Dr. Yang

Hey Dr. Yin
Chain smoking Chinese centenarian
Deck my back with pins
Connect the wires and plug me in

Hey Dr. Jack
Bend me like a pretzel till I crack
All my joints and bones
Beat me up and send me home
-Ben Fold

Last February, birdMAN began to gripe about a pain in his neck. He wasn’t talking about me. The pain was literal. One day, his neck was sore. The next day, he could not turn his head left. These aches and pains— that could be blamed on reaching his mid-30s and being relatively inactive— offered a good opportunity to try three Chinese therapies that reputedly cure a multitude of ailments.

birdMAN’s first attempt to ease his pain was Chinese massage (按摩).  After squeezing and poking around birdMAN’s neck and shoulders, the massage therapist authoritatively told him he needed a 60-minute back adjustment massage. I chose the 90-minute “foot massage for strengthening kidney.” While the masseuse pounded away at birdMAN’s prone body and commented that his shoulders were bad, I thoroughly enjoyed my firm and painful massage. I am not sure if my kidneys benefited, but my feet were kneaded into submission. Afterward, birdMAN was not impressed. He was also annoyed that my 90-minute foot massage (which included a half hour of body massage) was cheaper than his 60-minute one. His neck continued to bother him.

Chinese massage. Check. 

Dual benefit -- kidneys and feet!

The second treatment involved needles, and hopefully sanitized ones. The next week following the inefficacious massage, birdMAN bravely went solo to the acupuncture () office.  A mixture of sweet and pungent herbal medicinal smells drifting from the downstairs pharmacy clung to the office’s clean white concrete walls and dark polished wood door frames. The doctors, donning pristine white lab coats, greeted birdMAN. The primary doctor, a silver haired woman who emanated authority, examined birdMAN. She poked his shoulders and told him no problem. Acupuncture will help.

A fervent hope for a cure. Sheer trust in thousands-plus long history previously tested and testified by millions of patients. These thoughts allayed his fears as birdMAN lay on a heated bed in a heated room. The silver haired doctor approached his prone body. Carefully with quick precision, she jabbed about 24 needles along his neck and arm. Each needle felt like getting a shot— a quick prick penetrating the skin.  After about five minutes, his upper body trembled uncontrollably. Then fatigue set in, as though he had been holding something heavy and his muscles were giving up. By the end of the 40-minute treatment, birdMAN was relaxed. Needle removal was relatively painless.

Afterward, birdMAN’s thirst and hunger compelled him to consume a Big Mac at the nearby MacDonald’s.

Acupuncture office
His acupuncture treatment, however, was not over. The following week, I tagged along and waited outside the room while the silver haired doctor repeated the treatment. Once the needles were properly set along birdMAN’s meridian lines (the lines that convey “qi”, vital energy), I asked the assistant if I could take a look. She said yes. I opened the sliding door and gingerly entered the warm room. birdMAN lay on his right side with his eyes closed and his face taut. Tiny silver needles stuck up along his neck and arm. I took out my camera. The silver-haired doctor looked up from another patient and curtly said, “What are you doing?”
“This is my husband,” I responded, as if that fact qualifies me to be in the men’s acupuncture room. And, if you are wondering, yes this exchange was in Chinese.

“You need to wait outside.”

“Can I take a picture?”

“No, you cannot.” Dang it! birdMAN’s neck freckled with needles would have been such a great Instagram picture. As much as I wanted that picture, I did not want to further disturb an otherwise serene acupuncture session. So I left.

This second treatment, unfortunately, did not miraculously cure birdMAN’s neck pain. Instead of experiencing a wave of peace and a revival of health, he was irritable and uncomfortable. 250 RMB to get pricked with needles resulted in only a slight improvement in neck comfort. I should have taken him to Great Leap Brewing for an IPA right away.

Acupuncture. Check.

The third medical treatment involved fire, glass, and blood. Yes, fire cupping (拔罐法) may look and sound like torture, but it is widely practiced here and surprisingly painless. Cupping is an ancient treatment said to increase blood circulation. According to Chinese wisdom, the increased blood circulation will alleviate respiratory and neck, back, shoulder problems (and probably balance the yin and yang –that mystery hot and cold energy that I have yet to understand).  

The fire cupping procedure involves 1) briefly lighting a flame inside a light-bulb shaped cup; 2) quickly placing the cup on the patient’s shoulders, back, and upper butt cheeks; 3) wait as the cooling gases inside the cup create a vacuum, which suctions the skin up into the cup and breaking a lot of blood vessels; and 4) and removing the cups after the giant, round bruises form. Then, I suppose, see if the ailments heal.

During the procedure, birdMAN lay face down totally at the mercy of the fire and glass wielding therapist. Meanwhile, I was in another room getting a body massage. After my massage and the cups had been placed on birdMAN’s back, I entered the cupping room with my camera in hand. In contrast to the acupuncturist, the cupping therapist gleefully agreed to let me snap pictures. She even turned on the lights for me.

A sheet covered birdMAN’s back. The balls formed a series of hills through the sheet. The therapist removed the sheet for me – I imagined that if I touched him the glass balls would explode. I won’t lie—the scene was freakishly creepy. He looked like he had been kidnapped by aliens and subjected to an inhumane science experiment. His skin was sucked 1 to 2 inches into the cup, the vessels purple and webbed, and his back glisteningly pink. The therapist said that his body was too “cold,” meaning his body is imbalanced. The darker the bruises, the greater the problem. I took one picture after another. This was going to make a great Instagram post.

The process did not hurt; in fact, birdMAN enjoyed the experience and found it relaxing. But did it ultimately cure his neck pain? Nope. The following week, his back was full of purple bruises and his neck stiff.

Fire cupping. Check.

Took about two weeks for the bruises (aka hickies) to disappear

birdMAN’s neck was cured a few weeks later, but the cure was not found in China’s ancient medicinal books. The cure was in IKEA. IKEA does not only have delicious Swedish meatballs, potato mashers, and modern, eye-pleasing home accessories, it also has antidotes for Chinese-lifestyle-caused ailments. That’s right, IKEA—a westerner haven. At IKEA, we purchased a thick foam mattress to lie on top of our rock-hard bed (the beds are so hard here!) A few weeks later, birdMAN realized his neck pain was gone.

Mattress pad. Check and cured!

Massage, acupuncture, and fire cupping—all that just to determine we needed a comfier mattress.

Chinese words of the blog:
按摩     àn mó (literally, press rub)           massage / to massage
     zhēn jiǔ (literally, needle moxibustion)  acupuncture
拔罐法 bá guàn fǎ (literally, pull jar method)       fire cupping

Here is a YouTube video showing the fire cupping process: