Healing Needles -- Acupuncture May Not Be The Cure All Of Back Pain, But This Ancient Remedy Has One Patient Coming Back For More

THERE I WAS IN nothing but my briefs, lying on this table with 10 thin needles sticking in my lower back and one in the back of each knee. This is an experience that prompts a series of thoughts, not the least of which is: What am I doing here?

I decided to give acupuncture a try because nothing else seemed to ease my aching back, not my doctor's pain-killers or my chiropractor's lecture about my posture or the stretches prescribed by my physical therapist, or my rock-hard mattress.

I had no idea how acupuncture worked or how it could help, but I knew it was more than 2,000 years old. I knew it was becoming increasingly popular in the United States for a host of problems from toothaches to osteoarthritis. I heard that if I found a certified practitioner, it probably couldn't make things worse.

As near as anyone can tell, my back problems involve ligaments and muscles. It's been like this for at least a decade. The pain is partly self-inflicted. I have always been addicted to exercise, at least four times a week, sore back or not. Essentially, I am a middle-aged man with a young man's hobby and an old man's back. I've gotten careful, but I won't stop.

Once a year, for about three or four days at a time, I am paralyzed. My back locks up in angry spasms. I can move only in meter-sized increments and only after carefully assessing whether it is worth it. I lie in bed and swallow so many pain pills that even "Oprah" begins to look complicated.

My back is stiff and sore the other 360-some days. But that's just life and I know I'm not alone.

I chose Long-Life Acupuncture because a friend's mother had been treated there to try to improve her balance. I walked into the clinic, set up in a Ravenna-area house, one Monday morning and met Dr. Jianxin Huang, a friendly 42-year-old Chinese doctor who is a state-certified acupuncturist. He has been administering acupuncture for two decades and has been in practice here in Seattle since leaving China in about 1989.

I filled out a long questionnaire about my back, my diet and health history. There was nothing to report other than a sore back and that I drink too much coffee.

He took me into a small treatment room where he felt my pulse and looked at my tongue. Acupuncturists pay attention to the tongue's color, size, texture and mucous buildup because it tells them about circulation and general health. Mine was your standard tongue.

Then he poked at my lower back, right on the spine. He said he felt a loose, possibly torn ligament - a supra-spinal ligament injury, he called it - that forces my lower back muscles to work overtime to make up the missing support. This meshed with what my doctor had been telling me.

Two minutes later I was lying on a padded table. I stuck my face through a doughnut extension and let my arms rest down my sides with palms up.

Huang dabbed rubbing alcohol on several spots along my lower back, on and around the spine and on the back of both knees. I wasn't concerned about needles in my back, but the back of my knees?

One-by-one, Huang removed small, metallic, hair-width needles from their packages, tapping each about a half-inch into my skin. He tapped them in because it hurts less than slowly poking through the nerves of the skin. After inserting each needle, he would give it a little twist.

Most of the needles felt like bee stings, tweaking pain that quickly dissipated. My muscles grabbed in mini-spasms around some of the needles, but that faded, too. There was a feeling of steady pressure but it felt fine as long as I stayed still.

Getting stuck in the back of the knees was a whole different experience. Each needle sent a bolting sensation, like an electrical current, barreling down to my toes. Each leg flopped like a beached fish. A second later the sensation was gone.

"You OK?" he asked. No problem, I answered, unsure whether I was telling the truth.

He turned on a low-level electromagnetic lamp and placed it just above my back. It produced a pleasant warmth. I became drowsy and drifted off a time or two.

He returned about 30 or 40 minutes later, plucked the needles out and threw them away. I got dressed and stood there, trying to gauge how I felt. I was lightheaded and relaxed. I also felt distinct relief in my back as if the needles had somehow released the steady pressure that always weighs upon it. I felt like I was floating.

I felt great, and a little suspicious.

"How does that work?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, laughing loudly.

Then he began talking about my energy and circulation and the body's regenerative powers. Those bolts I felt in my legs represented my body's energy, he said. I didn't understand much of it, but I was eager to do it again.

Huang charges $65 per visit, but I quickly learned my health-care provider, Group Health Cooperative, would pay for the treatment because he was on their list of preferred acupuncturists. I called my doctor and got a referral. From then on, each visit cost me $10.

I went straight to the health club and worked out as hard as I had in years, purposely pushing it, lifting weights, running, playing basketball. I felt great. More telling, I felt great the next day and the day after that.

I was stiff and sore again by Friday. I couldn't wait for Monday morning and those needles.

WHILE WESTERN medicine focuses on eradicating a problem, acupuncture focuses on the state of general health, balance, the yin and yang, and specifically the concept of Qi (pronounced chee). Qi, according to Chinese medicine, is energy that flows like rivers (called meridians) throughout the body, irrigating and sustaining its health. When Qi is disrupted or blocked, the body loses balance and disease or pain moves in.

That's what Huang meant when he spoke of my energy and said he really didn't know how it worked. The concept is completely foreign to Western scientific convention. Qi is not the nervous system or the blood. You can't X-ray it.

What you can measure is the increasing popularity of acupuncture in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration estimates Americans now spend about $500 million a year on acupuncture and more than 3,000 medical doctors now use it in their practices.

The National Institute of Health last November issued a report finding that acupuncture appears to be effective for postoperative dental pain and to reduce nausea from chemotherapy and pregnancy. The agency said there is also evidence it can help other maladies from drug addiction to back pain.

It didn't catch on in the West until 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston underwent emergency surgery while in China and wrote about how acupuncture quelled his post surgery pain.

After I started my acupuncture treatment, I began noticing references to it everywhere: Eric Clapton saying it helped him kick his heroin addiction; acupuncturists traveling with basketball teams; reports that even horses get it for back treatment.

Acupuncturists focus on specific points throughout the body that they believe tap into the 14 meridians. Each point, they say, has a predictable effect on the body.

When I complained that my neck and upper back were sore on one visit, needles were stuck in the back of my neck, between the shoulder blades and in the calves and ankles. I had 16 needles that time.

I went once a week for two months. For a while the pattern was immediate relief and about five pain-free days before my back would tighten up again. Even my sore days didn't seem as bad as before. Eventually, the pain and stiffness disappeared.

Huang acknowledged that a chronic problem like mine, especially involving ligaments, might not respond completely in the long-term and he certainly couldn't promise I wouldn't get my yearly lockup. He gave me the standard good advice: get a firm mattress, consider my back in any movement I do, stop being so gung-ho about working out.

Western research has offered several theories about acupuncture. It may somehow release endorphins and pain-relieving chemicals within the body. Or it may produce hormonal changes or affect blood flow. Acupuncture's critics seem say you can't trust it if you don't know how it works. Some call it "quackupuncture," and suggest it could involve hypnotic suggestion or is just one big placebo.

I'm certainly uncomfortable with things I don't understand. I don't know how acupuncture works. Maybe I just wanted it to. Maybe it's all just in my head instead of my back. I'm not sure it matters. All I know is that my back feels fine.

Richard Seven is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Gary Settle is the magazine's picture editor.