Pre-pandemic, I had planned on trying acupuncture for my chronic migraines. But since you can't really do acupuncture with six feet between you and the practitioner, I assumed I missed my opportunity to fix my persistently painful skull. Like many small businesses, however, acupuncturists have pivoted to virtual services during lockdown, meaning they can send you the needles to administer yourself. At the end of May, I logged onto Zoom with a packet full of needles and little idea what I was getting myself into.
According to Elizabeth Trattner, A.P., an acupuncture physician, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) "has treated both pandemics and the issues surrounding this type of crisis, like enhancing immune function to poor sleep, skin, bowel and menstrual changes to extreme stress due to the circumstances."
The practice can be helpful for certain pain conditions, particularly migraines and headaches, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. So while I went in a little skeptical of my ability to administer needles properly, I was hopeful that a remote acupuncture session could help minimize my headache.
What's Virtual Acupuncture Like?
Like all other kinds of quarantine communications, virtual acupuncture takes place via Zoom. For my migraines, Steven Mavros, L.OM., an acupuncturist, herbalist, and founder of Healing Arts Center of Philadelphia, directed me in placing stickers with itty bitty needles attached onto my feet, ears, and knees. Despite Mavros' best efforts at letting me know if I was hot or cold as I moved the screen down to my legs, I was never exactly confident that I got the right spot. (Mavros assured me that the zones he was prescribing for me were large enough that there was room for error, and that most people think they're doing it wrong when they're not.)
Feeling uncomfortably self-aware with a bunch of needle stickers on my body, I asked Mavros if he felt that patients were getting the same kind of treatment virtually as in-person. He said that though virtual acupuncture still has positive effects for his patients, it is undeniably different. "I know it sounds weird, but I miss touching people," Mavros says.
Before Mavros signed off, he told me to take a 30-minute nap and then to toss my needle stickers in the trash. When I awoke from my late-morning snooze, I did feel as though my migraine had loosened up a bit. After my first experience with acupuncture, I can see the benefit of doing it in person; I kept finding myself wanting to surrender to the treatment. While I did feel better after my nap, I'm confident I would've been more comfortable if I were able to see Mavros in person.
How Does Virtual Energy Healing Work?
If the idea of needling yourself freaks you out, virtual acupressure or energy healing is another option, Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAc, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine and the founder of the Yinova Center in New York, told me.
Energy healing is based on the belief that trained healers have the ability to use their own energetic footprint to influence their patients'. Through words and small movements, energy healers aim to change the recipient's flow of energy to promote pain relief, stress reduction and more. Unlike DIY acupuncture, this practice is more easily translated over a video call. Still, I had no expectation of experiencing anything transcendent, with someone vacuuming in the other room and the dog scratching at the door.
Dr. Blakeway's philosophy is that every cell in my body has awareness and intelligence, even if it's not doing what it's supposed to do, and energy healing can help cells get back on track. Science on energy healing is limited, but at least one 2019 report published in Global Advances in Health & Medicine suggests that when used in tandem with allopathic medicine, it could theoretically be beneficial.
We started the practice with a meditation. I let my sacrum grow roots into the floorboards and settled into my seat. I followed Blakeway's instructions to imagine an energetic forcefield within and above me and drew from both, sending knowledge and power into the eye of my migraine. Then we moved on to other bodily systems, sending energy to cells reminding them they know how to do their job. After that, I just sat.
As someone who has never been able to stay in the present moment while mediating, I was startled by how easy it was to just stare at the purplish underside of my eyelids and not just think of the present, but be in it. I was hovering, blissfully suspended in the now.
Should You Sign Up For Virtual Acupuncture, Acupressure, or Energy Healing?
Considering giving sticker needles and forcefields a go? It's not cheap, but it is easy to book, as healers have more slots available than usual. To see a healer at Healing Arts Center, you'll pay $100 for your first virtual visit, and $85 for follow up sessions. The fee includes the acupuncture stickers, shipping, and a telehealth consult, and it's $25 cheaper than in-person pricing. To see a healer at the Yinova Center, you'll pay $150 for the initial virtual consultation, and $100 for a follow-up virtual appointment. (I received my sessions for free as a member of the press.) Other centers, like Sun + Moon Healing in Asheville, North Carolina, Balance Acupuncture in Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City's WTHN, offer virtual healing services, which can encompass virtual energy work, breathwork, acupressure, and more.
But is it actually worth it? My migraine wasn't cured by energy healing, but the practice helped me to relax substantially, which, like the self-administered acupuncture, lessened my migraine's grip. I found both types of virtual healing soothing, but it's hard to say how much either practice translates over a screen.
"Is this acupuncture? No, but it is a bridge that helps keep our patients healthy and happier while we all try to flatten the curve," Trattner says. "Personally, I have been using herbal medicine, both Western and Eastern, dietary therapy, acupatching, breathing exercises, and other self-care tools to optimize my patient even if I cannot insert needles into them," she adds of her quarantine practice.
My healers were confident that a few in-person sessions could effectively remove migraines from my life. But until then, I'll have to rely on alternatives to alternative medicine.