Story Jennifer Frances
Photos Steven Krause
I like Western medicine fine. I occasionally do check-ups with random doctors: the requisite weighing, measuring, blood pressuring, and deep inhales for cold stethoscopes. Western medicine has helped keep family and friends alive. I am grateful for Western medicine.
That said, and like many people, I’m convinced data-focused measurements and brand-name pills don’t hold all the answers. “Integrative,” “alternative,” or “complementary” treatments—there’s some debate over terms—have long intrigued me. So when my editor asked me to get a bunch of needles stuck into my body, I spiritedly agreed.
I arrived at Sonoma Valley Acupuncture & Herb Center, a few blocks off Sonoma Plaza, on a sunny Friday morning. Despite the beautiful day, my enthusiasm, and even the pretty green dress I wore, I’d woken up feeling scattered, anxious, and a little sad. Some days are like that.
As I entered the office, I was warmly greeted by Jennifer Jensen, L.Ac. Her reassuring and nonjudgmental presence was welcome, given my slight fragility, and would become even more appreciated later when answering her blush-inducing questions about my various bodily functions. Jensen, with her husband, Phil Madden, L.Ac., runs and practices at Sonoma Valley Acupuncture & Herb Center. She provided my ahh-inspiring treatment that day.
(L.Ac, by the way, is a three-year master’s degree representing a minimum of 1,900 hours learning the theoretical and clinical skills that give a practitioner enough experience with Chinese medicine to begin to practice acupuncture.)
Acupuncture is a practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has evolved over thousands of years to promote mind-body health. Tai chi and herbal arts are other practices of TCM.
The point of those needles in acupuncture isn’t to induce pain—in fact, I felt no pain at all—but to unblock chi, or energy. It clogs up in our body like hair in a drain, is how I inelegantly picture it.
“Our energy, or our chi, is bunched up in different places in our body,” says Jensen. “If you have a sensitive stomach and you get nervous, you can feel the clumping in your belly. So that’s chi getting stuck right there, and it’s not moving.”
Whatever you call it, anyone with neck pain, headaches, stomach cramps or, like me, an endlessly angry hamstring, can relate to the idea of having “bunched up” places in our bodies. Acupuncture recognizes that this bunching up leads to a host of potential ailments. “Any restricted tissue is going to impede the function of that tissue,” Jensen explains. The ailments are therefore treated by releasing what’s been bunched up.
“Acupuncture––and Chinese medicine––it’s a complete medical system,” says Jensen. “We’re primary care, so we can essentially treat anything that comes through the door, theoretically. We treat skin issues, digestive issues, chronic infections, and autoimmune issues.”
Madden, Jensen’s husband and fellow practitioner, specializes in cancer. “When people go through chemo, the side effects are horrific for some,” she tells me. With acupuncture, Madden offers “an adjunct therapy towards the chemotherapy and radiation.”
She adds that acupuncture is also “really good for the emotional and spiritual well-being.” She notes that, as with cancer, “for full-blown mental illness, [acupuncture] is an adjunct therapy toward psychiatric care and medications. If it requires medication, that’s what we always advise.”
My treatment, as for all first-time visitors, begins with an “intake.” This involves Jensen asking me about everything from stress to my menstrual cycle, from sleep patterns to digestion. It is the most complete snapshot of my overall health that any medical practitioner has taken—ever.
Besides a bad hamstring, her questions make me aware of the “background noise” of ailments we carry around and don’t think much about. You know, the stuff we push aside to get through the day—the little headaches, the lingering fog from a poor night’s sleep, that jumpy stomach.
“You’re such a wood type,” she chuckles. She is seeing a pattern to my ails.
In Chinese medicine, there are five archetypes: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each has associative attributes. Though we all have a little of each element, the thinking goes that one tends to be dominant. For me it’s wood.
“The color is green,” she says.
She goes on to describe a host of positive wood-type attributes—benevolence, generosity, growth—and I can’t say I mind indulging my ego a moment. Then come the associative problems, including muscles that get too dehydrated. “That’s probably what’s going on with your hamstring,” she says. “Anything that’s tight is dehydrated, basically. There’s not enough fluid that’s able to move through it. All these nice, supple muscles we have are full of fluid. So the bottom line with wound healing and tension is to get blood flow back into the area.”
Sometimes she uses a scraping technique with a gua sha tool, a hand-held scraper that stimulates capillaries at the surface of the skin to address tightness and pain.
Another day, I’ll try that for my hamstring. Today’s all about acupuncture.
Jensen takes my pulse. To do so, she places three fingertips on the inside of each wrist. The touch points correspond to particular meridians in our bodies.
According to Chinese medicine, 12 meridians run in a circuit through our bodies. The idea is that stimulating certain points along a meridian’s path will stimulate the energy running along that path, ultimately releasing all that “bunched up” chi.
Though I’m assured by her that my heart’s healthy, Jensen observes an irregular pulse. As she’s describing it, I know exactly what she’s talking about because I’ve felt it before. But no Western medical practitioner has ever observed or mentioned this to me; and I’ve comfortably concluded the feeling was all in my head.
“I love the way this medicine talks about the heart,” says Jensen. “There’s the physical aspect of it, but then the heart is also what they call the ‘empress on the throne.’” In other words, the heart is the organizer of our entire physical, emotional self. “Every atom of our body should be in cohesion with the heart’s message,” she says.
Stress, shock, PTSD––these things can result in disorganized messages within the body. “Recovering from PTSD or any kind of shock is really about getting all those atoms and molecules and cells and tissues back into the sphere of the heart,” Jensen explains. “It’s just about reorganizing. That’s how acupuncture helps. It helps with reorganization.”
Diagnostics done, Jensen knows where she’s going to stick the needles.
So let’s talk needles. They are very thin and, in my experience, painless, perhaps due to the Japanese acupuncture style that Jensen favors. They are also single-use.
The first needles go into my back. “This protocol is like a big reset button,” she says. Each needle taps into the six “solid organ” meridians running through my body (there are 12 total). “What that’s doing is, it’s telling your body that we’re bringing the chi, or the energy, into the solid organ system. It’s nice and deep. It’s very relaxing, and it’s a good reset button.”
At last lying face down, alone in the darkened room, needles in my back, I discover she is correct. I feel an unfamiliar, not unpleasant, sensation near my heart. It feels like a gentle scratching deep inside my chest. It feels something like relief.
“We try to be very comprehensive,” she says. “Our bodies are such integrated systems that you don’t really know what tissue is hanging what other tissues up. With holistic medicine, it could be a structural thing, it could be an emotional thing. Sometimes people really hold certain areas of their body, and it’s emotionally driven.”
Just as stress and other emotions make some people clench their jaws, other parts of the body can clench, as well—including all those deep internal places of which we’re not always aware. These tensions may develop into another of those “background” ailments, or they may develop into something more serious.
Lying on my back covered by some modesty sheets, I’m feeling super relaxed at this point. I don’t even know where all the front-side needles are inserted. I think there are some by my feet, also perhaps in my forehead. The only thing disrupting the calm is my suddenly, and quite loudly, gurgling stomach. And it’s not just one gurgle—it kind of goes on and on. Embarrassed, I finally say something.
But Jenson assures me that’s something that’s supposed to be happening as tensions loosen. The treatment is working.
It ends too soon—even though I’d already been there a couple of hours, as is typical with Jensen’s initial intake appointments. I no longer felt quite so scattered, anxious, or sad as when I’d arrived. I slept better that night, and remarkably, my hamstring was less bothersome when I went back to yoga the next day. That unusual, pleasant loosening in my chest continued intermittently for the next several days.
Some years ago, I’d tried some cheap acupuncture at a different place. While it was relaxing for the pure fact of sitting in a dark room for an hour with nothing to do, the treatment at Sonoma Valley Acupuncture & Herb Center was as good as the best medical treatments I’ve ever received (and better than most). It’s comprehensive, effective, and human. Importantly, it addressed and integrated a lot of my random symptoms into a comprehensive assessment of my health in a way Western medicine has not.
If I hit the jackpot or my insurance covered it—some do—there’s no question I’d be there every week. Prices range from $65 to $165, depending, for treatments that last 30 to 90 minutes. And for the time and skill provided, this is totally reasonable. Still.
Still, I know what I want for my birthday, and that jackpot may yet come. In the meantime, I’m planning to return as I’m able. If you’ve got any inkling this might help you, I encourage you to try. My mind felt like I’d just had tough but really good therapy, my body floating like after hot yoga (shout out to Yoga Hell, Petaluma). And these days, who can’t use a little of that?
Sonoma Valley Acupuncture & Herb Cente, 181 Andrieux Street, #105, Sonoma. 707.996.6681. Accupunctureinsonoma.com.