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Acupuncturist makes his point


(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Acupuncturist Robert Surabian of Boston Harbor Acupuncture performs a series of holistic treatments to a patient suffering from migraines aches, and pains.

Even acupuncturists can be queasy about the ultra fine needles that are the basis of this ancient Chinese art. Robert Surabian, practitioner with Boston Harbor Acupuncture, said even after years of training and practice, inserting the needles into his own body is a challenge.

"It's tough because you know what's coming," said Surabian, who also remembers his first few weeks of acupuncture school when he and the other students needled themselves in preparation for later working with real clients. "There is an energetic quality to the medicine that doesn't work with self-acupuncture," said Surabian. "Even acupuncturists need to go to other acupuncturists to be treated."

Acupuncturists like Surabian take a holistic approach to healing, believing that channels of energy flow through the body — inserting needles into specific access points, or meridians, help restore balance and stimulate vitality. He is the first to admit that there may be a placebo effect occurring.

"There is a placebo in every kind of medicine, and the placebo effect says to me that the body can heal itself, which I find interesting in itself," said Surabian. He said that a growing body of research confirms the benefits of acupuncture for everything from chronic pain to drug dependence, as well as infertility, allergies, and nausea.

"With Western medicine, you attack one problem head on, with guns blazing; Chinese medicine looks at the whole person and not just one disease in isolation," said Surabian, who practices Chinese and Japanese acupuncture as well as herbal medicine.

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Q. Do the needles hurt?

A. It depends who you ask. The sensation is unfamiliar, the feeling of a dull ache or zap of energy. People come to love the sensation; it's an ache or heaviness, not a pain as if you bumped your head or cut your leg.

Q. Are your patients ever skeptical, or do you tend to mostly see true believers?

A. Many are skeptical. Acupuncture is a very foreign concept that is hard to get your head around. It comes from a different culture and philosophy, so I am always teaching people about what I do. Hard questions make you a better clinician.

Q.What's an example of a patient case study?

A. Lots of people are now taking over-the-counter drugs for acid reflux, but this may only be masking the problem and doesn't necessarily look at the root cause. With acupuncture, I might not only work on pressure points, but also look at whether a patient is eating hot or spicy foods; how they are sleeping at night; if they're fearful or not. What's causing this stuff in the belly to rise up?

Q. What's the most common ailment you're asked to cure?

A. Everyone wants to know if acupuncture can help lose weight. I can support a weight loss program but sticking needles in you and nothing else will not help you lose weight. In China, food is the 'first medicine,' so we do dietary testing as well.

Q. As part of your health evaluation, patients need to stick their tongue out. Why?

A. The tongue's shape, color, and coat is considered to be one of the key indicators of health. Sometimes I can't help but look at the tongues of American Idol contestants while they are singing and diagnosing them based on what I see or looking at the acupuncture points of riders that I see on the subway. It's really hard to turn off the diagnostic skills that you've worked so hard to acquire.

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