GP + Paul Kempisty: The Acupuncture Session
GP + Paul Kempisty: The Acupuncture Session
If you’ve never experienced an acupuncture session firsthand, the idea of needles being placed in your skin for the purpose of healing might seem a bit…mystifying. For the acupuncture-curious, we filmed GP in a session with her New York acupuncturist, Paul Kempisty, L.Ac. He took her through a typical appointment, finishing as he often does with an aromatherapy session. GP asked questions during the video, and we followed up with a few more, getting at everything from his approach to treatment and the nature of modern acupuncture research to what you need to know if you’re looking for a practitioner in your area.
(For more from Kempisty, read our interview with him about the power of baths.)
A Q&A with Paul Kempisty, L.Ac.
The primary basis for considering acupuncture’s efficacy is the several thousand years of continual successful use in China and other Asian countries. The way we practice acupuncture nowadays all over the world is largely informed by the medical experience and wisdom that has grown and evolved from ancient times until now.
In terms of modern research and acupuncture, there are a good number of studies showing acupuncture as an effective treatment option for a wide variety of conditions ranging from various musculoskeletal pains to migraines, nausea, and infertility.
But there are several challenges to certifying acupuncture’s efficacy via the placebo-controlled-double-blinded-study model, which is the preference of modern science.
One is that it’s next to impossible to give placebo acupuncture. You either insert a needle or you don’t, and it’s hard to fake an acupuncture treatment (unlike giving a pill with a real medicine versus a placebo pill in a drug trial). No matter where you insert a needle, even if it’s not the ideal therapeutic point choice, it still stimulates the body to respond in some way. So you can’t easily compare a “real” acupuncture treatment to a “placebo” acupuncture treatment, which is what modern science asks us to do.
It’s also impossible to double-blind an acupuncture study. The researcher knows when they are giving real acupuncture and most people know when they are having a needle inserted into their body.
Last is the idea of standardization: Modern research likes to test the performance of one consistent treatment across an entire population of patients. But one of the main strengths of Eastern medicine and acupuncture is that each patient has an individual treatment protocol tailored to their very specific needs. This means that ten different patients presenting with one particular symptom might actually receive ten different treatment protocols.
Acupuncturists generally choose point combinations based on the ancient wisdom of Oriental medicine, and the bottom line is that when we puncture the body with acupuncture needles, it causes a beneficial physiological response to these tiny injuries. Even though an acupuncture insertion is relatively insignificant when compared with a cut or a bump or bruise, the body still responds with a full arousal of immune function, tissue healing, local circulation, and pain modulation. And it’s the goal of a successful acupuncture treatment to harness the body’s capacity to heal itself in this way.
This is what the original vocabulary of Chinese medicine would describe as harmonizing the flow of chi and blood, yin and yang.
When someone approaches me with a challenging declaration that there’s no “real scientific proof” that acupuncture works for a given symptom or ailment, I often chuckle to myself recalling the thousands of cases I’ve seen it work wonders for over my career as an acupuncturist.
When someone comes for their first acupuncture session, I take a full medical history to become familiar with the patient’s overall health, as well as the nature of their current chief complaint and associated symptoms. This involves asking lots of questions, performing a physical exam when necessary, as well as carefully observing their tongue and taking their pulse, which are two key features of Eastern medical diagnosis.
Acupuncturists look at the tongue because it’s the only fleshy organ of the interior that we can see from outside the body, and as such, it allows us to infer the condition of the other internal fleshy organs.
A pulse diagnosis technique gives us a great snapshot of the patient’s functional energy at that moment. This helps us decide which points and meridians to focus the treatment on.
Most modern acupuncturists are also able to gather additional useful information from a patient’s Western medical chart; that might include blood work, imaging results, as well as their primary care doctor’s or specialist’s diagnostic notes and reports.
It depends on the patient’s needs and expectations. Some people come in with a simple complaint or pain, and when we’ve helped them overcome this problem, they are effectively discharged.
Some of these patients realize the magnitude of potential benefit possible with acupuncture based on their initial experiences, and they pursue additional treatment for other symptoms and ailments they may have, even though they hadn’t focused on these initially.
Then there are patients who come with complex and difficult conditions, and they know from the beginning that it may require treatment for an extended period of time to overcome or manage their health concerns.
As a patient shares their medical history, I generally ask questions about their goals and priorities, as well as their willingness and capacity to follow through with the appropriate treatment. My goal is to construct a treatment protocol that helps them achieve their goals.
Essential oils are incredibly pure and potent extractions from medicinal plants that can be used with an approach similar to the way we work with regular herbal remedies. The main difference is that while regular herbs are consumed orally, essential oils are usually inhaled, or applied to the skin surface for topical absorption.
The same complex philosophy of Chinese medicine used by an acupuncturist to diagnose and heal the body during acupuncture sessions can be used for understanding the biological and energetic functions of essential oils. We can apply them to heal on even deeper levels.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and able to deliver the benefits from the original medicinal plant they were extracted from—much like a regular herb—but because essential oils also provide this profound and incredible aromatic experience, they are able to do much more to transform us than most regular herbal teas or pills.
I often formulate essential oil blends for a patient based on their individual needs. I also use pure essential oils directly on patients’ skin once the acupuncture portion of a session is complete. I’ll choose the most beneficial oils for each patient and drizzle the pure essential oils on their back, one by one, working them gently into the skin. These same oils are also applied to the arms and legs, as well as placed under the face cradle for a patient to inhale, for a totally transformative experience of medical aromatherapy. These aromatherapy sessions have the ability to shift a patient’s state of being entirely—to take them to outer (inner) space and back. Essential oils are also extremely useful for patients who are afraid of needles and reluctant to try acupuncture on their first visit.
There’s a variety of ways to find a good acupuncturist to work with. Probably the best is by listening to recommendations from friends, family, or other people you trust. Chances are if a like-minded person in your life has had a great experience with an acupuncturist, you’ll probably have a positive experience also. That said, here’s what you should know about credentials:
An acupuncturist must have passed the national licensure examinations offered by the national governing body of acupuncture, NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) and maintain a valid license to practice in their state.
An L.Ac. (licensed acupuncturist) has completed a comprehensive and exhaustive master’s-level training in acupuncture or acupuncture and Oriental medicine that involves three to four years of full-time study, with extensive clinical training. This should not be confused with a certified acupuncturist (C.Ac.), which is another health professional, such as a medical doctor, chiropractor, dentist, or physical therapist, who has received 100 to 300 hours of relatively superficial training in basic techniques of acupuncture. C.Ac. degrees are primarily conducted as home study with videotaped lessons.
The confusion associated with these two very different levels of training occurs because certified acupuncturists are often already licensed physicians in their own field, using terminology like “medical acupuncture” to describe what they do, which incorrectly suggests a robust level of training and expertise in the practice of acupuncture. Certified acupuncturists may also use nonmedical terminology such as “dry needling” to describe what they do in a way that distinguishes it from what we would consider true acupuncture.
Some questions it’s helpful to ask an acupuncturist before scheduling an initial appointment include: 1) How long have you been practicing? and 2) Do you have experience in treating the condition I seek to address? It’s also useful to ask what style of acupuncture is practiced at the office—and if any additional modalities are available, such as cupping, gua sha, electric acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, aromatherapy, etc.
Acupuncture is primarily used to stimulate and soothe the body. Anyone who is willing to take a few minutes each day can massage and press their own body, arms, legs, and scalp to stimulate the flow of blood and energy and to activate or release sensitive points. This can be enhanced by adding some simple essential oils which can be massaged, inhaled, diffused in the home or office, and added into one’s bath.
Paul Kempisty has been an herbalist, an acupuncturist, a specialist in Chinese medicine, and an aromatherapist based in New York City for over fourteen years. After getting his master’s in traditional Chinese medicine, he worked in several Beijing hospitals in the oncology and gynecology departments. Returning to the US, he studied herbal medicine with a Taoist priest and interned in medical oncology before opening his private clinic in SoHo. His work combines Western and Eastern medical practices to help his patients overcome health challenges using natural and nontoxic treatments.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.