As acupuncturists, we are proud to call ourselves holistic health care practitioners. We emphasize the importance of the entire body working together and the interdependence of its parts instead of simply focusing on symptoms.
Yet, even though we gained insightful knowledge on the connection between emotions and corresponding acupuncture points on the body while in school, we are faced with a simple fact: the vast majority of us are not educated and trained psychologists or psychiatrists. As we treat our patients' physical aches, pains and illnesses, are we delving deeply enough into our patients' underlying emotional health to maximize their healing?
Of course, you can go back to school to obtain a psychology degree; or you can partner with mental health professionals to create a truly holistic approach to the care of your patients - and open the doors to new opportunities for referrals as well.
My education and training in acupuncture and biofeedback, as well as chiropractic care, has given me additional insight into the role emotions play in impacting physical well-being. For the past several years, I have met with two esteemed local psychologists on a weekly basis. During this time, we have referred many patients to one another. And with our patients' permission, we also have learned to share vital information that helps each of us deliver the best possible treatment and care. By gaining greater insight into the emotional state of my patients, I am able to understand more fully the emotional causes and extent of their physical pain.
This collaborative approach has helped speed the recovery of many of my patients. Only by finding the true emotional and physical sources of pain can we, as acupuncturists, finally find long-lasting, if not permanent, health care solutions. Treatments last longer once a patient learns to manage emotional situations that trigger physical pain. And patients suffering from physical pain are better-equipped to handle the emotional issues in their life once their discomfort has been alleviated.
My success with this approach can serve as a reminder to all of us in the field to pay attention to our patients' emotional fabric. When I ask my patients what happened to cause an ache or pain they are experiencing, sometimes they answer with "nothing," or "I don't know," unless there was a specific physical incident, such as a car accident or sporting mishap. In today's fast-paced world, many patients have been conditioned to separate their physical well-being from their emotional well-being. It's our job to dig deeper; to learn a little more about the lives of our patients so we can deliver complete holistic care. Everyone has emotional issues in their life. A stressful meeting, a divorce or a death in the family can serve as a very real contributor to many of the conditions we treat every day. But, if we as acupuncturists overlook or don't understand these basic emotional root causes, we are doing little more than handing out aspirin - providing temporary relief instead of treating a much larger health issue.
For example, here is a real-life case study: A female patient facing tight deadlines in the demanding field of finance recently came to my office complaining of neck pain. When questioned, she said she wasn't aware of any tension or stress at work or at home. I used a low-tech biofeedback technique to test her answer. I had her place her tongue lightly between her front teeth whenever she was engaged in concentrated or intense activity - a meeting, calculating financial reports, etc. Soon after, she returned to my office, surprised at the results. She had repeatedly bitten her tongue to the point of bleeding, while feeling no pain whatsoever. My patient's mind had become so disconnected from her body that she didn't know she frequently clenched her jaw, which was causing her neck pain. Feelings of tension and stress had become so common to her that she no longer recognized them. Now, she has learned how to manage situations that cause these feelings. She is taking responsibility for her own physical health. As a result, her acupuncture treatments last long beyond her visit to my office.
Subconscious emotions also can trigger physical ailments. Patients often tell me, "I don't know what happened. I woke up and suddenly my [back/head/stomach] hurt." During sleep, the mind is so busy working out unresolved issues that the body tenses up, causing muscle strains, clenched jaws, and overall aches and pains. A patient might not be taxing their body by lifting physical weights, but the emotional load they are carrying is detrimental to their health.
As acupuncturists, the challenge is to walk that fine line between psychological issues and physiological care. As I mentioned earlier, very few of us are psychologists or psychiatrists. But, by asking the right questions, staying attuned to our patients' emotions and even partnering with select mental health professionals who recognize the emotional and physical connection, we can begin to deliver what truly is holistic medical care.
Dr. Chady F. Wonson specializes in acupuncture, acupressure, chiropractic, physiotherapy and herbal remedies. She is professionally based in the heart of San Francisco's financial district.