X-rays, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging can be essential tools in understanding what’s going on in your body and deciding what to do about it. But they might also undermine your healing process – not because of any physical risks, but because of how they might limit your thinking.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an X-ray must be worth at least a million, in that it shapes the story we tell ourselves. If your X-ray shows you bone-on-bone arthritis, or the narrowing of the spaces in your spine, it’s really easy to jump to the conclusion that your pain is permanent: something you’ll just have to live with and that will inevitably worsen over time, unless you do something radical like have surgery.

But there are flaws in this logic. Spinal discs lose a bit of their cushiness in nearly everyone over 40, but only a fraction of the population will experience chronic back pain. Plenty of people walk around with bulging discs and are blissfully unaware of it, while others suffer intensely. So pictures can be misleading: they show correlation, but not necessarily causation. They are also snapshots of our bodies at a single moment in time. It’s easy to forget that change is possible, even at the level of bones and joints.

Take “James” (not his real name), an 86-year-old man who came to see me for acupuncture after suffering for decades with chronic lower back pain, knee pain, and numbness in his legs and feet. He walked stiffly and unsteadily with a cane, usually not much further than the mailbox at the end of his driveway, due to pain and fear of falling.

His doctor had diagnosed him with “lumbar spinal stenosis,” a narrowing of the spaces in the spine, causing compression of the nerve roots that travel to the lower body. This condition is usually considered a disease of aging: like the upholstery on an antique chair, the cushiness of the discs between the vertebrae wears out over time. He also had osteoarthritis in his back, hip, and knees, and he had all the X-rays to prove it.

At 86, he wasn’t a great candidate for back surgery, so acupuncture was his last resort. After a handful of treatments, he noticed he wasn’t reaching for his pain pills as often. This was enough evidence to keep him coming in. After a couple of months of regular acupuncture, he regained feeling in his feet to the point where he felt comfortable giving up his cane. The pain in his knees and back dropped from debilitating to next-to-nothing, allowing him to resume his old pastime of walking a few miles a day by the river instead of just to and from the mailbox. His old friends were pleasantly surprised to see him back at social events he’d been avoiding when standing had been unbearable.

About a year and half later, James went back to his doctor and had another image taken of his spine. The new X-ray showed that the spinal stenosis itself had diminished remarkably, prompting the doctor to conclude: “We must have given you the wrong X-rays. The stenosis must never have been there in the first place.” His healing was so far outside the realm of what was possible for this doctor that he flat-out refused to believe it was the same patient, despite the dramatic improvements in James’s quality of life.

It’s understandable how an acupuncture-naïve physician (or patient) could draw such a conclusion: doctors are taught to think about drugs and surgery as the two main treatment options. Many simply don’t know how powerful acupuncture can be in catalyzing the body’s own healing process, with negligible (and often positive) side effects and zero recovery time.

So before you go for that knee replacement or back surgery, or resign yourself to a life of popping pain pills (which we’re realizing are far riskier than previously believed), remember that while your X-ray may be informative, it may not tell the whole tale. Something that looks “abnormal” may or may not have anything to do with what’s causing your pain. It’s equally important to remember that the image is a snapshot capturing just one moment in time. Your body is constantly undergoing a process of rebuilding itself, and if you change the inputs to that system (supplying it with new nutrients, movements, or interventions like acupuncture) it’s reasonable to expect a different outcome. Even if you’re 86!

Certainly there are circumstances where surgery makes the most sense. But if you’re among the millions of people suffering from osteoarthritis, tendonitis, lower back pain, neck pain, disc degeneration, sciatica, muscle stiffness, or fibromyalgia — to name just a handful of ailments — acupuncture could be an excellent first choice to reduce pain and regain mobility.

For best results with pain conditions, I recommend two acupuncture treatments a week for three weeks, and then re-evaluating progress. Depending on how long a condition has been around, it may need to be extended. To schedule your series, give us  a call or book here.

Photo © Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0]







In the largest study of the effects of acupuncture for lower back pain in the US (published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, now JAMA, in 2009), it’s demonstrated that acupuncture is a more effective way of treating chronic low back pain than the standard conventional treatments of medication and physical therapy.  Clearly, this finding is noteworthy in and of itself. Its findings are similar to those of the largest study on acupuncture for lower back pain conducted for insurance companies in Germany in 2008. It concluded that acupuncture helped improve lower back pain for at least 6 months, an effectiveness rate “almost twice that of conventional therapy.” [1]

If acupuncture has been shown to work staggeringly better than the current standard plan of care, why hasn’t it become THE treatment of choice, rather than seen as a “complementary and alternative treatment?”

The problem is that in both of these studies, patients in a control group who were given sham acupuncture treatments also experienced meaningful improvements, though not as significant as those who received real acupuncture. Critics drew the erroneous conclusion that because the sham treatments yielded positive results, the placebo effect must be the most important factor. It’s understandable that acupuncturists may shy away from bringing up research that may attribute part of our medicine’s success rate to the placebo effect: people are still largely naïve about the power of Chinese medicine, and we don’t want our very legit medicine to be perceived as something one needs to believe in. But the placebo effect is a factor in all forms of medicine whether it’s pills or receiving an acupuncture treatment. And the fact that acupuncture works on dogs and cats (who presumably don’t “believe in” acupuncture) demonstrates that there is clearly something beyond the placebo effect at work.

Returning to the lower back pain studies: let’s not overlook the fact that people got better. And that the patients who received real acupuncture got better results than they would have through conventional means. 60-80% of the public will experience lower back pain in the course of their lives (http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/low-back-pain). People should know that acupuncture is an outstanding treatment strategy, outperforming the standard of care for lower back pain. Share this, tweet it, post it on your blog, shout it from the rooftops and help those you care about make an informed choice.


[1] Haake M, MüLler H, Schade-Brittinger C, et al. German Acupuncture Trials (Gerac) For Chronic Low Back Pain: Randomized, Multicenter, Blinded, Parallel-Group Trial With 3 Groups. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(17):1892-1898. doi:10.1001/Archinte.167.17.1892.



Rope knotWorry. It’s the force behind that knot in your stomach, the clenching of your jaw, your trouble falling asleep and the furrow in your brow. You know it’s not accomplishing anything, but your mind resists getting off the hamster wheel.

How can you change the channel? Turns out, there are points for that. The Stomach and Spleen are responsible for digesting not only our food, but our lives: absorbing what’s useful, letting that nourish us, and passing on the not-so-useful stuff to the Large Intestine so we can let it go. Worry is the mental equivalent of sluggish digestion, or chewing on the same thing over and over again without swallowing. Just as there are points to aid digestion, there are points to help dissolve the mental knots. Here are three:

SP 5

Spleen 5

Spleen 5 is the point to use when your compassionate heart leads to a worried mind and you can’t stop thinking about the problems your friend (or your kid, or co-worker) is facing, even though you know there’s nothing you can do to change their situation. This is empathy gone astray. First, summon some compassion for yourself – it’s tough to watch someone you love go through something hard. Then, find the point on the inner foot, just below and in front of the bony bump on the ankle. Press this point firmly with your thumb, and massage in circles for a minute while thinking to yourself “I let go.”

Lung 7

Lung 7 is the go-to point to help clear your mind of worry. Like the breath itself, this point helps anchor us to the present moment rather than projecting into a future that may never come to pass. Take a long, slow breath and massage Lung 7 – Make a “thumbs up”, and HT 5 and LU 7locate the point about an inch towards your elbow from the thumb/wrist crease.

Heart 5

Tap Heart 5 when you’re worried about what you’re going to say. This point helps you express what’s in your heart, so it’s especially useful for speaking your truth, confronting someone, or having to say “no.” Located on the inner wrist, one thumb-width up from the inner crease, just inside the tendon that leads to the pinky. Tap this point gently for 30-60 seconds, visualizing raindrops striking and bouncing up from a puddle at the point.

Changing your relationship with stress is the most powerful thing you can do for your health. If you’re ready to revamp your nervous system for more ease and confidence, check out your bodymind toolkit:

 Calm Yourself: Self-Care Strategies for Stress and Anxiety





DandelionIt’s getting to be that time of year where a remarkable number of people here in the Willamette Valley start sneezing, dripping, and itching with seasonal allergies.  Fortunately, there are a number of natural steps you one can take to mitigate or even eliminate allergy symptoms without suffering the drowsiness and other side effects that often come with taking pharmaceuticals.

In Chinese Medicine, we distinguish between two main types of allergies: those where heat or cold predominates.  Wind, joining forces with either heat or cold, invades the body from the outside, causing an acute attack of those symptoms we all know and don’t love: sneezing, nasal congestion or runny nose, itchy eyes, tiredness, and even diffiuculty breathing.

Symptoms of wind-cold type of allergies include very drippy runny nose with clear mucus and fatigue, while the wind-heat type is characterized by itchy eyes, itchy throat and thick yellow or green mucus. Both conditions are made worse by the presence of phlegm.  Phlegm is which is basically accumulated turbid water that the body is trying to throw at what it perceives as a dangerous pathogen: the evil, invading pollen.

So what can you do besides hide indoors?

  1. Use a neti pot to rinse your sinuses to get the pollen out of your respiratory tract. Combine warm water and enough salt so that the water tastes like a teardrop, and rinse your nasal passages twice daily.  Flushing the allergens out of your body gives the body a break from having to perpetually react to them.  Plus, freeing the flow of qi in your sinuses makes it less likely for stuff to percolate there and become infected.
  2. Eat strategically: Making sure that you’re digesting well and therefore not creating more residual crud to hang out in your system as dampness or phlegm is very important.  Keep damp-producing foods like dairy products, refined sugar, bananas, alcohol, and refined flour products to a minimum (Though yogurt and kefir with active probiotic cultures can help the immune system, you may be better off with fermented foods like miso and kimchi — or taking probiotic supplements– which are less mucogenic than dairy.) The taste of bitter helps to transform phlegm, so including lots of leafy greens in your diet can be helpful.  If you have wind-heat type allergies, cooking with spices such as rosemary, oregano, turmeric, and mint can be helpful. For wind-cold type allergies, cook with onions and fresh ginger.
  3. Drink tea:  Both green and black tea are especially rich in quercetin, a component of plant-based foods that has anit-inflammatory properties. Other foods rich in quercetin include red onions, lovage, capers, red grapes, and green leafy vegetables.Tea made from nettles can be highly anti-inflammatory: steep the leaves for 10 minutes in hot water (and handle with care!) Chrysanthemum blossoms (steeped covered for at least 5 minutes) is especially good to relieve itchy eyes.
  4. Take Herbs: Herbs are simply stronger foods. Ready-made Chinese herb formulas like Pe Min Kan Wan, Bi Yan Pian, or Xanthium Pills are all aimed at treating the wind-heat or wind-cold to decrease symptoms of allergies, and many people find to be effective symptom relievers without the side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs. (available at Life in Balance Acupuncture.)
  5. Get acupuncture.  A study published in the Australian Journal of Medicine suggests that acupuncture provides safe, effective treatment for persistent seasonal allergies, even 12 weeks after the course of treatment. But you may already know that!