The room is darkened, and flute music plays softly. Then I barely feel the first stick.
Acupuncture needles are very tiny, just the thickness of a few hairs — not at all the vast implement some people think of when they envision acupuncture.
By the third stick, I feel an overwhelming desire to close my eyes. A fourth stick, and I am left alone — just me, the needles and the low hum of Southland Drive traffic outside. Fifteen minutes later, my eyes open and the perpetual knot between my shoulders has untangled.
Before this very minor acupuncture experience, Kathleen Fluhart read the pulses corresponding to various organs and body systems on each arm. She read the pulses before and after the treatment by gently pressing various points around the wrist and lower arm.
For those undergoing a full acupuncture treatment, the experience might involve several treatments with the one-use, variable-size needles — one size for digestive problems, say, one for pain and one "seasonal" treatment, which is a sort of tune-up for all body systems that Fluhart recommends that patients receive five times a year.
"It's a really gentle form of medicine, even though there's needles," said Fluhart, a nurse who first became interested in acupuncture after hearing about it in the 1970s. "It just made sense," she said.
Elizabeth Armstrong practiced conventional medicine for 17 years before leaving internal medicine to practice acupuncture full-time in downtown Lexington.
For her, the irony was that the first formal exposure she had to acupuncture came when she took a class as a lark. Soon, she was not only convinced of acupuncture's efficacy but eager to share it.
In her Dudley Square office, Armstrong runs two acupuncture rooms. She also does specialized skull acupuncture, which she said is useful for recovery from neurological-related conditions such as brain injury.
"It's not a cure-all, but it is so amazing for certain things," Armstrong said of the acupuncture process. "It's amazing for sinus and allergy stuff."
Other conditions that Armstrong said can be helped by acupuncture treatment include fatigue from chemotherapy and radiation treatments, tendinitis and plantar fasciitis.
There are at least 362 places on the body where an acupuncturist can insert a needle to balance the flow of xi, or body energy, which in Chinese medicine flows in meridians throughout the body.
Top-flight cancer treatment centers, including Houston's University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Boston's Dana Farber Institute, now offer acupuncture to cancer patients. Anderson cites acupuncture's help in managing common side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea, vomiting, pain, neuropathy, dry mouth, bowel and digestion problems, hot flashes and fatigue.
Many insurance plans do not pay for integrative treatments such as massage and acupuncture, but Armstrong said the University of Kentucky's HMO pays for her services with a patient co-pay, which gives her a strong patient base to mix with those who pay by the visit.
Acupuncture points are quite precise, Fluhart said. A patient who complains of waking during the night will be asked to specify what time he or she awakens, because "each meridian has a two-hour time."
Many who have never had acupuncture think of the treatment as a remedy solely for pain, Fluhart said, but she treats health problems as diverse as fertility problems and allergies.
At Fluhart's practice, Artemesia Community Acupuncture, a patient's first visit is two hours. The first hour is dedicated to getting to know the patient's health history and their personal history — including family and pets. The second hour is treatment.
"That's when you really bond with somebody," Fluhart said.
At Armstrong's practice, 60 to 90 minutes are allotted for new patients.
Acupuncture is widely recognized as effective and seems somewhat intuitive, but its practitioners undergo rigorous training. Fluhart studied for three years at a school in Gainesville, Fla., to qualify.
For a swollen knee, she said, she puts needles in the opposite elbow, then she adjusts them until the patient feels relief.
Juggling a busy schedule and waiting for her first patient on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Armstrong said: "I don't miss internal medicine one bit."