Acupuncture has existed for thousands of years and yet, for the uninitiated, the question remains: Do little needles stabbing your pressure points have any medical benefits? I was one of these people, until recently. Stretching, massage, Japanese Icy-Hot (called “saronpasu“, but basically no different than tiger balm), and ibuprofen all failed to relieve my worn out knees and legs, and after two months of pain I finally decided to give acupuncture a shot.
I went to my local sekkotsu-in, a Japanese “bone-setter” who normally specializes in massage therapy for sports injuries, fatigue, and keeping the elderly fit and flexible. That being said, there are many kinds of sekkotsu-in; some are more dedicated to relaxation and chronic fatigue. These are not covered by health insurance (at least in my neighborhood), but my shop was authorized to apply health insurance if the treatment was for the purpose of health-related injuries. Since I first experienced the pain after a day of mountain-climbing, I was approved. I paid 1000 yen for my first massage and 500 yen for each subsequent massage. However, after three trips and a second massage in under a week, my muscles and tendons still ached.
The needles and electric leads used during Greg’s acupuncture session
So, I asked how much acupuncture was and (not expecting an affirmative) whether health insurance could be used as well. To my surprise, they said the cost of acupuncture is the same as a massage, but required a consent form, signed by a general practitioner. This usually runs the patient around 4000 yen, but I was desperate, and 5000 yen total for my first time still sounded cheaper than what I had heard of people paying for a single acupuncture session, so I agreed.
Flash forward to the fateful day. I am lying on my stomach, getting ready to be stabbed. “Can I take pictures?” I asked. “Sure,” said the young therapist. He then offered to take them for me once he had finished inserting the needles. First, he showed me one of the needles he would use, which was the same thickness as my leg hair. That helped me relax a little. He explained that the needles would be used in order to relieve the pressure on the tendons behind my knee caps.
Greg’s full set of acupuncture points
Starting on my lower back, moving to my calves, and lastly my thighs, a dozen needles were slowly inserted into my body. Although there was no piercing pain like getting a shot or a cut, there was a duller, deep ache as the needle reached the nerve that he was aiming for. Once he had finished I was in for a real shock, of the electrical current variety! Attaching leads to the thick heads of each needle, the therapist turned up the juice until I felt slightly tingly. I immediately imagined the scene from “The Matrix” when Neo is covered from head to foot in hundreds of similar needles to revive his atrophied muscles, but the reference was lost on my doctor, who saw nothing about this experience as strange or new. He put a towel over me, closed the curtain, and left me to relax for about twenty minutes.
When the gently pulsating currents wound down, the machine they were attached to played a little jingle and my therapist walked back in. With a cotton swab of alcohol, he removed each needle, quickly and painlessly. He wiped each spot, but there was never any blood. Afterward I checked some areas where the needles had been, and they were pink like a minor mosquito bite, but they did not hurt or itch. He then massaged the same spots for another 20 minutes, helped me stretch out, and recommended I take a long soak in a hot bath. I went home and did just that, and the next morning I felt like a completely new man. I walked to work, walked home, and packed for a touch rugby tournament the next day. At the tournament I ran around on a grass pitch all day and my legs never bothered me.
So, did it work? YES. Was it worth the money? YES. Did it hurt? NO! Why doesn’t everyone do this? I have no idea. It really did help immensely. Obviously, I had been doing a lot of other things to aid in my recovery, including stretching daily, taking it easy, and getting massages at the same sekkotsu-in, but I have no doubt the acupuncture was the final push I needed to complete my recovery.