins to move through a meridian – they feel a rush of energy/warmth to an area of their body that previously felt congested, numb, or painful.

The Many Faces of Qi

The point of acupuncture is to elicit a sensory response at the point or along the meridian. The umbrella term for this sensation is deqi. The literal translation of deqi is  “the arrival of vital energy.”  There are lots of different words to describe the different types of qi sensations, but none of these words translate into “pain.” There is suan (a deep ache or soreness), ma (numbness or tingling), zhang (a full feeling or distending pressure) or zhong (a distinct heaviness or weight).

So, for those of you out there who have wondered if acupuncture consists of a stranger jabbing hundreds of needles in your body while you sweat and feel all of your sphincters clench at once, well…that’s not acupuncture. But it would definitely make a hilarious SNL skit! Oh wait…it’s already been done!

All of my charmingly-amazing humor aside, the experience of acupuncture should feel different, but good. And the results of acupuncture should involve YOU feeling significantly BETTER.

In fact, it’s the number one reason why people come back for more!

What The Heck is Qi?

Qi (pronounced “chee”) is one of the most basic concepts in Chinese medicine, and one of the most important ones. If you’ve had acupuncture before, you probably understand at a personal level what the sensation of qi feels like in your body. It’s that feeling of warmth you feel at the acupuncture point, or that deep pressure that radiates outward from a point. It’s also those zipping bolts of energy that shoot through your body, and that heavy, sinking feeling many people experience toward the end of their treatment. All of those sensations can be simply explained as qi moving through your body, and if you’ve had acupuncture a couple of times, it doesn’t take long to become familiar with the feeling.

A Universal Concept

The concept of Qi lies at the heart of Oriental medicine and is central to the Taoist philosophy. Some describe it as the energetic or animating force associated with all living things. Interestingly, similar concepts of an “animating force” show up in various cultures throughout history.  In Japan it is called ki. In India, it’s called prana.  The ancient Egyptians referred to it as ka and the ancient Greeks knew it as pneuma. The Native Americans refer to it as Great Spirit. The Christians call it Holy Spirit. In Africa it’s known as ashe and in Hawaii as ha, or mana. And for all of you die-hard Star Wars fans, it’s The Force.

For those of you loyal to Cold Hard Science, I’d point you in the direction of quantum physics to find the intersection of science and the concept of qi. Physicists who study quantum mechanics might describe what they study as “the description of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter and  the changing flow that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels,”  but no matter how you describe this mind-bending science, there’s an undeniable overlap with the Chinese concept of qi. Glad to know that we’re all on the same page here, right?! Let’s face it, friends. Even Obi-Wan Kenobi has been schooling us on qi ever since he was written into our collective consciousness!

Types of Qi

In other news, there are almost as many types of qi out there as grape varieties! Traditional Chinese Medicine has identified several specific types of qi. Arthur Rosenfeld, a Tai Chi master and author of many books on Eastern thinking, writes about the TCM concept of qi:

There is the primordial qi that arises at the union of sperm and egg, the daily qi nourished by what we eat and drink and how we move, the surface qi (wei qi) that guards us against invading pathogens, and the particular qi unique to different organs and systems (liver qi, heart qi, etc.). As a concept in the Chinese lexicon, however, qi has more than merely medical meaning. It appears in common parlance–your qi looks good today–and runs like a meandering stream through Chinese literature, arts, music and philosophy.

Channels and Meridians in Chinese Medicine

During an acupuncture treatment, have you ever had felt your shoulder start twitching while the acupuncturist is inserting a point in your foot? This experience can be explained by the concept of channels, or meridians, which run through your body and act like  riverbeds for qi and blood.  When my patients respond with surprise that they suddenly feel areas in their body “light up” after I’ve done a couple of points in completely different areas than where they are feeling sensation,  I explain what is happening by asking them to imagine wiggling the corner of a a spiderweb. If you touch the edge of a web with a broom handle, you’ll notice that the whole spiderweb moves – some parts more than others. This is similar to the way the channels interact with one another in the body. Invigorating, or moving the qi in one channel often has a domino-like effect on other channels – suddenly your shoulder is twitching and warm even though there isn’t a single needle in that area. It’s around this time when a patient new to acupuncture will make a loud proclamation, usually something along the lines of: “So, this is real, huh?!”

It always makes me smile. Normally, I’ll finish my point selection and leave them to marinate for a bit – which means I let the acupuncture do the rest of the explaining.


The best way to explore qi is to move it, and through moving it, feel it. Perhaps the best way to move qi is to walk on over to Wildwood Community Acupuncture on India St. in Portland, Maine, relax in a recliner, and enjoy a treatment! And in order to avoid concluding this post with a shameless marketing plug, I’ll defer to one of the masters, Arthur Rosenfeld, for some last words on qi:

“Knowing qi, feeling it, sensing it, you can learn what techniques and choices enhance it and allow it to flow freely (stagnant qi is seen as a source of disease) and you may find this sensitivity helps you stay healthy and enjoy life more. At very least, entertaining the idea of qi introduces the notion of as-yet-undefined forces into the nuts-and-bolts way we look at the world–a view limited both by our senses and by the accepted truths of the day–and thereby deepens our experience of what it is to be alive.”


*To read Rosenfeld’s explanation of qi in it’s entirety, see this link.

To read an expanded version of this post (including current biomedical theories of qi), check out our guest post in Catching Health with Diane Atwood.

Acupuncture, Astrophysics, and John Denver

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), much of the language we use to describe the body and how it functions is the language of the natural world.

An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.
An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.

To better understand how TCM regards health and wellness, it’s helpful to think about your body as its own unique ecosystem. Take a moment to imagine your body as a garden that has been planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Think about how the ever-changing weather patterns might affect this garden – what would happen if there was a dry spell, or a down pour of rain that lasted all spring and into the beginning of the summer and actually didn’t stop until mid-July? Sound familiar?  Ha! #eastcoastsummer2013

When you hear your acupuncturist use words like “heat” or “cold” or “dampness” they aren’t actually meaning to sound…woo-woo. They are using this language because the basic underlying theories of Chinese Medicine are based on observations of the natural world. In the West, we are okay with worshiping the terrifying calculations of our favorite astrophysicists – speculations on dark matter and dark energy totally turn us on.Yet, mention the word “qi” and induce immediate eyeball rolling in your everyday left-brained Jane!

I once had a healthy skeptic of a friend who thought acupuncture was quackery, but would go bonkers over theories like “fractal cosmology.” My counter-argument (and supporting documentation, of course) nipped this disagreement in the big fat bud, since there are parts of basic TCM theory that essentially mirror the basic theories of fractal cosmology. In other words, much of the basic meridian theory is derived from observing simple phenomenon – big patterns (that you can’t help but notice) repeat themselves on a smaller scale (which you’d have to examine more carefully to notice). In the mind of the TCM practitioner, you are a small scale version of this big ol’ universe.

So, back to the garden analogy. Have you fully imagined how these varying climates could affect crop growth? Imagine a scorcha’ of a summah’ with little water and heat that can turn things crispy in a single afternoon. Now imagine that “heat” as feelings of intense anger that you haven’t released, or a viral infection that raises your temperature to 102 degrees. The way your garden would look after hot, dry weather is probably pretty similar to how you would look/feel after internalizing rage, or after dealing with a high fever. You’d probably feel depleted, dry, somewhat “aged”, and in need of  a body of water to submerge yourself – what would be better than floating in cool water and letting the residual blah leave your body, right? Water helps counteract heat/fire? Who knew??!!!

Remember Garden Song (“inch by inch, row by row”)? A bloke named David Mallet wrote it, but do you know how many people covered this song??!! Let’s put it this way. John Denver sang it on The Muppet Show!!! Must be true, right?

Inch by inch, row by row, people!
Inch by inch, row by row, people!

Actually, it’s not that simple. When you delve more deeply into TCM, you’ll see these basic theories applied in more complex ways. Pattern recognition gets tough when patterns overlay patterns. It also gets more complicated when these ideas are applied to the individual, and we all know individuals are unendingly complex and unpredictable, kind of like, well… the weather!

When I discovered the underlying philosophies of TCM, it was a big hallelujah moment for me; my whole life, I wanted to practice a medicine that recognized the physiological/spiritual/emotional…. peculiarities of individuals. I knew from a young age that one size doesn’t fit all, and if you insist it does, well – that’s one way people get sick. I didn’t want to treat all people the same way. I wanted to treat this person this way, and that person that way.

Enter Traditional Chinese Medicine; after that, the community acupuncture movement. Combine acupuncture and herbal medicine with the non-discriminatory health care model of community clinics, and whoolah! You’ve got a sanctuary of care for all people, each with their own unique set of strengths and struggles. And you’ve got one happy acupuncturist, relieved to have found a medicine that, by it’s very nature, is accepting of difference.