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Pinpointing the Pain : Curiosity about the ancient Chinese healing method of acupuncture, along with a pulled muscle, leads to a treatment.

August 13, 1993|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Cindy LaFavre Yorks is a regular contributor to The Times

With inoculations, what child doesn't carry needle phobia into adulthood? Even the fleeting solace of mediocre lollipops did little more to alleviate the pain than a Dove bar after a broken romance.

Why then, of my own free will, was I on a table awaiting acupuncture needles?

Primarily, I was curious about acupuncture, an ancient Chinese healing method believed to be about 5,000 years old. It involves the insertion of needles on specified body points. It is implemented to treat pain, organ dysfunction or specific illnesses.

My ailment was more laughable than chronic. It all started with a shopping injury at IKEA. A dinnerware special--20-piece sets for $8 each--brought it on. It was a mob scene and carts were scarce so rabid shoppers hauled away as many boxes as they could carry. I managed to lug two myself--40 items total--for the 200-yard distance to the checkout counter. The resulting pulled muscle didn't hurt enough to call Larry Parker and attempt to extort $2.1 million, but it did smart. Why not give the Advil a rest and look into a non-drug alternative?

By the time the appointment day arrived, the shopping injury was long gone. Still, I decided to go through with the treatment since I occasionally experience lower back pain. When I arrived at the Woodland Hills office, I was surprised by the lack of burning incense. Instead, the room possessed all the generic characteristics of a doctor's office: tweed chairs and assorted magazines.

Acupuncturist Ta Fang Chen is not a medical doctor licensed by the American Medical Assn. Like many in his profession, Chen is a California state certified acupuncturist. The Medical Board of California awards the licenses to individuals who have attended a minimum of four years at an approved foreign or domestic acupuncture school. They must have passed several written and supervised clinical examinations.

Chen's polite receptionist asks me to fill out some forms (some insurance companies cover acupuncture treatments). One sheet lists 38 ailments--everything from allergies to pneumonia--and asks patients to check off the appropriate affliction. I decide the shopping injury is too frivolous to mention; lower back pain suffices as my complaint.

The final form requires a signature and explains that there is no guarantee of pain relief with acupuncture. It states that patients might experience bruising, slight bleeding or possibly infection (the acupuncturist explains these aftereffects rarely occur). The introductory visit costs $62. There is a mention of the possible use of electrical devices. Scenes from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" flash through my mind when my name is called.

Chen ushers me into his office and our consultation lasts about five minutes. He wears a white physician-style coat and asks to look at my tongue but does not wear a stethoscope. He explains that treatments are beneficial even if the pain is not present at the time of an office visit. He recommends a minimum of three treatments for results. More frequency is required during some intense episodes of discomfort.

We proceed to the treatment room. The electric wire console rests in a corner near the bed-like massage table wrapped with white paper. Unfortunately, my injury requires partial disrobing. I am given a paper gown to wear to cover the upper part of my body. As I wait for Chen to return with the needles, I hear the loud sound of metal clanking against glass. They sound more like nails or railroad stakes.

When he returns, I demand to see what turn out to be needles finer than straight pins. They are disposable to prevent the spread of any infectious diseases. I feel a tickling sensation as he inserts 12 of them into my back. He turns on a sunlamp to allow the needles and body skin to warm. He returns in five more minutes to attach the electrical wires. At first, the current feels unnerving, so Chen adjusts it to a more comfortable level. Another five minutes pass before he returns to turn up the juice. Much to my surprise, I can't feel the difference. After about 10 minutes on the second level, I am soothed and energized by the vibrations.

I feel Chen remove only two of the 12 needles.

He detaches the wires and rolls an electronic massaging unit over to the table. In vertical motions, he runs the mobile device up and down my back. This feels wonderful.

After the brief massage, he rubs herbal oil--his own mixture--into the treated area. It tingles, feels warm against the skin and signifies the end of the pain-free procedure.

For at least two hours after the treatment I feel invigorated. But about seven hours later, I feel an annoying, dull ache that lasts into the night. A call to the office receptionist the next day reveals that my reaction was typical. Forty-eight hours later, I felt fine.

Since my pain is not acute, I probably won't return for the procedure. But acquaintances with chronic pain who prefer drug-free living say they have greatly benefited from treatments. As for my own RX, staying away from IKEA might be my best defense against life's little agonies.

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