Sampling the sharp end of tradition

by Setsuko Kamiya

M shoulders have been stiff for years. I used to think the solid lump back there was simply a strange bit of bone structure I’d got somehow. In fact, I’d had my shoulder problem for so long that I had come to accept it as a fact of life.

All that began to change one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, when I had my first-ever shinkyu(acupuncture-moxibustion) treatment.

I was aware of shinkyu and knew it was all about balancing the flow of ki (the source of life), ketsu (blood), and sui (body fluid) by stimulating the body’s pressure points. But I didn’t really take it very seriously until a friend told me how a course of acupuncture had improved his eyesight and another said it reduced her elbow pain.

Although others like me who have never been through it said they were scared of the idea of having needles stuck into them, it sounded like the treatment might help my stiff shoulder and relieve the general dullness I felt in my body.

So off I went to Ginza, to the Ching Acupuncture Institute near the Kabukiza. I was both excited, and a little apprehensive, about what was going to happen — and of course I was trying as best I could to block out the idea of the needles altogether.

As I opened the door of the clinic, I was immediately welcomed with the strong, herbal scent of moxa. In the background, light, relaxing Chinese string music was playing.

While I was sitting in the waiting room, I was handed a general health questionnaire and asked to fill it in. My problem? Stiff and painful shoulder, neck and back. Period. I do eat and sleep pretty well. Yes, I drink alcohol, but no, I do not smoke. I like meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and sweets — but I’m no great fan of deep-fried food.

After filling out the questionnaire, I was taken to a small booth with a bed where the treatment was to be performed. There, I changed into a sky-blue robe and waited for the practitioner to appear. As I did so, I stared at a picture of a human body showing the names of the numerous pressure points. The World Health Organization acknowledges 361 pressure points, and these are the ones used by acupuncturists in Japan. Later, though, I was told by the acupuncturist that it is believed there are actually about 1,000 of these points altogether.

In no time, Tokuyoshi Iwamoto, the acupuncturist and director of the institute, appeared with a big, reassuring smile on his face. Then the treatment began.

Born in Taiwan and later naturalized as a Japanese citizen, Iwamoto studied acupuncture and moxibustion in China. He also obtained a Japanese license as an acupuncturist to open his clinic here.

With my questionnaire in hand, Iwamoto began reviewing what I had put down there. He then asked additional questions, inquiring about my bowel movements and menstrual conditions, whether I have many headaches, and whether I tend to catch cold easily or am particularly sensitive to the cold.

“Well, what may have caused your shoulder stiffness are things like being in the same position for a long time while you are at work, or not exercising regularly,” he said. “Or perhaps you are under a lot of pressure.”

“That all sounds very familiar,” I said.

Then he asked to look at my tongue. “Ah, the color shows that the circulation of your body fluids is beginning to slow down,” Iwamoto said.

Stiffness in the shoulder can also be a sign of a stomach ulcer or gall-bladder inflammation, he said. Because acupuncturists don’t conduct check-ups, blood tests or X-rays, Iwamoto said that if the stiffness didn’t improve he would advise me to visit a doctor for further testing.

“But all in all,” he said, “I believe your problem is caused by stress and a lack of exercise. I’m sure acupuncture will ease your problems.”

With that, I was asked to lie on the bed face down. Iwamoto then examined my pulse from both wrists. As he did so, he explained that traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can basically diagnose a patient’s condition by using all the information they obtain through questioning, by observing the color of the patient’s face, eyes and tongue — and examining the pulse. Once everything is figured out, acupuncturists can, “in theory, cure most problems if they treat them according to the principles of Chinese medicine.”

As Iwamoto was explaining all this to me, he was also feeling my shoulders and my back. This, he explained, was so that he could assess my body’s condition and choose the appropriate size of needles to use. Finally, because this was my first time, he said he would use the third-thinnest one they have, whose 0.2 mm diameter was about the thickness of two hairs.

So this was it: time for the needles to be inserted. At that moment, all I could think of was my dread of having injections. Then the first one was inserted into my shoulder.

“Does it hurt?” Iwamoto asked.

“No,” I said, very much relieved.

Actually, I did feel a very slight prick, but it wasn’t anything like an injection and didn’t hurt at all.

Altogether, 12 needles were inserted to between 0.5 and 1 cm deep: four in my shoulder; two each on my elbow, neck and upper and lower back. All of them were placed symmetrically at the acupuncture points Iwamoto judged would most effectively encourage the flow of ki, ketsu and sui– whose movements within my body, he said, “have been very stagnant.”

To encourage the muscle to move, Iwamoto then clipped thin wires onto four of the needles — on my shoulder and neck — and applied electrical stimulation. I could feel a tingling sensation but, again, no pain.

Next, I was given moxibustion treatment through the two needles in my lower back. For this, a pellet of the herb moxa is slid onto the end of the needle and lit, so gentle heat is conducted to the pressure point to smooth the flow of body fluids. All I could feel was a gentle warmth.

During the seven to eight minutes that I was wired up and the moxa was burning and giving off its sweet scent, Iwamoto told me how he had been able to cure his own atopic dermatitis by performing the treatment by himself. “Acupuncture can bring out the immunity of your body. When the natural healing power of the body gets stronger, you won’t be troubled by any diseases,” he explained.

Then Iwamoto switched off the current, took out all the needles, and gave me a massage “to relax the tension of the muscles, and of the mind.” With that, my first shinkyu treatment, which had lasted about 30 minutes, had come to an end.

As I got off the bed and changed back into my clothes, I wasn’t sure if I felt any dramatic improvement. But I felt really warm, as if I’d just had a good workout.

Later that evening, I started to get a slight headache, and my shoulders were feeling heavy. Iwamoto had said some people reacted this way, but it was actually a positive sign that the metabolism was working.

When I woke up the next morning, the heaviness in my shoulder had gone. OK, I still had a bit of a lingering headache, but by noon that had disappeared as well.

By the third day after treatment, however, I could really feel a change for the better. As I arose from my bed, which I usually do slumped over and tired, my shoulders — as well as my entire body — felt light. They felt really nice all day.

The effect of shinkyu treatment is experienced differently by each person, Iwamoto explained, saying that it depends on both their problems and their physical constitution. While some patients might feel a reduction in pain soon after treatment, others — like me — take a few days to detect a change.

However, because my shoulder pain is chronic, Iwamoto suggested that I should have similar treatment twice a week for one month to fully restore balance to my metabolism. Even though it will cost me 4,000 yen for each visit (my health insurance doesn’t cover stiff shoulders), I certainly feel it’s worthwhile and intend to keep going.

As well, I’ve been reminded that the most important way to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, is to exercise regularly and live a stress-free life . . . if that’s possible.