Japan makes a point with acupuncture

Japan makes a point with acupuncture

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

The Land of Rising Sun is home to various forms of oriental therapies, such as hari (acupuncture), kyuu (moxibustion) and shiatsu (finger pressure treatment), used to relieve aches, pains, tension, fatigue and symptoms of disease. Among these therapies, acupuncture is especially popular and commonly used among Japanese.

I have had acupuncture more than 10 times, the first being some 20 years ago after I strained my lower back. One of my friends recommended the therapy and assured me that it would relieve the pain almost immediately. Back then, the image of thick, long needles being inserted into my body made me a tad bit scared. I’m the guy who cringed at the thought of getting a flu shot or getting blood drawn from my arm.

But, I was in pain and could barely walk without the help of a friend. So, despite my fears, I went anyway.

I was nervous when the acupuncturist told me he was going to insert 12 needles into me, explaining that they would be placed from my upper legs to the middle of my back. I wondered if the 12 needles might be 12 times as painful as a flu shot. My mind filled with bad scenarios, all of them involving pain. 

I laid face down on the bed as needles were tapped into the skin of my back.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

You know what? It was not as painful as I expected. In fact, the needles felt like little insect bites.

I was asked to stay still for 10 to 15 minutes so the needles could work their magic. Then the acupuncturist removed the needles one after another. He did it very quickly.

To my surprise, it was effective. I was not able to walk without my friend’s help before the procedure. But there I was after the less than one-hour session standing and walking. The pain had decreased significantly.

Since then, I have visited an acupuncturist when suffering from back pain or muscle aches.

Many of my friends and coworkers also have also undergone acupuncture for musculoskeletal problems, including lower back pain, shoulder stiffness and knee pain.
Ayako Kamio, a graphic designer of Stars and Stripes, is one of them.

She started visiting an acupuncturist to relieve her muscle aches after practicing on a Wadaiko drum.

“As I had suffered from chronic stiff shoulders, one of my Wadaiko colleagues recommended that I see an acupuncturist,” said Kamio, who like me, noticed the quick and visual effects of therapy.

“It immediately removes the pain,” she said. “I could see the results after each session of therapy, and that drove me to go back for more.”

Thousands of sufferers, particularly those with chronic complaints such as headaches, rheumatism or neuralgia, know that acupuncture has worked where drugs and surgery have not, according to Akira Oikawa, a licensed acupuncturist who worked at a pain clinic for three years.

However, I only visit an acupuncturist when I have back, muscle or shoulder pain. For any other symptoms, I head straight to a hospital.

Although acupuncture can be painful, a sufficiently skilled practitioner using modern instruments may be able to insert the needles without causing any pain. They use stainless needles with a plastic guide tube for safety and cost performance reasons, according to Oikawa.

“Needles may be manipulated in various ways, including spinning, flicking, or moving up and down relative to the skin,” Oikawa said. “We use an extremely thin needle, like a hair, which is surrounded by a guide tube that is used superficially.”

In Japan, to perform acupuncture, one must have a license. So, any licensed acupuncturist in Japan studied and mastered the skills through a three-year vocational school.

According to Oikawa, acupuncture is generally safe when done by an appropriately trained practitioner who uses clean, single-use needles. “When improperly delivered, however, it can cause adverse effects,” he said.

“I hear about a couple of incidents a year, most related to injured lungs when a needed goes in too far,” Oikawa said. “When a needle injures a lung, it can cause a serious injury. You can imagine what would happen when you insert a needle into a balloon.”

There’s more to finding a good practitioner than just seeing if he’s certified, Oikawa stressed.

“You need to find a practitioner who matches your personality and understands your physical problems,” he said “Building a good relationship with him really helps the overall therapy.”
Kamio agreed with this assertion.

“The personality of an acupuncturist is as important as his skill and capability,” she said. “After you go to an acupuncturist for a while, he’ll learn your physical condition and knows where the pain is by simply touching the muscles. You don’t even have to say a word.”

But how does a foreigner go about doing that?

“It may be better for you to ask someone to introduce a good acupuncturist, rather than seek one yourself,” Kamio said.


What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a treatment where you stimulate tsubo (specific acupuncture points) along the skin of the body by inserting thin needles. According to the theory of acupuncture, there are about 600 tsubo in a body. Because the body’s energy flows along the meridians, manipulating the special points should unblock these channels, allowing the affected areas to be properly supplied, according to Akira Oikawa, a licensed acupuncturist. As this energy is divided into two opposite but complementary forces - yin (negative) and yang (positive) - a balance between the two elements is necessary for one to be healthy. Acupuncture helps reestablish this required balance. The treatment is based on old Chinese medical practices.

How much does it cost?
An hour acupuncture therapy can run between 5,000 and 6,000 yen. The fee varies depending on the numbers of needles applied during the therapy.

Where do I go?
There are 63,127 pain clinics in Japan.

How many times do I have to go?
Oikawa doesn’t think one session is enough. “The effect of therapy last only a couple of days,” he said. “So, to make the effectiveness continue or to cure the pain completely, you need to come back for another session of acupuncture at least once a week for a couple of months.”

You did what during an earthquake?
Oikawa was applying needles to a patient when the gigantic East Japan Earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011. “I was upset and scared,” Oikawa said. “I told the patient that we’d wait to remove the needles till after the quake ended. But the quake didn’t stop. I had no choice but remove the needles as quickly as possible while the patient and everything in the clinic was shaking. I had to make sure I didn’t leave any needles in the patient.”


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