Tag Archives: Alternative Medicine

My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture

The following is the continuation of my autobiographical posts concerning my experiences in acupuncture. See Part One here.

So, was my introduction to Acupuncture “magical”? I will let the reader decide.

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I was excited to visit Dave McClean, the eccentric guy I had met at IBM who offered to show me some acupuncture.  My girlfriend, Amy, came with me for the evening tea visit.  We were both relatively new to Japan and were looking forward to seeing how another foreigner had eked out an existence in the land of Wa.  Amy was a bit hesitant about the get-together; first because she was not excited about meeting a strange, itinerant elderly bachelor and second because she was still a Christian who was a bit suspicious about non-orthodox medicine.  But she had been raised as a missionary kid in India and was certainly no stranger to odd experiences.  So she had decided to observe but warned me that she would not participate.

Dave lived in a traditional Japanese house: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, a tokonoma and a cute inner court yard. He had done well for himself for only a year in Japan and he shared some of his Japan-survival tricks with us during the first hour of our visit: how to look for houses, how to find cheap furniture, job opportunities and more.

Later we discussed the beautiful art work he had collected and his meditation spot in his tokonoma. We compared our meditation experiences and thoughts on religion. By then,  I had transitioned out of Christianity, explored Buddhism and Hinduism/Yoga and was now pretty much a very disillusioned cynical materialist. Nonetheless, I was still oddly drawn to people who claimed to have experienced the unusual. Tonight’s acupuncture introduction was, in my mind, an anthropological adventure.  But I was also sincere – my pursuit was a complex mix of motivations – but in the end, curiosity and gregariousness were the main motivators.

Dave was intense about everything he pursued and his knowledge was deep and sophisticated – it was a joy listening to him. After an hour of tea our conversation finally landed on the reason for our visit: acupuncture.

Dave said, “Well, are you ready to try the needles?”

I was a little nervous but not hesitant. “Sure!” I said and Dave brought out a beautiful metal case with the needles neatly aligned and explained how he sterilized them (a concern of mine). Then he said, “Rather than talk about this, why don’t I get you to experience it first?” I agreed–for I had always valued experience more than pure theory.

He asked me to assume a comfortable posture so he could place a needle gently into my right hand.  Since we were sitting on the tatami, I asked if I could borrow his meditation pillow. I assumed the half-lotus position with my hands on my thighs and closed my eyes briefly to relax in the manner I would in my meditations. (The pic is not me, I borrow it — forgot the source, sorry.)

When I opened my eyes Dave said, “Ah, that is a good idea. Why don’t you keep your eyes closed while I put the needle in.”

“But,” I inquired “before I close my eyes, may I ask what is the needle suppose to do when put in my hand?”

“Hmmm,” he said, “I don’t want to bias your impressions.  Instead, let’s just see. But I can tell you that the Chinese name for the point is ‘hegu’ (“the meeting valley”), Japanese call it gōkoku but English speakers, avoiding the complexity of the classical names, simply call the point “Large Intestine 4″ because it is the 4th on the large intestine meridian (more on that later).

Well, that explanation did not help, so though a little nervous about closing my eyes, I agreed. Dave then gently massaged the point.  “Here we go.” he said softly, “You will only feel a little pinch.” And indeed, he slipped the needle in with no pain.

I was surprised.”Did you feel anything?” Dave asked.

“No, not really.” I responded showing my surprise.

Since my deconversion from Christianity and my experiences in India, I had become not only skeptical of any religion, but of any unusual experiences altogether.  So I came to learn about Dave’s acupuncture with a skeptic’s mind.  But Dave’s introduction was sane, rational, gentle and not unusual — well, up to this point.

“Well,” he said, “let’s move your Qi a little.”

Saying that, he slowly started twisting the needle and moving it down a little deeper (I was told this later — remember, my eyes were closed). Suddenly I had a strong sensation run from that acupuncture point on my hand, up my arm across my neck and down to the same spot on the other arm.

The buzzing river around my arms also caused me to drop into a deep quiet relaxed state.  Entering that level of relaxation usually took me about 40 minutes of meditation but Dave’s needle just did it to me in a few seconds — I was surprised again.

After about a minute (which felt like ten minutes), Dave said, “What do you feel?”

I describe the arc of sensation. But as we spoke, the buzzing feeling faded and I could only slightly feel the needle in its original position.  Dave was a little surprised.  He told me to open my eyes, and we talked for a second (with the needle still in my hand).

“It seems you are ‘channel-sensitive’ — Only about 5% of the population can actually feel Qi move along the actual channels,” Dave explained, “And an even smaller percent of people can feel the whole channel across to the other side.”

The next two pics illustrates the “Small Intestine channel” on which the acupuncture point layed. The feeling went up that channel to the back of my neck and jumped over to the same channel on the other side and down to my other hand.

“If you don’t mind,” Dave continued, “I’d like to try a little experiment with you?”

Amy was sitting nearby and she looked pretty interested even though I could tell that the situation was making her a bit cautious. But she appeared to be patiently watching, so I agreed, “Sure, what is next?”

“Well,” Dave described, “I’d like you close your eyes again and tell me what you feel.”

I agree and again closed my eyes again and relaxed.

“Ok, I don’t feel anything.”  A little time passed, “Still nothing” I said impatiently.

“OH! You must be twirling the needle. There goes that sensation again — up my arm to my other hand. Now it is fading. Ooops, there it is again.”

This pattern of an on-and-off sensation repeated itself about four times. And finally Dave told me to open my eyes.

Amy had her mouth open in surprise. I asked Dave what he had done but instead Amy blurted out in surprise, “All he did was hold his hand about 6 inches over the needle. And every time he did, you felt the sensation going up and down your arms. And everytime he moved his hand away from the needle, you said it faded.”

“I am impressed too,” Dave said, “Not many people have that degree of sensitivity.”

“Hmmm”, I thought out loud in my surprise.

I did not believe that energy could flow outside the body, yet alone from one body to another. But even this experience I was still extremely skeptical and objected saying, “It was probably just the heat of his hand triggering the same sensation.”

“OK,” Dave replied, “I have another experiment that may test your objection.  Would you like to try?”

I agreed and we set up experiment the same way with my eyes closed and the needle in.

Just like the previous experiment, I reported my sensations.  Over the next five minutes the buzzing sensation went up and down my arms.  It came and went in an irregular pattern.

Finally Dave told me to open my eyes again.  But this time, Dave was not sitting next to me.  Instead, both Amy and Dave were sitting across the room.

“This time,” Amy informed me,”you felt the sensation every time Dave pointed his fingers at the needle from over here. And when he pointed away, you reported the sensation dimmed each time.  Each time!

OK, I was pretty shocked. And I had skeptical, religious, anti-acupuncture Amy as a witness adding to the credibility.

To top off the night, Dave wanted to show us one more related phenomena. He felt I probably had the ability to feel the energy surrounding a person’s body. So to set up the experiment. He asked a-now-willing Amy lay prone on the tatami floor and relax. He then asked me to hold my hand above Amy’s body.

Dave then asked me if I could feel a sensation in my palm that was similar to the needle’s buzzing sensation. I did. In fact it was clearly present for the first foot or so off her body but then quickly faded at about two feet above her.  The fading felt like the fading of the buzz of the needle, albeit it more subtle.

I thought it was her body heat but she had clothes on and when I put my hand near the bare skin on her arms I could feel a little heat but I had to be very close to her body. The sensation of heat and the subtle buzz where very different.

Eventually it was time for us to leave Dave’s gracious company.  It had been a unique evening. We thanked Dave for everything and started off on our slow walk along the gorgeous, moon-lit Kamo River back to our small home.

On the way home, Amy noticed my silence and said, “You are being unusually quiet. What are you thinking about?”

“Well, it is like I saw God!”

I said that for shock value knowing that though Amy had practically given up on my ever becoming a Christian again, though she still hoped I’d return to the flock.  Her and I had long standing tensions since I had left Christianity about 4 years earlier.

“I mean, look,” I continued, “tonight I saw something that I had not thought was possible.  I could have sworn such a possibility did not exist. It was as if I saw a god. Because up to now, whenever I heard people talking about energy in and around the body, I thought they were talking hocus-pocus woo-woo.  But tonight I experienced that energy even when I was trying not to.  And you verified it. That sort of experience is enough to even shut me up.”

Amy nodded.

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Well, I have tried to tell this story as I experienced it at that time without any post-hoc analysis.  Go ahead, let me know your questions and your speculations.  My acupuncture stories after this event abound, but this was the pivotal experience that made me pursue acupuncture.

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Evolution cost me my job

The following is one of my many biography posts. I am recording them in part for my kids in the distant future. But I try to make them relevant to my blog. This one discusses my commitment to the teaching of Evolution and how some aspects of religion have a stranglehold on America.

I am a huge, non-apologetic, evangelical evolutionist and have paid the price for my outspoken nature. I use to be a professor in a graduate school Physician Assistant program where evolution helped me loose my job.

One day I was called into the program director’s office. He said, “Sabio, we have some complaints about you teaching evolution.” “Wow,” I thought, “that was an abrupt opening. I wonder what he is talking about.” So I responded, “Sorry, who complained and what was their complaint?”

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My Gateway to Acupuncture

I had just arrived in Japan four weeks earlier from India and was on the first day of a new lucrative job–teaching English to IBM employees.  Having arrived in Japan poor with only a few Rupees, I was ecstatic to have found this job because I would soon be able to afford to buy sushi and sake and truly enjoy Japan.  For up to then, I had been living on old bread and mustard (karashi).

IBM had hired about 15 teachers like me to teach various levels of English to their engineers. All of us teachers were in the “faculty room” prior to our first class chatting, but off in the corner of the room, by himself, I noticed an older teacher (probably 45 years-old) who had a unique air about him — most of us teachers were in our twenties.  I quietly asked another teacher who that man was and was told, “Ah, he is a weird guy, he says he can tell when people look at him even with his back is turned. It seems he thinks he has magical powers. I wouldn’t bother with him.”

“Hmm,” I thought, “up to now, conversations with everyone else here have been pretty routine, maybe that guy will add a little excitement into my day.”  So I went over and introduced myself.

His name was Dave McClean and indeed he delightfully was a bit eccentric.  He had been a engineer but 12 years ago, after making a lot of money on a simple lamp design, he sold his house and belongings and headed off to Asia to study meditation.  A year ago, when his money ran out, he came to Japan to replenish his money supply.  He said that in addition to studying meditation in India he studied acupuncture.

But just as our interesting conversation was beginning, an announcement was made that our classes would be starting in about five minutes. Dave was very different, just like the others had warned — and I was pleased.  I told Dave that I knew nothing about acupuncture and asked if he could teach me something about it.  He agreed and said I could come over to his place in a week.  So we exchanged addresses.

My post called, “My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture” continues this story. But I wanted to set the stage because I think this story illustrates an important aspect of my personality: I like to explore odd, strange and unusual things. I love change. These are temperament settings of mine that  feed my decision styles, prime my cognitive biases and affect the experiences I have had in life.

Sometimes, before examining WHAT we think it is perhaps more instructive to examine HOW we think.   I hope this post helps with that.  Temperament deeply influences both how and what we “know”.

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Why I left Homeopathy

I saw lots of patients get better with homeopathy. Rashes disappeared, aches and pains resolved, phobias improved and energy levels went up. I even treated an infertile couple and within 6 months, they conceived their first child which they named after me!

But many patients would just not return after 3 or 4 treatments and I would never know if they improved or not.  And as I reflected on the cures, I saw that they were mostly on those with normally self-limited maladies or with vague symptoms.  From the beginning I was skeptic but my skepticism grew.

After practicing Homeopathy for two years, I decided to test my skepticism. I went through some 200 charts of patients I had managed by myself and did a tally of those with significant improvement, non-impressive improvement and no improvement. I also kept track of the severity of the condition and if I felt it was self-limited or had a large psychological component.

Many of you will be unsurprised to hear that about 30% of my patients showed significant improvement. This is the rate we expect with placebo — and I was not treating patients with serious illnesses like cancer, insulin dependent diabetes, congestive heart failure, parkinson disease or the like.

I used that chart review information to give myself the courage to quit the clinic. “Why courage?”, you may ask: I had invested a lot of myself in homeopathy–a certification program, lots of books, intense study, 2-years of clinical practice,  colleague study groups, debates with lots of folks. But mostly, I liked my mentor a great deal and respected him. He had invested a lot of time to train me and encourage me.  So it was hard to disappoint him. But he was gracious and I left Homeopathy and never returned.

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Alternative Medicine is of the Devil

Alternative medicine is detested by many practitioners of Orthodox medicine.  This has changed somewhat over the last 20 years. But here are two of my personal stories related to that distain.

Alternative Medicine is of the Devil

My first job after PA school was in an Emergency Department in Seattle, Washington. No more than one month into the job I was called in the ER director’s office and told I was fired because two of the 10 ER docs did not like me.  Since I was still in my probation period, they could fire me for the way I combed my hair if they liked, so I had no recourse. So I asked “why?” and the director looked at me with embarrassment saying that those two complaining docs felt that my Oriental Medical training was interfering with my job.   I was also frankly told that the two doubting docs where born-again Christians who felt that Acupuncture and alternative medicines were deceptions of the devil and they did not want it in their workplace.  I was shocked again at the stupidity of the religion of which I was once a member — “Ah, yes, I thought.  I forgot that mentality.”

I was on incredibly good terms with all the other docs, that is why the director was embarrassment in confessing this superstitious grounds for dismissal.  Nonetheless, the company worked on consensus and since two docs could not agree on keeping me, I had to go.  One of the complaining Christian doctors was the night doc — a treasured commodity for any ER group because no one wants to work nights and so the night doc must always be kept happy no matter what baggage he/she comes with.  So they were firing me to keep his royal ass happy.

Long story short: I confronted the two docs on this issue.  After long conversations they finally agreed they had indeed never seen me practice alternative medicine or talk to ER patients about an alternative medicine.  They had only suspected I must because of my background. I reassured them that I too had great skepticism of the overreach of much of alternative medicine and they decided to let me stay.

Interestingly four years later, I had helped care for the health of both those doctor’s family members using alternative medicine.

Soft-Minded Alternative Medicine

Six years after PA school I was employed by a big HMO is Albany, New York.   I carried my own load of patients in their Internal Medicine Department.  Two months into the job, I was called before a group of doctors for possible firing because I was using alternative medicine. One doc institituted the investigation because I was telling patients about using alternating hot and cold soakings for sprained ankles.  It was just an excuse, of course, for like the docs in the first story, he just hated alternative medicine so much that he couldn’t stand to think that their clinic had a former acupuncturist working for them.

But he was right, my treatments were “alternative”.  (And, shhhh, this is a method we used in our Oriental Medical Clinics).  And the standard of practice in orthodox medicine at that time was cold soaking for 2 days and then warm soaks thereafter.    So I came to the meeting with about ten high-quality recent studies showing that alternating was better. I handed copies to all four docs on the panel and I said, “I agree, I am doing alternative medicine, but only if by “alternative” you mean it is an alternate to the slow-changing, orthodoxy that is behind in current medical research.” Three of the docs smiled (they did not like the other doc much) and the accusatory doc said he understood but said he did not want to hear any more talk of soft-minded alternative systems in his clinic.  So they did not fire me and kept quiet.  Another lesson learned about the power of orthodoxy and objectivity.

You see, I did not talk about alternative medicine in the ER or the Internal Medicine clinic. But some people are so angry at alternative medicines that they just can’t think clearly or listen carefully when the topic comes up.  And these people consider themselves the epitome of scientific objective reasoning — yeah, right!   Much has changed in the last 20 years, but that was what it was like when I returned to the U.S.A. from Asia.  I still run into this distain occasionally but now that I am older with grey hair, have longer pedigree and a different air than in my youth, I can often escape the radar of the medical orthodoxy cops.

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Medical Therapy Effectiveness

The chart below is not based on research — but instead, is my intuitive, personal estimates for dialogue purposes.  Nonetheless, I feel that exposing my basic intuitions graphically can makes dialogue easier.  Below the chart I will give a brief explanations for each of my evaluations.

Preliminary Notes:

Placebo Benefit:  Even if a treatment is ineffective, placebo is the know positive effect due to expectation of both the patient and the practitioner.  I have chosen 30% as the basic baseline of this effect placebo — a common choice.  But placebo effect is complex and it is not my purpose to discuss it here — thus, this too could be a large mistake on this chart.

Ignored Harm:  Sham and unnecessary treatment result in harms which I do not  count the following into the “harm” category above.  They are important to consider, of course, but for simplicity, I have left them out of my intuitive calculus.

a) financial harm
b) false-hope harm
c) postponing or avoiding correct treatment with a false treatment

Treatment Summaries:

  • Homeopathy:  It offers hours of personal psychological insights that may give it that potential of 5% over placebo baseline of 30%.  But most homeopathy (OTC) has no psychological treatment.
  • Acupuncture:   I am not sure where research is at present, but it may help for a few conditions.
  • Manipulation Therapy:  helps relieve pain for several conditions.
  • Energy Healers:  Ineffective – only placebo effect
  • Herbal Therapy:   Herbs are drugs, some benefit and some harm.  Most are taken in too little quantity  and for wrong purpose to keep actually.  Some are given badly and cause harm.
  • Faith Healing:    Ineffective — only placebo effect
  • Primary Care Medicine:   Harm is cause by wrong prescriptions, inappropriate prescribing, side effects of meds, and the cure being worse than the treatment — to name a few.
  • General Surgery:  Harm is done when surgery done unnecessarily, anesthesia deaths, inapproriate surgeries, surgical mistakes.

Conclusion:

Here are the important points I am trying to illustrate by this graph are:

  • Alternative folks tend to look at harm
  • Orthodox folks so distain alternative medicine, they don’t want anyone to even mention benefit — even if placebo.
  • Orthodox folks lump all alternative medicines into the same category. (this is an orthodoxy hallmark)
  • There is often a trade of risk of harm for benefit (we all choose differently)

If you’ll notice, my points in this post parallel points concerning conversation between religious folks and non-religious folks as seen in my previous post on the harm & benefit of religions.  The deadlock dialogue between camps is similar too.

Question to readers:  Tell me your own intuition of the numbers or what sort of graph you’d draw.  Give me your arguments.  I am ready to change.

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Alternative Medicine & Weirdos

I graduated from a 3-year Oriental Medical College in Japan and passed the national certification boards.  After that training I did a 1-year graduate course in herbal medicine.  I worked at two famous Oriental Medical Clinics in Kyoto and Osaka and worked part-time at a National Hospital which had a wing dedicated to combining both Oriental medical and Occidental medical treatments.  I also ran my own clinic out of my house in Kyoto where I treated my patients with acupuncture, moxibustion, shiatsu and herbal medicine supplied by a local pharmacist.  My clinic was called the “Integrative Medical Clinic”.

But my medicine was far from integrative and I decided to study modern medicine to make “integrative” mean something.  So I returned to America with ambitions of combining Oriental Medicine and Western Medicine.  I entered Duke University’s  Physician Assistant program with hopes of eventually finding a physician group to pair up with to forge this alliance of two medicines.

My training in Japan showed me that many herbal formulas are helpful for autoimmune diseases. So I bought about $4,000 worth of herbs and set up relations with Japanese pharmacies to get ready to import and export.  But over the next three years I could not find anyone who was interested in taking Japanese herbs.  People who tried them complained that they were too bitter or too much effort to prepare.  Also, the people who were drawn to having acupuncture were very strange.  People who were interested told me about how they really believed in acupuncture — but I didn’t care, either it worked or it didn’t.   Clients wanted to talk about past lives, auras and the mystical experiences they had.

Of course the more exaggerated their magical world, the more dramatic the effects of my first treatments.  This was not the people I wanted to treat.  I soon became very disillusioned with treating these people.  I could not get anyone to take herbs and had to throw away my investment.

My patients in Japan were not weird.  They were from the normal population.  They did not look at acupuncture as magic, did not talk about auras or past lives.  They just wanted their arms better or their rashes gone.  But here in American (back in those days), alternative medicine drew a strange crowd.

Then I jumped out of the fire, into the frying pan.  After giving up on acupuncture, I then studied Homeopathy and became a certified practitioner working with two MDs in a clinic.  The types of clients drawn to that sort of clinic had disproportional more personality disorders and neuroses than other medical practices I worked in.  It seemed that alternative medicine drew nuts.  OK, there were lots of cool, mentally-healthy folks there too but the wacky folks really shined.  So after 3 years, I stopped Homeopathy.

Weirdos are not the only reason I stopped practicing alternative medicine but it was part of the reason.  In future posts I hope to describe other reasons.

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