"I'm Afraid of the Needles" (December 16, 2014)
This has got to be the most common objection to receiving acupuncture treatment that I hear from people. (Well, actually, “my insurance won’t cover it” is probably the most common. I feel for you guys, I really do. Insurance premiums are just absurd, and we want to be able to use it. But between deductibles, copayments and visit limits, even with insurance coverage you’ll end up paying most everything anyway. That’s why I don’t charge much to start with.)
Getting stuck with needles for health reasons isn’t a foreign concept to us Westerners. But being stuck with a whole bunch of them and having them left in for almost HALF AN HOUR? No thank you. That’s just weird.
The thing is -- and I hope this doesn't sound to terribly un-American -- Asians are generally healthier than Westerners. They live longer and have far lower incidences of many health issues. This despite widespread malnutrition and the fact that they still smoke like chimneys. Now there are many differences between the ways that our civilizations live that come into play here, but one of them has to be their use of Chinese medicine for so much of their health care. How could it NOT be a factor? So weird or not, Chinese medicine (or East Asian medicine, as I'm starting to hear it called) shouldn’t be overlooked. Most people are good with that, and don't have a real problem with using herbal medicine. It’s those needles.
Now, there are people who have a genuine problem with needles. I once heard a story about a paramilitary training seminar full of seriously tough guys (policemen, soldiers of fortune, mall cops) that lost several of its attendees when they had to learn to give themselves injections. And I’ve worked on more than one person for months who never really became accustomed to being needled. I think that such people are more physically sensitive to needles to begin with, and that when you combine that with the genuine pain that Western injections cause AND exposure to that pain initially at such young and impressionable ages, it’s amazing that any of them tried acupuncture to begin with. (They benefit from the treatment despite their aversion to the needles, by the way.)
But my feeling that most of our aversion to needles is psychological in origin is because this phobia is practically nonexistent among Asians. In my time at the school clinic in Southern California where our patients (and my fellow students) were well over half Asian, I remember only one Asian lady who was spooked by needles and she was consequently the source for much private mirth among my Asian colleagues. Rather than genuine pain issues, for most people it’s just a creepy feeling that they have about the whole unfamiliar business. Here is what those people need to know.
Again, we don’t reuse or sterilize needles. Although I am a great recycler, I do not remember the needles from my own early treatment (where the needles were placed between treatments -- and between patients -- into steel wool soaked in a bleach solution, to both sharpen and sterilize them) with any great nostalgia. To my mind, disposable needles are the greatest invention since the electric light.
As well as the associations we have with needles generally (thanks for nothing, "Hellraiser" and "Final Destination 5"), it’s the unfamiliarity of acupuncture treatment that makes it an iffy subject for so many people. Someone asked me many years ago about acupuncture for chronic sinus infections. For a friend. This friend had had two sinus surgeries already, and was scheduled for a third one. S/he was thinking about trying acupuncture instead, but was afraid of the needles. I blurted out, “Your friend isn’t afraid of being knocked unconscious and having holes drilled in her skull, but she’s afraid of a few needles?”. Not a very adept handling of a genuine concern.
But the point remains, and here it is, a little more tactfully this time. We tend to be cautious about the unfamiliar in general. Unfortunately that leads us to often overestimate the risks in something unfamiliar, and underestimate the ones that are familiar. So look at this -- 1/4 of all hospital patients are harmed by a medical error, and medical errors are the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. Whereas the risk of a serious adverse effect from acupuncture (that’s one that would require hospitalization) is about 0.024%, or about one in 4,000. (That’s a European figure – I couldn’t find an American one.) So -- bring on the needles, I say.
--dr. diane holmes
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