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Acupuncture at Sea

Early last month, my husband and I went on a long-awaited vacation. Ah, ten days away with seven of them on a Royal Caribbean [1] cruise ship.  No work, no phones, no schedules. Sun, sand and ocean.  Paradise.

The two weeks leading up to our departure, however, were much less than paradise.  I tried to cram four weeks of work into two, including a variety of presentations, meetings, conference calls, research – the whole gamut of what I do. Just as it was impossible in school to effectively cram, it was impossible to cram four weeks of work into two. Corners were cut, mistakes were made, sleep was lost and my stress level was heightened.

Finally, Friday arrived. My desk was cleared, although admittedly some of the drawers were full, and my out-of-office message was activated. It was time to go home and pack for our Saturday afternoon departure.

We worked feverishly through the night to make sure everything at home was in order. The mail was halted, the security system was functioning properly, the flickering light in the living room made it look like someone was in the house in the evenings.  We were ready to go.

How can I live with this pain?

Saturday morning, I washed up our breakfast dishes – and cut my finger with one of our sharpest knives. No time to worry about stitches; put a Band-Aid on it and move on.

With what we thought was plenty of time to spare, we stopped at the local pharmacy to pick up my sleep aid medication. I had visited the doctor earlier in the week to explain that we were going on a 10-day vacation, and I needed the refill authorized a few days before the 30-day order had elapsed, which he approved. Unfortunately, the pharmacist – bound by state law and insurance provisions – could not override the rules without verbal authorization from the doctor; his signature on the script was useless. Fortunately, I had my doctor’s cell phone number and proved I was not afraid to use it – who can enjoy a vacation if you can’t sleep?! Miraculously, he answered and gave the authorization.  This nerve-wracking exchange took about 30 minutes of our “time to spare.”

Then I bought some shower gel, and since it was on sale “buy one, get one half off,” I went ahead and got two of them. But when I got to the register, the sale didn’t register and the cashier couldn’t figure out why. Finally, after another 15 minutes, I decided to leave both items on the counter and move on. No time to worry about having shower gel!

One more stop and we were on our way to the airport. But wait! There’s a text message from the airline: our flight is delayed. Not all bad, considering the mishaps of the morning. But then we got another text message announcing yet another delay. When the third message came through, there was no way we could make our connecting flight. So, the very helpful Sky Cap rerouted our flights so that we could indeed arrive in Fort Lauderdale that evening.

Whew.  Everything is ok now.  But wait!  My husband left his phone in the bowl at Security!  What?! His phone is connected to his arm! How could that happen?!  Fortunately, he ran back and there it was. Still, my stress level inched higher.

We finally got on the first plane and made our connecting flight.  But by the time we got off that last flight, I was toast.  Done.  Finished.  Bury me here.

For the FIRST time in my life, I had to travel in a wheelchair!  I lacked the strength to walk and was in so much pain I thought we should probably go to the ER, where I would – what?  Ask for morphine?!  Surely you jest!  It’s “just” fibromyalgia, right?

Figuring that my chances of relief at the ER would be minimal, I conceded to riding in the wheelchair. My husband is a saint and never once uttered a complaining word – not that he ever does. He watched over me like a guardian angel.

But how would I fare on the ship, which embarked the next day?  Sunday morning, I felt a bit better and could walk using my own two legs, but the pain was still horrific. I hoped that getting to our room, relaxing on the ship, and knowing that fun times were ahead would ease both my pain and anxiety.

Indeed, some of the pain and anxiety lifted. We were with family, the ship was beautiful, and we were headed to sun, sand and beaches – my perfect Paradise.

Sadly, though, the nail-biting, fever blister-inducing, all-encompassing pain just would not leave.  Primarily, the pain was in my left heel (plantar fasciitis) and my right knee, which I thought was a left-over from my July hip surgery.  Walking was beyond belief painful.  We had planned to always take the stairs since food is so very plentiful on the ship, and we wanted to ward off a few extra pounds.  I had trouble walking in the hallways, so the stairs were pure fantasy.

We were set to dock at our first stop on Wednesday morning, and I just didn’t know what to do.  My husband suggested I get a massage or even do acupuncture.  My response: “Do you know how expensive it is on this ship?!”  But in the face of so much pain, I had to do something, so I bit the financial bullet and scheduled an acupuncture session.


Years ago, I had one session of auricular acupuncture, which didn’t seem to make much difference.  Of course, acupuncture is neither a cure-all nor a miracle, and seldom does one session provide relief.  I was skeptical. How can putting a bunch of needles – OUCH – in different places in my body help relieve the pain I was feeling?  Seriously now.

I immediately felt more relaxed in the ship’s spa [2], with their essential oil infusers blowing and the soft music playing.  Everyone spoke softly and there was water and green tea just waiting for you.  But acupuncture?  Really?

The doctor I saw was a third-generation acupuncturist from China.  His English was much better than my Chinese, but I still had a difficult time understanding him.  I did hear him say that he could help relieve my pain, so I leaned in and took him at his word.

He decided to focus mainly on my left heel and right knee, which meant needles spread across my back and legs and in both hands.  I will admit, yes, some them hurt.  A lot.  But not all of them, and while I tried to count the number of needles inserted, I lost count at about 27.  Then he left me lying on the table with all those needles stuck throughout my body and went off somewhere.

During those 20 to 30 minutes lying there, I experienced that same level of pain I had in the airport – the kind where I think this is surely going to take my life.  Is he trying to kill me?  Then he came back in, twisted a few of the needles and left once again.  This time, there was no specific pain, just an awareness that I had some needles stuck in me.  After about another 20 minutes, he came in and removed all the needles and asked me how I felt.

How did I feel?

Well, I was relaxed, that’s for sure.  I had just spent nearly an hour lying in a darkened room with a bunch of needles stuck in my body, which meant I couldn’t move much, and my always running mind had calmed a bit.  But it still hurt to put weight on my left heel, and my right knee, while some better, wasn’t as good as I had hoped.

The doctor declared that my chi was blocked from my waist down in both legs and he put in more needles! He pounded a bit on the back of my left leg and put a needle in the inside of my right wrist, which he then twisted a bit.  YOUCH!  It felt like I had been electrocuted.  Immediately, though, both my heel and knee felt better than they had in ages.  And while I thought my wrist would hurt, there was no pain there at all.

We both smiled, me a bit sheepishly because I was so skeptical, and he declared that one session would not cure the chi blockage, but that hopefully I could enjoy the rest of the cruise.  I walked out of that spa with less pain than I had had in months, if not years.  WOW!  And the next seven days were seven of the best days of my life.

So, how do I feel about acupuncture right now? 

The Rest of the Story

I found a good acupuncturist upon our return home and have regularly scheduled sessions with him.  It’s tough on the budget, but the benefit is worth a few less dinners out.  I realize that not everyone can be so fortunate, so I will do all I can to encourage policy makers to include complementary and alternative therapies in the toolbox to treat pain.

Cindy Leyland is ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia Editor. Cindy also serves as the Director of Program Operations at the Center for Practical Bioethics [3] and the PAINS-KC Project Director. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, enjoys hiking, reading, and being Gramma Cindy.