Healing in a pin-prick

Writer seeks stress relief through acupuncture

Ellie Schafer of Chico Community Acupuncture places a needle in the author’s leg.

Ellie Schafer of Chico Community Acupuncture places a needle in the author’s leg.


The people’s acupuncture:
Visit pocacoop.com to learn about the People's Organization of Community Acupuncture and the national community acupuncture movement.

With the work week weighing heavily on my shoulders—or at least making them really tense—I badly needed to relax. So I did something that, for me, was experimental.

I’d meant to try acupuncture since meeting Olivia Peters-Lazaro and Ellie Schafer, both of Chico Community Acupuncture, on a guided hike in Butte Meadows earlier this summer. The tension in my upper back has been a recurring problem, likely due to a combination of stress and many hours spent sitting hunched over a computer keyboard. (Yes, I actually chose this profession.) I’ve been fairly proactive by treating it with exercise, stretching and using a foam roller, but recently my discomfort was such that I decided to try a fresh approach—i.e., being stuck full of needles.

Schafer was at the front desk when I walked into CCA on Mangrove Avenue. She had me fill out an intake form that included questions about my health history and use of substances, such as alcohol (check) and caffeine (double check). Otherwise, my health record is clean and free of disease, injury and major surgery, and I’m a relative spring chicken at 27 years old. I circled the upper back as an area of discomfort and listed “general stress” as my condition.

Before ushering me into the treatment room, Schafer told me to turn off my cellphone and to communicate by whispering once inside (“community acupuncture” means group treatment). The room was open, dimly lit and lined with several linen-draped recliner chairs; two were occupied by fellow patients, both of whom appeared comatose. I picked a chair and leaned back, feeling better already after having realized I’d left work midday essentially to take a nap.

The communal setting is an integral part of CCA’s mission to make acupuncture accessible, Peters-Lazaro, the owner, explained during a follow-up interview. The isolating aspects of modern health care—sitting in a waiting room for an eternity, and then moving to a smaller, more sterile room to wait alone—can be a disempowering experience for patients.

“Community acupuncture takes the isolation out of disease, out of pain,” she said.

Speaking of pain, naturally I’d wondered what being punctured would feel like. I don’t have an undue fear of needles and didn’t balk at the prospect of being poked by many at once, but I was slightly alarmed when Schafer said she’d be placing the first two needles on my ears.

“My ears?” I raised an eyebrow.

Schafer nodded and smiled, maybe sensing my surprise. I shrugged and gestured for her to go ahead, so she dabbed a bit of alcohol on my skin and inserted the needles. I hardly felt them, or any of the next 12 she placed around my body—four in my left arm, two in my right, and three in each leg. (I learned later that the needles usually aren’t placed in the specific area of pain or discomfort, but rather on strategic points elsewhere on the body to increase circulation where it’s needed.) She recommended I lie like that for at least 20 minutes.

The needles weren’t painful, or even uncomfortable, really—just noticeable. I could feel each individual pin if I focused, but when I didn’t it was like they weren’t there. I must have dozed a little, because I was surprised when Schafer returned and said it had been 25 minutes. She encouraged me to come back, adding that it usually takes more than one visit for newbies to get a sense of how to incorporate acupuncture into their lives.

On my way out, I realized the tension in my back was gone. What’s more, I had a late-afternoon flurry of creativity at work and felt energized the rest of the evening, especially during a few games of ultimate disc in Lower Bidwell Park.

Young, healthy people often feel positive effects after one or two treatments, Peters-Lazaro said, especially if their ailment is minor, whereas an elderly adult suffering from chronic pain or disease might need more comprehensive treatment. For my situation, she recommended using acupuncture as a “tune-up or reset button” every once in a while, or after a particularly stressful day.

“Acupuncture is a fantastic tool for managing stress,” she said. “It puts you into a deep state of relaxation. That often has to do with acupuncture’s general effect of reducing pain and inflammation. If you reduce your stress and the inflammation in your body, you’re going to be feeling a lot better.”

Most of all, Peters-Lazaro encourages everyone to take an active role in managing their health and seeking treatment when they know they need it.

“Our health care system makes everyone else an expert,” she said. But that’s not so at CCA. “Even just choosing your own chair, choosing when you stop your treatment, you telling us what’s the most important concern for you today, that puts that power back into your hands. It’s important for people to feel like they know the most about their own health.”