I'm a huge (though novice) believer in alternative medicine. Although standard Western techniques might be the best route for some conditions, it's important to explore methods of healing that don't include ingesting foreign substances. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and although there is no shortage of holistic medical offices, I hadn't found (or looked for if I'm being completely real) an office that offered acupuncture services. Acupuncture had always seemed intriguing to me, and when my co-worker told me about a spot that offered acupuncture alongside a one hour massage and was accepted by our insurance, I was down. The place turned out to be a local office about two miles from where I lived, I called and made my appointment for 9 a.m. on Saturday and was told to expect a one-and-a-half hour visit.

I entered the front lobby of a small building with wooden floors, and after checking in with the receptionist, I was greeted by another woman who introduced herself as Hami, my acupuncturist. She gave me a form to fill out — the standard paperwork you get when you go for your physical: age, ailments, medical history, medication and supplements I was taking. As I'm writing in my answers, Hami asked about the quality of my sleep, how many hours of sleep I got each night, and if it was difficult for me to fall asleep. She asked me about the frequency of my bowel movements and if I had any problems with digestion or menstruation. Hami then asked me to show her my tongue, to which she nodded and remarked, "good." Finally, before we left the lobby, she got my blood pressure with an automated blood pressure cuff before we stood up and walk down the hall to an exam room.

The room was your standard small massage room, the lights were dim and there was a playlist of soft instrumental music coming from a speaker on the wall. The massage table was in the center of the room and there was a heat lamp with a red bulb that sat on the floor and hung over the bed. I removed everything except my underwear and was face down on the table where May, the masseuse, began my hour-long massage with coconut oil. 

What seemed like only moments later, Hami knocked on the door and entered to begin treatment. I was still lying face down on my back, arms at my sides, as she began opening up the disposable sterilized needles. For those of you who are squeamish with needles, let me reassure you that these are not hypodermic needles — not like the ones that are used when you get an injection — these are small hair-thin pin needles. I usually don't have any trouble with needles in the first place and I was sure I'd have no problems with these. 

Hami asked if I had any areas of pain I'd like to focus on. I told her about the neck and shoulder pain I get from staring at the computer too long, but I let her know that I'd really like to reduce the inflammation (I'd recently had a physical with my primary care physician and my blood work showed that my SED rate, which is used to measure inflammation in the body, was high) and have less severe cramping during my cycle. She assured me that acupuncture could help with both, and then she began by wiping down areas on my back with a cotton ball and alcohol. I felt her hand along my neck followed by a light tap and then the lightest prick I'd ever felt. No sooner than I felt the prick, the sensation was already gone. 

Hami explained that the traditional Chinese medicine or TCM, teaches that the body is made of energy or qi pronounced "chee" and that this qi flows throughout the body along different meridians. She explained that when there is a disruption of energy, the qi is made less functional and results in discomfort or illness in the body. According TCM, acupuncture needles along specific spots on the meridians help to restore qi by diverting or unblocking interrupted energy. She continued the same hand-tap-prick sequence along my right then left shoulders and then horizontally along the bottom of my back. When she got to the center of my back, I felt more than a slight prick, it was more like a pinch — still not painful but there was definitely a pinch as she put about three needles down the center of my back between my shoulder blades. 

When she was done she told me to lie still for 15 minutes and then she'd be back. I sat there feeling pretty relaxed and though I was never in any actual pain, I could feel the needles in my back the entire time. Before I knew it, 15 minutes had come and gone and Hami was back to remove the needles. Next, I was told that in order to deal with the inflammation and uterine concerns that I had, I'd need to lie on my back. This time she had me keep my elbows resting on the table but my hands on either side of my abdomen, fingers spread apart. She began the same way, alcohol along the pattern she mapped out and then the series of inserting needles. 

She began by placing one directly between my eyebrows, in my right cheek, my sternum between my breasts a couple on the left side of my abdomen and left leg, but unlike the previous session where the needles were divided evenly, this time she placed most of them on the right side of my body. I'd say she did a total of 7 needles on that side alone. Including one in my right ring finger which was the most uncomfortable part of the entire experience -that one felt like a pinch, maybe the way a bee sting or mosquito bite would feel. Now up until this point I hadn't felt anything other than the needles being placed, but when she inserted the needle near my right elbow after already inserting one into my forearm and ring finger on the same side, I did feel a slight sensation, almost like I could feel a buzzing sound through the points. The buzzing lasted about 30 to 45 seconds and then things calmed down. 

Call it my imagination, call it energy or qi as Hami explained it, it's what I experienced. She left me alone for another 15 minutes, instructing me not to move before she came back, removed the needles and just like that, my first acupuncture session was complete. Her instructions were not to eat any cold or "low" foods, including the salad I'd planned to have afterward (no salad — acupuncturist's orders). I had to drink warm liquids (not warm green tea because that was considered a "cold" food…sis, I don't know) and only have food that was cooked for the next 24 hours. On my way out I made my appointment for the following Saturday, paid my $20 copay and filled my thermos with hot tea.

I woke up the next morning feeling fine. No issues where the needles were stuck. Before I left, we came up with a treatment plan of one session a week for the next 8 weeks to start, Hami thought that it could take up to that long before I see any measurable results. But hey, most things that work take time to work and besides investing in me is worth the wait.