As the legend goes, acupuncture was discovered in ancient China when a group of soldiers were injured by flying arrows. Their bodies pierced and punctured, the soldiers took the time to note a strange thing: while the arrows themselves hurt like hell, they were suddenly freed of other afflictions that had been vexing them for years.
It’s probably not true. But anyone who knows me understands that I take ancient Chinese apocrypha very seriously.
Off I went to the office of Dr. Frank Bohmer, a Topsham acupuncturist who came highly recommended.
“I see all kinds of people, young and old,” he said. “Most come for pain. They have been in pain for years. They see acupuncture as a last resort.”
Back problems and headaches, those are the big ones. A few come seeking relief for anxiety or depression, while a handful seek acupuncture to deliver them from the grip of addiction.
Bohmer, who is also an anesthesiologist, loves to talk about the ancient art of acupuncture. Schooled in Bonn, Germany, the doctor speaks with a thick German accent that is both intriguing and somehow soothing. He tells me that the needles themselves will not cure anything at all. What they do is sort of facilitate communication between the body and the brain.
Piercing the flesh around certain trigger points alerts the mind that there is work to be done there. It stimulates the production and distribution of crucial brain stuff, like endorphins, serotonin and steroids. The Chinese developed a map of networks throughout the body – meridians – and those maps are still in use today.
The doctor fiddles with the needles as we talk. These are not fang-like shards of wood like I had imagined. The science of acupuncture advances the same way other fields of medicine do. The needles, used on one patient and then discarded, are metal and shorter than I imagined. They range in thickness, some daunting to look at, others vanishingly slim. The needles Bohmer most frequently works with are .25 millimeters. Then there are those that are really wee, like the .12 millimeter needles inserted into the flesh of the ears for treatment for things like heroin addiction.
“It’s a foreign feeling,” Bohmer says, describing the sensation of a needle piercing human flesh.
Of course it is. We have all been taught since we were children that slicing, dicing or sticking things into the skin is to be avoided. And not everybody takes to an acupuncture the same.
“Young girls tend to be squeamish,” Bohmer tells me, and I’m surprised as hell. Young girls are always piercing something, in my experience. Ears, belly buttons and noses. Why should they fear such innocuous looking needles?
Also timid about acupuncture, I’m told, are the big guys. Burly men who cut down trees for a living and open beer bottles with their teeth. They might get into fistfights outside bars and truck stops, but many of them shrink away from the prick of a needle.
Jose gets under my skin
But who cares about other people. I want to try acupuncture for myself and see what it feels like. I would have gotten right to it, but photographer Jose Leiva nudges me out of the way.
“My ankle has been hurting,” he says to the doctor. “Would acupuncture help?”
Then the needle hog was up on the table, baring his ankle for the good doctor.
“I never tell people, ‘acupuncture is great and I’m going to heal you,’” Bohmer explains, probing Leiva’s ankle in search of the crucial spot. “One treatment is only an appetizer.”
Then he slid the first appetizer into the tender flesh around Leiva’s ankle. I waited for a reaction – a wince or even a small cry – but there was nothing. A second needle went in soon after.
“I have them come back five or six times,” Bohmer explains. “If it doesn’t help them, I’m not going to tell them to keep coming back.”
It won’t work for everything all the time, in other words. But the success rate of acupuncture is amazing. So much so that most insurance plans now cover it as a valid treatment. So much so that more and more studies are being done on the procedure all the time.
There are those who have tried everything for their particular affliction and who swear that only acupuncture does the job. Others are non-believers who give it a try and see results. They keep going back for more.
Mary Graziano Richard has been going for acupuncture for about three years, finally settling on a practitioner in Portland.
“He always starts our appointment by asking how I am feeling and what is bothering me. Then he will do the needles using the information I gave him,” she says. “He always does the points for lower back and muscle aches that I am going to him for, but adds some here and there for any other issues bothering me at that time. Headaches are an example. If I go in with one he will treat me for it and it is usually better if not gone by the time I leave.”
One woman said she has been going to an acupuncturist for 10 years, and now each of her children go for their own aches and pains.
And speaking of aches and pains, Leiva spent 10 or 12 minutes with needles sticking out of his foot, a standard length for such a treatment. Bohmer explained that in the past, practitioners would have rubbed their fingers together, rotating the needle, which can be helpful in some treatments. These days, many acupuncturists, including Bohmer, attach leads to the needles to deliver two hertz worth of electrical charge.
Leiva is free from the needles at last and he hops off the table. I take his place and while Bohmer produces new needles, he tells me more about the growth of acupuncture.
Many athletes are going the route of the needle. One famous case is that of former Denver Bronco John Elway, who suffered an injury that threatened to end his career.
“It looked like nothing would help,” Bohmer said. “It looked like a career-ending injury.”
In desperation, Elway went to an acupuncturist and the pain went away. He went on to play seven more years, and other athletes followed his lead to the acupuncturist’s table.
In some jurisdictions, including a few in New York and Florida, some heroin addicts are court-ordered to get at least 30 acupuncture treatments as an alternative to prison. Bohmer himself treats many people who are hooked on heroin. Twice a week, they come in and have needles inserted into the skin of their ears. Seventy percent of them stay off the drug. Only 40 percent of smokers respond so well.
His youngest patient is 8 years old; others are in their 90s.
While some will claim that a person’s response to acupuncture is purely placebo, scientific studies show otherwise. Bohmer also has anecdotal evidence that seems to rule out the placebo theory: He performed treatment on his secretary’s dog – who presumably hasn’t read the studies on acupuncture – and the animal responded quite well. The beast didn’t even try to run from the prick of a needle.
“It almost seemed like the dog knew I was trying to do good,” Bohmer said.
Good for the dog. But now it was my turn. Bohmer was probing my elbow, looking for the precise spot to insert the first of two needles.
“Go ahead, doc,” I said, bracing myself. “I’m ready.”
The needles were already in me. One I didn’t feel at all. The other was just a vague sensation, the feeling of a mosquito who isn’t very zealous about his work. It was a little strange to see to spears of metal sticking out of my arm, but that was all. No pain, no unpleasantness.
I asked the doctor to insert a needle where it is considered more painful. He chose the flesh of my hand near the base of the thumb. The needle went in and there was no pain, not even that shy mosquito sensation.
He poked one of the extra thin needles into my ear. Nothing at all. I’ve had itches that were more unpleasant. If the idea of pain has made anybody wary about getting an acupuncture treatment, they should toss that notion right out the window.
Medicine is a funny thing. We think we’re all advanced with our laser surgery and a pill for every occasion. But all those pills tend to mask the aches and pains of being human, and the brain forgets how to take care of the body it oversees.
“Traditional medicine,” says Bohmer, “has not made us a lot healthier.”
And so a 2,500-year-old practice has come back into popularity. Today, Bohmer made a believer out of one man without even trying.
Leiva, who suffers arthritis in his ankle, felt great leaving the office.
“I know it was just one treatment,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s all in my head, or what. But my ankle feels great. It feels better than it has in a long time.”
Mark LaFlamme’s pain scale, with most painful on top
Polar Bear dunk
Paintball to the gut
Ice cream headache
Meridians used in acupuncture
The 12 standard meridians used in acupuncture go along the arms and the legs. They are: lung, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine, urinary bladder, kidney, pericardium, Triple Warmer, gall bladder and liver. These terms refer to biological functions and not the structural organ, which is why there are some on the list with no corresponding anatomical structure.
Meridians are divided into yin and yang groups. The yin meridians of the arm are: lung, heart and pericardium. The yang meridians of the arm are: large intestine, small intestine and Triple Warmer. The yin meridians of the leg are spleen, kidney and liver. The yang meridians of the leg are stomach, bladder and gall bladder.