For nearly 4,000 years, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has helped to relieve people of chronic illness, mysterious ailments and a host of issues that have inhibited their health. TCM incorporates a holistic approach to wellness by taking into consideration not just the symptoms as they are exhibited, but the body as a whole: how it exists in the natural world, how energy flows through it and how it is functioning in its entirety. Based on theories of “qi” (pronounced “chee”), or the vital energy/life force we all possess, acupuncture recognizes qi as the governing factor to not just physical health, but emotional, spiritual and mental well-being.
Through acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Medicine, qi gong, nutrition-based on Eastern principles and tui na, TCM helps to bring qi back to balance, thereby healing the body’s ailments and helping the patient to feel better. Though my own extensive health struggles in my 20s had led me to discover the myriad benefits of TCM, when I recently began presenting with head-to-toe skin issues, I took the circuitous route back to this ancient practice. Here’s what happened when I tried acupuncture for my skin issues—and what I learned about my emotional well being in the process.
The Problem: Itchy, Red, Angry Skin
In late November of this past year, I glanced in the mirror with a sense of dread. For any of you who have battled perioral dermatitis (PD), you know the feeling: the impending doom that accompanies the first spot of raised, itchy skin near your nose or mouth. I knew what it was, and I knew it would get worse. And it did: Red, blistering, itchy skin bubbled up, then flaked and peeled, only getting angrier as the weeks wore on. I followed my standard protocol for PD breakouts but, though my skin had begun to calm down, it continued to “molt” several times a day.
Desperate for a quicker solution, I headed to my dermatologist’s office. She leaned in, tsked, and confirmed it was PD. Off I went with a prescription for four weeks of antibiotics, a sickening feeling in my gut—but nothing my vanity couldn’t silence. I was exhausted from feeling self-conscious about my face. So I took the antibiotics without a fight—all four weeks worth.
At the end of the month, my face had cleared. I was elated! Until one night, I lay in bed, my chest and throat feeling as though fire ants had invaded my sheets. By the morning, my shins felt just as itchy and hot. Could I be having a delayed reaction to the antibiotics? Back I shuffled to my dermatologist, who patted me on the arm and told me no, I didn’t have a systemic fungal infection from the meds; that I wasn’t, and I quote, “that exciting.” It was dermatitis, she told me. Possibly eczema.
More prescriptions, this time for steroid cream—and a recommendation that I see an allergist. After an appointment with the allergist that ended with another prescription for a bigger tube of steroid cream, I knew it was time to follow my gut. Vanity may have silenced my intuition for a few months, but now I was covered in red, scaly, angry patches all over my body and losing sleep from scratching. My gut was screaming at me to pay attention and do what would really resonate. It was time for me to head East, toward an acupuncturist who would see the whole picture.
The Solution: Five Elements Acupuncture
I sought the expertise of an acupuncturist who uses a Five Elements approach. Though not as common as other types of acupuncture, Five Elements Acupuncture is an ancient tradition that has been extremely effective in healing some of my previous ailments that other doctors could not treat. Based upon nature’s five elements (fire, earth, metal, water, wood), Five Elements works to treat underlying causes of disease by taking into account the patient’s constitution, then learning how certain factors manifest in the body and cause symptoms of imbalance. For me, those causes are more often than not emotional stressors that present as physical ailments, be they chronic stomach issues, recurring migraines or most recently, head-to-toe rashes.
During the first few moments of our initial appointment, my acupuncturist, Paul, sat across from me in a folding chair, gently holding my wrist and taking my pulse with his own fingers (no blood pressure cuff or watch in sight), then had me stick out my tongue for a quick examination. He asked me why I was there, and I pulled up my pant leg to show him the raised rash, now about five inches long, that had taken up residence on my left shin. I held out my arms, displaying the nickel-sized red spots that dotted from wrist to shoulder, and pulled my short sleeve away, revealing an armpit so raw it had started to crack and bleed. Finally, I pointed to my chest and throat, where the skin had changed texture completely—it was thick and scaly to the touch. I felt like a lizard, I told him.
Paul smiled gently, then asked if I had been creative lately. Was I making time to honor my creativity, or was I putting everyone else’s needs before my own? I sat back in my chair, the cool metal seeping through my t-shirt. This, I thought, is exactly what my inner doctor ordered. He sensed I had gotten very far away from myself; that I had lost my spark. I nodded tearfully in agreement. “Well,” he said. “Then we need to help you reclaim your spirit, your life force.”
He told me about my Constitutional Factor, and explained that the armpit was the point of the Utmost Source, where heart spirit enters the body. After talking for nearly 40 minutes about my current lifestyle, my symptoms, my understanding of Five Elements and some serious spiritual deep-diving, it was time for the treatment. As I lay on the table on my stomach (to let go of what I had been carrying, Paul explained), he gently applied the needles (about as thin as a single human hair) to help my qi regain its flow. He left the room so I could relax, the sounds of recorded lapping waves filling my ears.
Twenty minutes later, he returned to remove the needles. Then, he had me roll onto my back—now that I had faced the earth to let go of what no longer served me, I was ready to face my heart to the sky and welcome Spirit—and reapplied the needles at different points. As he departed this time, I began to feel as if I were floating off the table while being simultaneously grounded in the most comforting embrace. I felt my lungs expand and breathed in and out fully and slowly. I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, Paul gently held my wrist again, feeling for my pulse. “Welcome back, Amy,” he smiled. “There you are.”
When I left Paul’s office, I carried that heady sensation with me all the way to the subway. On the way home, I had difficulty keeping my eyes open, but I wasn’t exhausted in the same way I’d been over the last several months—it was a sense of total relaxation. Several hours later, I rolled up my pant legs to peek at my shins, which hadn’t itched since I had been on the table. I was astonished to see that the red, angry patches were faded to a muted pink; they were no longer raised and now felt smooth to the touch. My arms were completely clear, as was my chest and throat. As I peeled back my shirt to examine my underarms, I was shocked to find that the skin there was now barely pink at all. In a single session, I had achieved more dramatic results than months worth of doctor’s appointments and tubes of steroid cream had.
It’s been several months since I tried acupuncture for my skin issues. I’ve been back a couple of time since, as some days my shins still flare up. Others, my armpits itch and burn. I’ve been keeping a journal so I can pinpoint the connection between my emotions and my skin issues. Without fail, when I am not making time for my creative pursuits, when I’m putting other’s needs before my own, or when my negative self talk gets the upper hand, my skin responds in kind; my body will always remind me what my mind wants to ignore. I try to remember Paul’s words of wisdom and bring back the breath I practice on the acupuncture table. Though my skin is not perfect, it’s getting better—with the power of my mind, body and spirit and the help of an ancient healing practice. I’ll take that over a tube of steroid cream, any day.
Curious about trying other alternative healing modalities? Read this to learn more about one woman’s journey to health through a specialized diet.