For a long time, I tried to identify any ailment that would allow me to test out acupuncture and see if it “really” works. I was fascinated with the idea of it. So I attempted it a few times with different practitioners, but nothing ever seemed to stick (no pun intended). And then I met Molly Shapiro.

Molly is one of the warmest and most nurturing souls I know. Honestly, even if I didn’t see her for acupuncture, I’d probably schedule appointments for therapy– I always feel better physically, emotionally and spiritually after I’ve spent time with her. And then there is the amazing acupuncture “high;” as one of my friends says, “Acupuncture drunk is the best kind of drunk.”

Because Traditional Chinese Medicine can often seem mysterious to the lay Western mind, I asked Molly to provide a bit of an overview of the science. Here’s what she had to say:

In a nutshell, what is acupuncture?

I practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); acupuncture is one tool used by practitioners of TCM. Others include herbal medicine and dietary therapy. Acupuncture helps to ignite the body’s own self-healing mechanisms by inserting thin needles at various points along specific channels or meridians. In this way, qi is regulated, blood is circulated, and yin and yang are balanced. Qi is a difficult word to translate in English, but yogis might understand it as “prana.”

In the simplest terms, what is the difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine?

TCM is a system of medicine based on yin and yang, qi and blood, and patterns in nature. While it’s not based on the scientific method as we know it here in the Western world, it is based on science and is a complete and predictable system.

This might serve as a way to illustrate what I mean: if a body system has too much heat, there will be dryness. The treatment principle is, therefore, to clear heat and nourish yin (fluids). So, for example, a patient might come to me complaining of constipation. His or her urine might be dark yellow and have stool that is dry, hard, bound, and difficult to pass.

BB NOTE: One cannot be embarrassed to talk about bodily function with your TCM therapist!

Treatment strategies might include circulating qi and blood to move stagnation and release heat with acupuncture. It might also include recommending foods that will clear heat (e.g. spinach), avoiding foods that will further damage yin (e.g. hot spicy foods), adding foods or herbs that will help to soften hardness and promote a smooth bowel movement (e.g. salt or herbal prescription).

I would also inquire as to the source of this heat. Does the patient practice hot yoga daily? Sweat frequently in a sauna? Eat a lot of spicy food? Harbor feelings of anger and frustration? Once the source of heat is identified, lifestyle recommendations can be made to support the TCM therapies (practice more cooling yoga, reduce sauna usage, reduce spicy food/include more cooling foods, address the internal emotional tension, etc.).

In contrast, a Western solution to a similar presentation of constipation tends to be more aggressive and acute (e.g. take a stool softener). While the bowels may move (hopefully not too strongly!), the underlying mechanism causing the blockage is usually not addressed, and the strong methods of purging through the use of medication might further aggravate the condition.

I would also like to add that I am not anti-Western medicine. I think there is a need for both modalities. If I fall off of my bike and break my arm, please do not send me to my acupuncturist – I would like to go straight to the ER, thank you! In general, though, I do think a lot of things (such as antibiotics and hormones) are prescribed too liberally in our culture. So I educate my patients on options for chronic conditions they present.

It sounds like nutrition is a big part of the way you treat people. Can you talk a little more about that?

Dietary therapy is part of Chinese culture. When children get sick in China, parents “treat” them with food therapies like ginger, cinnamon, onion, broth, etc. Living in accordance with the seasons includes eating more warming food in the cold months and cooling foods in the hot months. Additionally, diet should adjust and adapt to address illness, age, and constitutional tendencies. Ideal diets are not a “one size fits all” model; the way we eat should change throughout the course of the year and a life.

How do you make a diagnosis?

Most people have more than one organ system that is involved in their chief complaint or presenting pattern(s). An in-depth examination is performed in which:

  • The pulse is felt for strength, fullness, quality, depth, and rate;
  • The tongue is examined for moisture, color, demarcations, and coating; and
  • Questions are asked in regards to sleep, digestion, energy, emotions, and pain.

From there, a treatment plan is devised.

When choosing a therapist, what should we look for and what should we be wary of?

There are some non-licensed acupuncturists now practicing “dry needling.” Usually these are physical therapists or chiropractors with minimal training on clean/proper needle technique and NO training in Chinese medical theory.

Current regulations only require a minimum of 12-54 hours of training for non-licensed acupuncturists, depending on the state. By comparison, I didn’t even touch a needle until my second year of acupuncture school, after I had already learned the foundations of TCM theory.

In the interest of public safety, the Maryland Acupuncture Society and other state associations are trying to raise the minimum standards of training for any non-licensed acupuncturist inserting needles. Until then, patients should be aware of the scope of practice of their practitioner. Finding a practitioner who is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine is a good place to start.

How did you come to learn about and want to practice acupuncture?

I get asked this question often. When I moved to San Diego 13 years ago, I had a “gray cubicle” job which required a lot of repetitive motion in the form of data entry. I developed an injury in which my forearms and wrists felt tired, tight, achy, and at times very painful. After receiving a diagnosis of tendonitis from a Western physician and pursuing “traditional” solutions – an ergonomically corrected office space, wrist braces and physical therapy – pain was still an issue. It even kept me from sleeping. Luckily, in California, acupuncture is covered by workers compensation. So I asked for and got a prescription.

During our first session, my acupuncturist asked me to trace where I felt my pain. When she showed me the large intestine channel on her wall chart, I was amazed to see it matched my area of pain.

After the second treatment, I had a significant reduction in pain. As my treatments continued, the pain relief lasted for longer periods of time. I also began taking herbs and made dietary adjustments to support my constitution and presenting patterns. After the immediate issue was resolved, we began to work deeper on my internal disharmonies relating to hormone imbalance, digestive weakness, and tendencies toward anxiety and depression. Those results were equally amazing.

I asked my acupuncturist so many questions she finally suggested I take a four-week “Introduction to Chinese Medicine” course. After the first hour of the first class, I knew I had to know more.

What does your practice specialize in?

My practice specialties are internal medicine, women’s health, chronic pain, and cancer support. I work with a lot of symptoms that are aggravated by stress, digestive complaints, lingering pain, and due to hormonal imbalances.

Do you have any examples of seeing first-hand the positive benefits of acupuncture on patients that you can share?

Many! I’ve helped patients transition off of long term steroid/immunosuppressive meds for digestive disease, eased chronic pain (after the patient has tried “everything else”), strengthened immune systems (this takes time, but is worth the investment), reduced the frequency and severity of colds/sinus infections as well as headaches and migraines, and established a menstrual period when there hadn’t been one for years – even decades.

Sometimes the results even surprise me. I saw a patient who had had lower abdominal pain for several years post-radiation. He reported a complete recovery from his pain after just one acupuncture treatment! I also often hear variations of, “I sleep/poop/feel so well after treatments.”

In the area of women’s health, I feel that Chinese Medicine has much to offer, and provides more tailored options than Western approaches. Fertility patients are particularly neat to work with. I’ve helped women achieve pregnancy who had been trying for over a year and who and experiences a multitude of issues – irregular menstrual cycles, advanced maternal age, complicated histories. Some of these women also used assisted reproductive therapy like IUI or IVF simultaneously with TCM. I think this is a case where eastern and western medicine can work in a very complementary fashion. The end result – when a woman tells me she is pregnant – is very gratifying.

In your mind, how do yoga and acupuncture work together? Are there synergies between the two?

I recommend yoga to a large number of my patients. On a physical level it helps to promote circulation in areas that may be tight and restricted. Ample and unimpeded flow of qi and blood is necessary for good health. Matching one’s movement to one’s breath also helps to ignite the parasympathetic nervous system (digestion, relaxation) and shut down the sympathetic nervous system (flight or fight). I believe these practices both help in overall stress-management and feeling our best.

How can people find out more about you and your practice?

My practice is located in Bethesda, MD. More information can be found at www.MBSacupuncture.com and I also have a blog: mbsacupuncture.wordpress.com.