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HIGHLAND — I've always been curious about acupuncture: how it works, how it feels, why people do it.

So, in my role as the Times' health-and-fitness guinea pig, I felt it was my duty to try it.

That's how I found myself late last month laying on a massage table, needles sticking out of my extremities, my chest, my stomach.

When I arrived at Highland Acupuncture earlier that day, acupuncturist Tim Schlank, asked me what I wanted to work on. I told him I had a bum shoulder.

He took my pulse. He told me some other problems I had: kidney inflammation, a "hot" stomach, "deep," weak lungs. He said these indicated I had some neck issues, acid reflux, allergies. He was right. How he could tell this from feeling from pulse I still don't know.

He said the problems were with my qi or chi (pronounced: chee), essentially my energy flow, which he says affects the functionality of my organs. In medical terminology, he calls qi "the oxygen and nutrition that blood carries throughout the body and makes it healthy."

While acupuncture may be new to me, it's very old. Starting in China thousands of years ago, it's been used, its practitioners say, to cure a variety of ailments.

"It helps the body heal itself," said Jason Wilson, an acupuncturist with Alternative Healing Works in Dyer. 

Science has borne some of this out. The National Institutes of Health have analyzed a number of studies, finding that acupuncture may help reduce chronic pain — for instance, in the lower back, neck and knee — and ease tension and migraine headaches.

The institutes, however, say the mechanisms on the brain and body and just beginning to be understood, noting that "expectation and belief" may play just as much of a role as the needling.

While many doctors still deride acupuncture as pseudoscience, others embrace it. Academic medical centers such as Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Hospital offer acupuncture, as do, locally, Franciscan Alliance and Porter Health Care System. Some state Medicaid programs (Indiana is not one) are even covering acupuncture as a way to curtail the opioid epidemic.

Ancient Eastern medicine meets modern Western medicine

There are also so-called medical acupuncturists: medical doctors who mesh Western and Eastern medicine.

For instance, Dr. Kalpana Doshi, a medical acupuncturist in Munster, mixes needling with electrical stimulation. She said the most common ailments she treats are chronic pain, as well as stress, anxiety, insomnia, muscle spasms and menopausal symptoms.

She explained the physiology behind acupuncture. She said the needles, applied to so-called pressure points, stimulate the brain and spinal cord to release endorphins, the "feel good" hormone that acts as a natural painkiller. She said the needle pricks increase blood flow to those areas, promoting healing and muscle relaxation.

After my examination, it was on to the table. I lay down, and Schlank got to poking. He placed the needles at various pressure points, around my torso and extremities, that corresponded to other areas of my body.

"This is like getting the kinks out of garden hoses that are blocking water to a garden," Schlank said, adding that acupuncture is meant to correct a "pattern of disharmony."

He said the needles might sting briefly but that the pain shouldn't last. I jumped a few of the times he jabbed me with needles; it hurt a little more than I expected (though I'm not sure what I expected given that I was going to be stabbed with sharp objects).

The pain mostly wore off, and Schlank turned off the lights and left the room. And I relaxed.

After about 45 minutes, Schlank re-entered the room and removed the needles. He tested out my shoulder pain.

Some regionites swear by its health benefits

It seemed to have improved, I thought. How much of that was a placebo effect, I don't know, but it felt a little better in the days to come.

Like any health regimen, it likely would take multiple treatments to determine if it actually worked (Schlank says it generally requires five to eight treatments, at about $60 a pop). If nothing else, though, it has little in the way of side effects.

Some people who do acupuncture in the Region swear by it.

Tasha Mayfield, of Dolton, had such severe migraines that she considered going on opioid painkillers. She desperately didn't want to do that, so she opted for acupuncture.

Starting in February, she went to Schlank in Highland three times a week for the first couple months, then monthly.

"I haven't a migraine or headache in about 2 1/2 months," said Mayfield, who is 44 and works in human resources.

Patti Maya, of Munster, first tried it after visiting Austin, Texas, where her daughter's roommate was going to school for it. After not getting relief from migraine headaches, she made an appointment with Schlank.

At her intake, he learned about her gastrointestinal issues. As Chinese medicine isn't just about inserting needles into the skin, he gave her some Chinese herbs and recommended a plant-based diet. She, in turn, gave up red meat, and said her stomach symptoms went away.

As for the acupuncture, Maya says her migraines disappeared after about a month of the treatments. She stopped taking the medication she was on for the headaches.

"This affected my life, and I've got my life back," said Maya, 71, a retired nurse. "I can keep up with my grandkids now."

She just wonders why Medicare doesn't cover acupuncture, when it was more than willing to pay for a expensive pharmaceutical that didn't'work.

One insurance that does cover acupuncture — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois and Pipefitters are a couple others — is the Veterans Affairs health plan.

William Holiday, of Lansing, was referred to an acupuncturist by his VA doctor after steroid and cortisone injections, opioids and a spinal cord stimulator didn't relieve his back pain.

He claims it went away after one treatment.

"I didn't think it was going to work. I didn't believe it," said Holliday, 73, a retired elevator mechanic. "I changed my mind."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.