Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pins and Needles

Today I went with a coworker, Maddie, to Mangwolsa to get acupuncture done.

The different attitudes about medicine across the hemispheres surprised me, although I don't know why it did. I guess in my imperialist American paradigm, Western medicine prevailed across all of the developed nations and that only poor, backwoods cultures and/or old, superstitious people clung to more traditional medicine.

But no, here acupuncture is totally legitimate and covered under my state-sponsored insurance, so my visit cost all of 5,300 won. That's about $4.50 (currency rates changed when I wasn't looking). Let me repeat that: I paid less than $5 to see a doctor. Wrapping my mind around that is taking some adjustment, never mind that this doctor was a practitioner of what would be "alternative" medicine in the US.

We hopped the bus to Mangwolsa and loitered in front of the entrance until it opened at 9.30. Maddie had been before and so had records; I had to fill out a little slip of paper with my name, marital status, birthday, and blood type. You could see a kitchen from the lobby, where nurses were mixing up traditional Chinese medicine. Whatever they were using triggered my asthma at one point, and I started coughing and wheezing rather noticeably. The granny sitting next to me smiled and asked me something in Korean, and I felt like a big dumb foreigner.

The asthma attack passed, and eventually I went in to see the doctor (who spoke fairly good English) to explain what was going on. I told him that my shoulders and upper back were still a bit tense from an incident a few months ago where I tried to lift a heavy table. Between that and stress at the hagwon tensing me up from time to time, I could start to feel my muscles scrunching in unnatural ways. He nodded and made a few circles on a chart showing the different meridians, notes to himself. The doctor squeezed my shoulder and back in a few places, asking what hurt and what felt fine. Then he took both of my wrists in his hands and spent a few minutes listening to my pulse. All this was enough to prescribe a course of action.

He led me to another room, very sterile and hi-tech looking. There were a few hospital style beds hooked up to machinery. The nurse pulled the privacy curtain and told me to take my shirt off. Face down on the bed (comfy pillow included!), I nearly fell asleep—I had been up since 7:00 in the morning.

Before the needles came what the nurses called "physical therapy," better known among the ESL teachers as "the cups." They look really gross so I'm not going to embed an image, but if you check Google image search for "acupuncture cups" you'll find it easily enough. The idea is—I think—to draw out the bad blood, Like Medieval leeches, but not as gross. I'm not entirely convinced they actually sucked any blood any out of me, but my arm went kind of tingly like when I give blood, so maybe. In any case, the cups lasted for a few eternities. Sometimes it felt good, like a massage, but other times it almost hurt. Once in a while in must have it some kind of pressure point (I had three, or four, all along my upper back), because my right arm would start twitching and shaking uncontrollably.

If the cups were the opening act, then the needles were the headliner. Compared to the cups, the needles were no big thing at all—though I have years of allergy shots to thank for my relative apathy towards needles. I could barely feel them. The doctor came in after the nurse cleared off the cups and stuck me like a pin cushion: a handful of needles scattered across my upper back, one each on the back of my knees, and one each by my elbows. Once he was finished, he turned on a heat lamp and left me to bake for a while. I zoned out, enjoying the warmth on my bare skin, barely registering the mellow nature sounds and muzak in the background.

After a while, the doctor came back for his needles and informed me that my session was over. He left me to put a shirt back on and suggested I come in this Saturday for a follow-up session. I said sure.

So, the burning question: did it help my back at all? The answer is: uncertain. The rest of the day I was certainly more conscious of my back and made sure to keep it from tensing up. I didn't feel magically better. But during the process I felt a weird buzzing in places throughout my body, mostly up and down my left side, so I don't know what that was all about. We'll see how the follow-up session goes.


  1. as a read this, i flashed back on the memory of my 4-year-old going for allergy testing ....
    did you go see a movie after acupuncture? :)

  2. Were you able to see over the counter without standing on your tippy toes?