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Pointed Treatments
Strategically placed needles are an increasingly respectable medical intervention
By Miriam Axel-Lute

You don’t have to be needle-phobic to be slightly apprehensive about the prospect of having needles stuck into such choice spots as between your toes, inside your elbows, or on your scalp for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. But the rave reviews of friends with migraines worse than mine, and an increasing stack of scientific literature, finally convinced me to try it out.

Charles Braverman’s Northern Boulevard office seems designed to reassure suburbanite back-pain sufferers that acupuncture is a serious medical pursuit. In modest beige tones, with the name of the interior designer on a plaque by the door, this office is clearly not a hippie outpost. Braverman himself looks like he stepped out of the back room of a finance company, neatly dressed in a crisp white button-up shirt and tie. There is soothing music—but it is classical, not whale song. There is a candle, but no incense. There is a foot-and-a-half-tall anatomically correct male model in one corner of the room with acupuncture points labeled in Chinese, but the big poster of muscles and tendons on the wall near the chairs looks at first glance like something you might find in your internist’s office.

Once he starts his diagnostic process, however, the differences between Braverman’s practice and a regular medical specialist quickly become clear. “I begin with a conversation in which I’m both listening and asking questions,” says Braverman. “I’m also observing you, listening to the sound of your voice, how you move, and watch how you respond. . . . All of that gives me an idea of what the underlying issues are.” I’m there because of headaches, but Braverman’s questions range far wider than a neurologist’s would, including side effects of my asthma medication, sleeping patterns, menstrual cycle, general sources of tension. He also looks at my tongue (with apologies first for turning on the “nasty fluorescent lights” to get a good look), checks my pulse at three different spots on both wrists and feels for tension in my abdomen.

Only then is he ready for needles. And believe it or not, out of I-can’t-even-tell-you-how-many hair-thin needles Braverman places in my forearms, lower legs, and toes for the first round, I feel maybe two going in—and even those are no worse than mosquito bites. As Braverman feels along my skin for what he calls the “live points,” I am reminded of feeling along an asparagus stem with my paring knife for the right place to trim off the fibrous end.

Behind me there’s a regular sound like a straw dispenser, and I imagine handfuls of the little needles with their colored plastic heads (different colors for different sizes) rolling by the dozen into Braverman’s palm. In fact, it turns out to have been the squirting of a bottle of hand sanitizer. Good to know I’m in careful hands at least.

There is widespread, though by no means unanimous, agreement that acupuncture works well for relieving chronic pain, headaches, and nausea. Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture needles can stimulate nerves in the underlying muscles and cause the release of endorphins, which reduce pain and induce relaxation.

But generalized nerve stimulation can’t explain all of the effects of acupuncture, which is also used for specialized problems like food allergies or carpal tunnel syndrome. This work is often done by stimulating points far removed from the actual location of the distress—points on the toes are used for headache, for example. Chinese practitioners, who developed the system over thousands of years, talk about the effects in terms of energy meridians, channel blockages, and yin and yang. They are remarkably accurate at predicting results, but many in the West continue to seek more quantifiable reasons for why.

In 1998, an initially skeptical physicist, Zang-Hee Cho, used an MRI machine to show that stimulating acupuncture points associated with vision (also on the toes) created nearly identical brain-activity patterns as flashing a bright light in the subject’s eyes. It remains unclear exactly why this happens. Cho theorized at the time that it was something to do with the nervous system, but Braverman is a proponent of a different theory.

That theory holds that fascia—fibrous connective tissue that wraps the organs in the body—has a measure of electroconductivity that works as a messaging system. “If you could grab a piece of fascia in the foot, and tug it in just the right way, you could feel it in the neck,” says Braverman. “That’s the most likely communication conduit. It’s not nerves. If it was nerves, you would’ve been screaming in agony.”

No agony here. Any movement does cause little twinges, however, so I lie absolutely still, which after 15 minutes leaves me with rather chilly hands and feet. Other than that, I can’t perceive any difference in how I feel from what 15 minutes of relaxing on my back to soothing music without needles would do. As someone who is neither a knee-jerk skeptic nor wholehearted believer when it comes to alternative therapies, such moments always cause me a little angst. “Acupuncture works only with the resources of the patient,” says Braverman. “There’s nothing on the needle, I’m not channeling any universal energy.”

And so, ridiculous as it is, my first thought when he returns and starts to take the needles out sooner than I expected is that I’ve done something wrong: let my mind wander too much, or upset the flow of my qi by trying to see if I can make the mobile above me move by blowing on it. But he checks my pulse and seems satisfied with the results, though he does say later that the real test is to see if the relaxation effect lasts longer than an hour.

For the second treatment he works on my back, and adds one of his specialties: microcurrents.

New York acupuncturists need to be certified by a national board and licensed by the state. Braverman, like most of his colleagues, has a masters of acupuncture, a three-year degree. But if you visited any other member of the Upstate Acupuncturists Association (membership: 17), you’d get a very different experience. “So many of us have used our education as a basis to go out and find very specific treatment strategies that really ring true for us,” explains Braverman. “For me those strategies are using sophisticated microelectric equipment, supplements, detox programs, allergy elimination. . . . Others are excellent herbalists. Others focus their practice on trigger-point release.”

But with the way this week of work left my shoulders feeling, microcurrents, which are particularly indicated for muscle and tendon pain, sound like just the ticket. I’m almost disappointed that I can’t even tell when the current is flowing between the six sticky “therapy electrode” pads.

I leave feeling like I’ve a had a thorough massage. It would take a few more visits to know if acupuncture has something to offer my migraines over the long term. “Not even aspirin works for everyone,” Braverman cautions. In the meantime, if I can find that spot on my foot that connects to that knot in my neck again, I’ll consider it a good first step.

Everything Bad Is Good Again
Those anxious in the face of contradictory fitness and nutrition information, relax—you may already be doing the healthy thing
By John Rodat

A friend of mine used to protest aggressively anytime someone tried to cheer him out of a depression with the reminder, “At least you’ve got your health.”

“Don’t say that!” he’d yell. “That’s something you say to someone who’s got absolutely nothing else going for them!”

It was an interesting point, one made all the more poignant by the fact that, at the time, my friend was in his middle 20s. He was probably at the stage in his life where he had the greatest expectation of health: He’d made it out of his late ado- lescence without wrapping his Volkswagen around a tree, and the prostate years were still way on the far side of the male- pattern-baldness years.

But the vitality we took so for granted then, now has to be cultivated: We keep regular doctors’ appointments, and agonize over fitness regimens and specialized diets. We regard our good health now like a responsibility, rather than a birthright. The tricky part is, we developed all these wonderful, pleasurable vices back when we thought we were immortal.

The good news is that nothing seems to be bad for you any more—I mean, if you’re willing to do a little bit of armchair investigation to rationalize those habits you have no intention—nor realistic hope—of abandoning. Small price to pay, really.

[The Metroland chief counsel has strongly advised that at this point a disclaimer be added: The following information has not been reviewed by the Food & Drug Administration; furthermore, the writer of this article is not a medical-health professional, nor does he possess—to the best of our knowledge—any expertise that would qualify him to outline a fitness program. In fact, we’ve personally witnessed him make some truly inexplicable decisions regarding his own well-being. Like this one time, man, at the annual Christmas party . . . oh, the Metroland chief counsel has advised us to stop now.]

Even cursory attention to the wire- service stuff on the health pages of the local newspaper presents regular revelations about the surprising benefits of stuff that used to kill you. Remember when beef was bad, back in olden times? I have a vague memory of it nearly killing James Garner, who—brief pause for a heart attack notwithstanding—barely wavered during his stint as red-meat pitchman. As Atkins dieters can attest, the man was a visionary. There’s a restaurant right down the street from my office that serves a delicious blue-cheese encrusted sirloin, and—get this—it’s a diet food now! Just have ’em hold the potatoes.

But feel free to wash it down with wine, red wine preferably. It turns out that le vin rouge (if you’re patriotically inclined, Liberty School is a tasty domestic) is chock full o’ antioxidants, which block artery-damaging free radicals. No, I don’t really know what that means either, but it sounds awfully healthy. Cheers!

If wine’s not for you, you’re not completely out of luck: Dark beers—the stouts particularly—have been found to have a similarly salubrious effect. Research has suggested that a pint of Guinness a day has the same power to reduce the chance of heart attack as the doctor-recommended aspirin a day. And, face it, no one is ever going to respond to your invitation for a round of darts and Bayer—so stop offering, you freak.

It’s been suggested that the moderate consumption of alcohol, in general, helps lower blood pressure and generally reduce stress, which you’ve probably already slurred defensively during an intervention or two—who hasn’t? In fact, moderate drinkers really are believed to have longer life expectancies than teetotalers. So, add that to your arsenal of unsubstantiated excuses and run to the package store.

But if, for one reason or the other, you’d still prefer to abstain—say, the preservation of your dignity and job security—you needn’t limit yourself to tap water. Caffeine has been shown to combat both late-life sexual dysfunctions and Alzheimer’s disease, and hot chocolate also contains those miraculous antioxidants as well as phytochemicals that inhibit platelet aggregation, which can cause strokes.

So, is there nothing—no shameful penchant, no weak-willed indulgence, no Puritan prohibition—that cannot be rehabilitated? What about smoking? Surely smoking is still and forever bad for you. Well . . .

[Once again, Metroland counsel has asked us to remind you that the writer is not an expert, in anything. Really. He may even be drunk right now. Seriously, don’t try this at home—please.]

. . . Some recent studies have suggested that smoking may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly, these results are controversial and contested. One scientist has sagely pointed out that smokers stand a lesser chance of contracting the disease because, statistically speaking, they’re already dead of something else.

Fair enough.

But if red meat, coffee, booze and smoking are even conceivably good for you, don’t you think you owe it to yourself to investigate?

Because if you don’t have your health, really, what have you got?

Medicate This
New clinical disorders that will be identified any day now, and the pharmaceutical remedies that will appear the day after that

We’re an increas-ingly health-conscious country, and in true American can-do spirit we’ve tackled a host of conditions, syndromes, disorders and dysfunctions with all the brainpower and medical technology at our disposal. Too sad? Take a pill. Too happy? Take a pill. But the fight against nebulously defined phantom ailments never ends, we must be ever vigilant—and we here at Metroland are more than willing to do our part. So, we marshaled an R&D team from our pharmaceutical department—which is actually just two guys we know from college—and developed cures for problems that have not yet arisen. Now, that is service journalism.

The problem: Justificationitis

The obsessive need to point out to everyone within earshot that you already know just how bad whatever you are eating/drinking/smoking/doing at the moment is for you

The pill for you: Rebelon

The problem: Illsuitor’s Syndrome

The feelings of powerlessness when a restaurant you’ve chosen fails to please a date

The pill: Night-time Formula Sangfroidex

The problem: Marito-Flatterer’s Apnea

A wife’s inability to fake acceptance of male pattern baldness

The pill: Scalponine

The problem: O. Henry’s Ague

The compulsion to read the end of a book first

The pill: Climaxitrine

The problem: Hiltonnitus

A ringing in the ears brought on by the cancellation of Fox’s The Simple Life

The pill: Celebridone

The problem: Yahoothria

The inability to end a pointless e-mail correspondence

The pill: Emoticon-B-Gon Herbal Supplement

The problem: Southpaw

Persistent ink stains, problems with scissors and spiral notebooks, inability to engage in pick-up baseball/softball or navigate dinner tables

The pill: Ambidrex

The problem: Trebek’s Aphasia

The inability to remember the best picture of 1940 or the name of that plastic thing at the end of your shoelace

The pill: Trivium

The problem: Toxic Banality Syndrome

The inability to find a romantic partner dumber than you

The pill: Profundane

The problem: Social Affective Order

The outdated desire to have appropriate emotional responses to one’s environment

The pill: Disharmonium

The problem: Metallicitus

The compulsion to illegally download music of artists you don’t even like, just to be a dick

The pill: Infringitrex

The problem: Supersizia

The compulsive desire to upgrade

The pill: Diminuloft

The problem: Registered Democrat

Chronic inelectability

The pill: Deanadrine

The problem: Digirhea

The inability to settle on one channel for a whole program after getting digital cable

The pill: Spice Channel Chewables

The problem: Dysphoraphoria

An unshakeable fear that you lead a too-well-balanced life

The pill: Equilithium

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