After my friend with Raynaud’s told me she had some success with acupuncture, I decided to give my own Raynaud’s journey with acupuncture a try. Before sharing with you my experience to date, first a few caveats:
- There is to date no accepted clinical evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for alleviating Raynaud’s symptoms. I’ve found articles on the web both supporting and refuting trials using acupuncture to treat the condition. Our Medical Advisory Board suggests that study design for many alternative therapies is unreliable (small samples, inconsistent methodologies, etc.). So my voice on this subject is purely personal – I am not advocating acupuncture on behalf of the organization.
- The placebo effect can’t be ignored. In clinical trials, placebos have been reported to account for as much as 40% improvement in patients.
- No one treatment will work for everyone. Raynaud’s tends to be a very individual condition. For every sufferer who tells me a nutritional supplement or dietary regime worked for them, another ten will tell me it had no impact.
- Make sure your review all treatment strategies with your doctor first. You never know when medications or other issues will have negative interactions.
Now that we’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, I’d like to share with you my journey to date with acupuncture.
I started the treatments in late September of 2010 with an open mind. I don’t know what I expected: maybe a discussion about my Raynaud’s attacks followed by some needles inserted in my fingers and toes, but it wasn’t like that at all. My therapist spent a great deal of time not only understanding my Raynaud’s condition, but also a lot about me – my personality traits, my accomplishments, my family relationships, my history with stress – it was a lot more mind therapy than I expected. But then again, acupuncture is considered a mind/body treatment alternative, so I shouldn’t be that surprised.
As for the physical treatment, it’s been less about the needles, more about finding “where it hurts” and working toward releasing these areas so that the blood flow can follow. My therapist places her hands in certain regions of my body and asks me how it feels, determines how tight the muscles are, and proceeds with massaging these key points that can help release the tightness within. If I have an area that is extremely painful, she may use the needles, but not in great quantity and not every session. It’s all about what she thinks I need at that time.
One important component of the therapy is breathing, which makes sense. Breathing relates to oxygen coming into the body and the flow of it into our bloodstream. Raynaud’s patients suffer from the constriction and outflow of oxygen to the extremities and that’s what’s most dangerous for us. I find that long, controlled regular breathing helps release some of the tightness in my body as I’m massaged during the sessions, and so my therapist and I work as a team to release the constricted areas.
Each week I’m given homework. It started with finding a mental place to store a lot of the baggage from my past that programmed me to overachieve and strive for perfection in everything I do. Next it was to practice the breathing. Then I was shown ways to replicate certain massage actions myself during attacks to help get the blood flowing again. One is in the center of each palm; the other is on the outside of each lower thigh. The third week I was told to work on keeping my body from “clamming up” when cold – you know the position: Your whole body constricts, you pull your arms in around you and you start to shiver feeling victimized by exposure to the cold waiting for the worst.
In more recent sessions, homework includes allowing my body to “celebrate” successful events when I manage to avoid or reduce attacks. Another assignment is to witness situations that may normally trigger an attack (like watching a wind storm in a movie or listening to a rain storm out the window) and keep my body from again assuming the “clam-up position.”
The first week I was given the massage exercise, I went hiking with a friend. It was November, but fairly warm for that time of year. The temperature was in the 50’s and 60’s. I wore lots of layers and was able to take them off or put them on throughout the hike. Once we got going, I found I was even sweating at times (over dressed as I was!). We stopped in the late afternoon for a snack. I had taken off my outer layer and after a while, felt a chill and my hands going into an attack. I tried the massage exercise on the palm and was amazed – it worked instantly!
Over time, I’m finding the combination of the breathing and the massage techniques are working for me. Each week I return to my therapist and she tests my body for pain and tightness in the key areas, and each week we see more improvement – less pain, more relaxed muscles.
What I’m most enjoying about the process is that I feel empowered with these skills. If I feel an attack coming on, I have tools to offset the process. It doesn’t always work, but more often it does. It might be that the process of exercising these techniques helps me focus on something positive and distracts me from the cold and on-coming attack – I guess that’s possible. But I do believe it helps.
One big change for me is that I no longer find I “clam up” when I feel the cold outside. I keep my breath steady and am conscious of the cold, but don’t clinch up like I used to, and that by itself is a step in the right direction. Once you do that, you’ve given up, but I find these tools help me fight back.
I’m also developing defensive techniques before entering the cold. For example, I prepare myself for the temperature jolt before going outside by taking a deep breath as I open the door. This past winter, I just spent a week in New Hampshire and used this technique before each dog walk and it definitely helped.
This past winter my husband and I were viewing a house for sale in Connecticut that’s currently empty – so there’s no heat in the home. I wasn’t sure if there would be heat, but knew I’d want to walk part of the property, and the temperatures in this part of the country were frigid – plus the grounds were all snow covered from the last snow fall. So I brought along my warmest defense – a long Canada Goose down coat (it’s the best!). The coat and my deerskin Thinsulate lined mittens would have had a better shot at working if I’d been wearing them from the moment I left the car. The problem was I didn’t travel in the down coat – I was instead wrapped in an alpaca jacket. Once we arrived and confirmed there was no heat in the house, I had to make a quick change to the warmer coat, requiring that I remove at least one mitten to zip up. I was afraid this would be my downfall, but the result was rather promising.
We walked through the house, another out building, and part of the property. By then the fingers on one hand were starting to go, but it was not my normal reaction. Under most conditions for this length of time exposed to such cold temperatures, my toes would be numb and in pain, my hands frigid. Instead, I was aware that all digits were cold. The toes were not as bad as the hands – very unusual for me. And while the hands were cold, and one digit was almost numb (from the hand used for zipping my coat), I was not in pain. During the house visit, I kept massaging my hands as best I could under my mittens (tough to do by the way – more on this later). Finding the “sweet spot” on my thigh was impossible to do under my down coat, so I gave up on that strategy, but found it wasn’t really needed. I did practice my breathing exercises and all seemed to be helping. Throughout the time, I never reached that “panic” moment of clinching my body together against the cold and pain. The ironic thing is that our realtor found her toes were a real issue. She wasn’t wearing insulated boots and finally had to duck into her car before me to warm her feet. I felt victorious!
I’m now finding myself more often in situations where other people are having as much if not more of a problem with the cold as I am. A couple of months ago, I had a business meeting in a conference room that was so cold, I swore there was no heat coming through. It was positioned off of an open area that lead directly to the street, so every time someone entered the building, cold air rushed in. A few weeks later, I found myself in a similar situation at a restaurant inside Grand Central Station in NY. There was clearly no heat – even the waiter complained. What was different for me in these situations is that my reaction was totally different from the norm. In the past, I would have moved into “clam-up” position, experienced significant pain in my hands and toes, and have been totally distracted to the point of not being able to continue interacting effectively with the people I was meeting with for both events. As it turns out, both people sharing the cold with me complained more than I did. One even suggested completing our meal elsewhere, but – while I was aware of the cold I was not consumed by it. I was able to massage my hands, my toes were OK (maybe it was the Uggs?), and I was able to carry on a normal conversation, often forgetting about the temperature. Again, these were victories for me!
I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all been downhill from the start of this process. One weekend I lapsed and had a significant setback. We had company for dinner, and I didn’t want to disturb my husband or one of the guests to get ice from the freezer for drinks. I was tired of playing “helpless” in the kitchen (you know the role…), so I figured, let’s do it. I had some pain, but it wasn’t longstanding and I forgot about it. But during the week, I noticed my left hand, the one used for digging out the ice, was worse off than my right. I didn’t realize the reason for it until my next acupuncture session reviewing the week with my therapist. It was like an “aha!” when I connected the dots. No matter what treatments you undergo, remember that Raynaud’s is a conditioned response, and protecting yourself from exposure is still your first defense. The more you allow yourself to be exposed to cold and stress unprotected, the easier it is for the next attack to occur, and the more severe it may become over time. By repeatedly sticking my hand in the freezer for ice, I had triggered the memory in my body in a way it would take weeks to reprogram back to its previous levels. Once I realized the impact of this event, my therapist focused on the left hand and related constriction points in the body for two to three weeks. After that time, I was no longer aware of the left side being more susceptible to attacks than my right, so I have to assume we worked out the impact of the earlier trigger event.
My therapist and I continue on our journey. I’ve reached a point where I need to shift the massage points on my hands, as the ones we originally targeted are now open. So I’m now moving on to others that need similar attention on the outsides of the palm. Maybe one day in the future I’ll find I’m running out of constricted areas – wouldn’t that be amazing!
My experience tells me the importance of finding a therapist you really connect with, as he or she becomes your spiritual guide through this journey. As such, you need to be in sync communicating with one another or the experience will be greatly diminished. I tell my therapist everything my body experiences during our sessions together and that feedback guides her in where to focus on my body and to what degree. She has a sense of my progress and can detect what’s happening from week to week just by checking the tightness in key areas – just as a teacher can tell when a student hasn’t practiced their lessons or doesn’t understand the assignment.
The theory she shares with me each week continues to make practical sense. I’ve not needed to become an expert in the academic teachings behind acupuncture. Not that I don’t find it interesting, but I’m not prepared to spend hours learning the Chinese names for the body touch points, or the significance of certain areas controlling the gallbladder or the liver. I just want to learn how to get through life without being cold and uncomfortable most of the time.
One bonus extra from this experience is that I’m finding my personal life is becoming less stressed. That’s not a coincidence. I’m becoming more conscious of the pressures I allow myself to take on and am recognizing them just like I’m recognizing triggers when my body would normally clam up from exposure to the cold. And I find I have defenses now to fight against these normal life patterns – both physical and mental triggers that historically took control of me. It’s truly a liberating experience! I’m far from free of these pressures, but I’m making excellent progress and am more in touch with these patterns. I wasn’t expecting this outcome, but acupuncture is a truly mind/body experience, so they do go hand in hand.
Thank you for listening to my journey with acupuncture treatment. It’s been therapeutic to put it in writing, and I hope some of my fellow Frosties will consider exploring this ancient treatment. If you do, please write or call and share your experience.