I hate, hate, hate needles.
I can hardly think of anything I hate more. I can't sleep a week before the free flu shot at work. I faint at the sight of them. They terrify me.
What I spentMy first visit cost $110; subsequent visits cost $75. It was not covered by my Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurance, but could be paid out of my health care savings account.
So why am I going to an acupuncturist?
It appears there's one thing I love more than I hate needles: running.
I'm no marathoner, but I was a solid 30-miles-or-so-a-week runner who loved to do some 5Ks and 10Ks. Then I hurt my hip. Then I hurt my knee. Then I tore my meniscus and had knee surgery. Eight months after surgery, a couple of fluid drainings, a cortisone shot and hundreds of dollars and hours on physical therapy, my knee still bothered me so much that I found it difficult to sleep through the night. Then I dropped an air-conditioner unit on it and bruised the bone.
In the end, my ortho and physical therapist both told me to take up biking.
And, in case you're wondering, I grew up playing sports and learned to "shake it off" and power through the pain, so I typically avoid doctors and drugs as much as possible. I'm also a bit pigheaded, so I started popping Aleve and kept running.
It also might be worth mentioning that running has always been my main way of relieving stress. If I can shut out the world and just pound the pavement, I can handle anything. The knee trouble started just as the economy tanked and my stress levels were through the roof. I started experiencing tinnitus (ringing in my ears) and having massive bouts of insomnia. I pretty much felt exhausted all the time.
Now back to acupuncture ...
A friend of mine who's a bit more open-minded than I am about alternative medicine told me to quit whining about how much my knee hurts and go to an acupuncturist. I thought she was nuts, but agreed to do it because even my fellow running friends were starting to give me that "you're crazy" look.
So eight months ago, I contacted Dr. Yu Zhu at First Health Associates in Arlington Heights. As a critical and stubborn journalist, I had low expectations.
During the initial exam, Zhu looked at my tongue, sniffed around and felt my pulse points all while I gave her my litany of knee ailments. I told her my sole mission was to get running again -- and she should know I would probably write about this (the cynic in me firmly believed this was all a scam). Zhu said no problem and then started digging her fingers into my knee, feeling around the joint, checking range of motion and how my kneecap moves.
She then stared me directly in the eye and asked me how long had I been feeling so sluggish? How long had I not been sleeping? Why was my stress level so high? And why did I think I had to be so tough to not slow down and take care of myself?
I admit, I was a little freaked out because I hadn't mentioned any of those things to her. I just wanted my knee fixed.
I quickly learned that you don't go to a doctor like Zhu and get treated for one piece of your body. It's all interconnected. She examines you on several levels and pays close attention to the "communication" between different parts of the body.
The joint and bone are related to the kidney, the soft tissue is related to the liver and muscle is related to the spleen. When those organs aren't functioning well it weakens the mechanics of the others. High stress can weaken the spleen and cause the liver to overfunction. So in my case, it's kind of a chicken-egg issue: My stress level and knee pain were all mixed up together.
Zhu immediately targeted my bone bruise and knee joint with needles, plus various parts of my body and head to alleviate stress. She gave me some herbal supplements designed to help reset my metabolism. I saw her once a week for a couple of months, then every couple of weeks and now once a month or so.
Now for the two most important things: pain and results.
Does it hurt? Yes. After all, someone is sticking needles into your body, but it doesn't hurt as much as I thought (less than a shot unless she puts a needle in a bony part like my ankle). In all honesty, the minute she puts a needle between my eyes, turns on music and lowers the lights, I immediately fall into the deepest, most relaxing sleep. It's like being at a spa.
The results: Within a couple of weeks, the bone bruise pain was gone. Within a month, most of the knee pain disappeared. The bonuses: I sleep. For the first time in years, I actually fall asleep and don't wake up until the next morning. And I don't wake up completely exhausted. The tinnitus is almost gone. I've dropped a few pounds. And I was able to get a flu shot this year without lying down so I wouldn't faint.
Today, eight months later, my knee is 99 percent pain-free (it hurts only when I twist it, run on hard pavement for more than three miles or wear pretty but stupid shoes). For me, the acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine healed what I didn't even know was broken.
I'm no acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine expert. My eyes tend to cross (or roll) when there's talk of ying-yang, meridians and chi. I don't know why acupuncture works so well on others and why it does nothing for some. Maybe it's the individual; maybe it's the doctor.
What I do know is that Zhu looks and listens to not just what I say, but how I say it and how I move. She doesn't take notes during our sessions. She looks me directly in the eye. She makes sure I understand what she's saying and what she's doing (which can't be easy since I still close my eyes when she picks up the needles).
And I know that I feel like myself again. My energy is back, I can focus at work and I don't feel like the world is going to end tomorrow.
Most importantly, I learned it's stupid to try to tough everything out. Zhu told me once that there aren't any bonus points after you die for living a life in pain. "If it hurts, come in and we'll fix it," she says.
Maybe this Traditional Chinese Medicine stuff isn't so complicated after all.
• Teresa Schmedding is assistant managing editor of content systems.