Inside job: Acupuncturist

Paul Johnson tries his hands at sticking needles in people

Time Out try every job in Shanghai. This month: sticking needles in people

Acupuncture treatment is most often sought for pain relief, but Su Limin, a Chinese woman who has been practicing acupuncture for over 30 years, tells me it can be used to treat a number of other conditions. I ask her, ‘Could acupuncture potentially cure a fear of needles?’

I’m not afraid of needles – unless someone is trying to poke me with one. If a needle is just sitting on a shelf, minding its own business, that doesn’t scare me at all. But if I look at a needle on a shelf, look away, then look back and suddenly the needle is right next to me, that’s scary! I injured my back a few years ago and not only do I feel acupuncture helped relieve my pain, but I’m certain it also cured me of a lifelong fear of needles. Call it immersion therapy. The treatment also cured me of any willingness to lift heavy objects or help out around the house, but those claims are disputed by both my acupuncturist and my wife.

Doris Rathgeber has been in China for 20 years, 10 of those as a doctor and founder of Body & Soul Medical Clinics. Body & Soul offers a range of services integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with elements of Western practices. ‘We might use the diagnosis of the Western world but treat with herbal medicine,’ she explains. Doris specialises in infertility but consults privately with each new patient. ‘I’m the sorting hat and then I introduce them to different specialists.’ If these private consultations contain more Harry Potter references, sign me up!

I sit down across from the acupuncturist Su, who wipes my arm with an antiseptic tissue, opens a sealed packet of needles, and asks me to tell her if I feel any pain. She spins her fingers in a tight circle and inserts the first needle a few centimetres from my elbow. I feel a mild pressure but no discomfort. Now it’s my turn. I initially thought I was going to per form acupuncture on someone else, but I was later informed I could only do acupuncture on myself for legal reasons. This concerned me. I had overcome my fear of other people poking me with needles, but I hadn’t addressed my fear of me poking me with needles.

Su identifies the next acupoint, I wipe my skin with antiseptic, and then she demonstrates the spinning motion and tells me to insert quickly since the top layer of skin is the most sensitive. I hold the needle over the skin, make a spinning motion, and then another spinning motion, and keep spinning and spinning. I hand her the needle and ask if she can demonstrate again. 

She inserts the second and I feel nothing. We repeat the pattern for the third and fourth needle: she demonstrates, I pick up the needle, hold it over the skin, my hand spins, then shakes, and I hand the needle back.

Before inserting the fourth needle near the intersection of my thumb and index finger, she warns it might be sensitive, and I do feel brief discomfort, followed by a throbbing sensation in my right temple. Before I can mention the feeling in my temple, Su tells me this last needle addresses problems with the face or head.
I should be impressed that she accurately predicted a connection between these two areas, but I’m more worried what the problem with my face or head might be. I’m concerned excess handsomeness from my face might be collecting in my temples.

Su explains some of the benefits of stimulating the four acupoints she has chosen, including clearing away heat in the body, anti-allergy treatment and issues in the stomach. Each insertion point coincides with locations throughout unblock or correct imbalances in the flow of these channels called meridians. This flow is called qi and is the TCM explanation of why the body benefits from acupuncture. The World Health Organisation has published papers supporting elements of acupuncture, but the Western explanation of why the body benefits differs from the Chinese idea of qi. Per the Western view, when the body is intruded and the nerves, muscle and tissue are stimulated, the brain responds by boosting the body’s natural painkillers and hormones and increasing blood flow.

There are different types of treatment such as the application of heat, pressure, or even an electric current. My greatest fear is electricity, or rather the fear of being electrocuted, so I ask Su to run electricity through the needles in the hopes acupuncture will work the same magic on fear of electricity as it did on fear of needles. If we could do this while suspended over a shark tank, I might confront all my fears at once. She sets a control box on the table between us and together we hook electrodes to each needle. Su turns a knob and my bicep muscle begins pulsing. I can’t say that my fear of electricity is easing, but on the bright side my bicep looks great.

Su gives me some tips as I leave: avoid the veins, especially big ones; be careful with nerves and always communicate with the patient; don’t practise on the chest and back as they’re more sensitive; practise a lot to learn the body’s structure. The idea of practise intrigues me. I have the same question that I had for another needle-related job when I shadowed a tattoo artist: how do you convince someone to let you practise poking him or her with a needle? My first suggestion is to never use the word ‘practise.’

For more information on Body & Soul Medical Clinics, visit