A couple days ago, I had my first experience with acupuncture. I know I’ve mentioned 李深浦 (Lǐ ​Shēn​pǔ​), a famous traditional Chinese medicine doctor, on this blog before, but last week Ron’s friend recommended another doctor. The weather is getting increasingly hot and and humid and summer is Migraine Season for me, so on Friday I skipped over to his clinic.

The doctor asked me about my health, examined my tongue and my pulse and asked me if I was adverse to taking medicine in powder form or to acupuncture. I said I was fine with both. He had me lay down on my right side and inserted two needles, one on the nape of my neck just below my hairline and the other on my left forearm below my wrist (I’d told him that most of my migraines are on the left side of my head).

Since I have an inconvenient habit of passing out whenever I have blood drawn, I decided not to look at the needles being inserted, so I have no idea how deep they went or what exactly they looked like. But the sensation was definitely interesting, to say the least. It did not hurt a lot, but there was a slight soreness where each needle was. The doctor kept them in for a few minutes and gently wiggled them once to stimulate my pressure points.

I’ve been back once for another acupuncture session and will be going back a couple more times. I was also given a batch of medicine, consisting mostly of powdered herbs, to take three times a day for seven days. One of the main ingredients is ligusticum wallichi (川芎, chuānxiōng), which is supposed to improve blood circulation and is often used in preparations for women.

While I was doing some Internet research about acupuncture, I was struck by how many sites referred to traditional Chinese medicine as alternative medicine in a way that left no doubt that the writer took it for granted that it is less effective than Western medicine. I guess I would have thought of traditional Chinese medicine in the same way when I was back in the States because it is outside the paradigm of modern Western medicine and pharmacology. After living in Taiwan for almost three years, however, I’m used to seeing traditional Chinese medicine clinics that take National Health Insurance (as does the one I go to) and traditional Chinese medicine doctors work side-by-side with their colleagues who practice Western medicine. In NTU Hospital, for example, there is a traditional Chinese medicine department. In other words, I still see traditional Chinese medicine as an alternative, but as a viable alternative that I’m thankful to have easy access to.

I know there are conflicting studies about how acupuncture works or if it works, but after having suffered from frequent migraines for more than 10 years, I don’t care if it ends up that I’m benefiting from a placebo effect — as long as I benefit. Prescription drugs, including Imitrex, seem to have no effect on me. My migraine cure for the past couple of years has been a combination of ibuprofen, diet Coke and an ice pack on my head while lying in a darkened room. I’m worried about the side effects of all that ibuprofen, I’m very sensitive to caffeine (when it wears off I crash and get depressed, like an addict withdrawing from speed) and the ice packs are just annoying, especially when I accidentally fall asleep and they melt all over my pillow.

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While I was in the clinic waiting for my medicine powder to be ground up (it doesn’t taste as bad as I thought it would and my cat loves the pungent herbal smell), Ron and I saw this depressing poster from the Bureau of National Health Insurance (for a larger version click here). It is depressing because we are American. In addition to a bit of self-congratulation from the NHI, the poster gives a rundown of how much each person spends on health-related expenses in different countries. At the top, it notes that in 2006, the average in Taiwan (including insurance fees) was US$982 per person, or 15% of what the average American spent.

I don’t know how much things have changed in the last four years, but being reminded of how pricey health care is in the US scares me. When I was living and working in NYC, my prescriptions were US$25 each. In total, I spent about US$75 to US$100 on my medications each month. It was a pretty sizable chunk of cash for someone living in New York City on an entry level reporter’s salary, but I considered myself lucky because I had a comprehensive health coverage plan through my employer. In Taiwan, the same prescriptions cost me about NT$100 to NT$200 per month, or roughly US$3 to US$6. These are medications that I take to prevent serious health issues that would be, of course, much, much more costly to treat.

Anyway, I could launch into a lengthy diatribe here, but I’ll just say taking care of my health is a lot easier in Taiwan than it was in the US and I’m grateful for that.