Hospital Acupuncture

Recently I mentioned that I had been in the hospital. I’ll share some of that experience now.

The reason I went to the hospital is that over the past year I have developed a case of varicose veins in my right leg, behind the knee. I’m not crazy about going to the doctor in China, but since it has definitely gotten worse over the past year, I decided it was time to have it looked at. There’s an “international” hospital near me I’ve gone to before that seems very clean and professional, so I decided to go there again.

When I showed up at reception they asked me in English what trouble I was having. I had done my homework, so I told them in Chinese that I thought I had varicose veins (静脉曲张). That sure surprised them. I guess they don’t get many Chinese-speaking foreigners, let alone ones that diagnose themselves in technical terms using Chinese.

The doctor took a look and did a few simple tests. She concluded I had varicose veins in my right leg. She sent me down to another floor for a more thorough ultrasound examination to make sure I didn’t have any major problems with other veins or arteries inside either of my legs.

So then they put some clear gooey stuff not unlike vaseline jelly on their ultrasound probe and ran it over various parts of my leg. The woman running the ultrasound machine was communicating the results with another woman in Shanghainese, so I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying. But I sure perked up when she started giving special attention to my left leg (the one that was fine) and saying “wa te le,” which is Shanghainese for 坏掉了 or “it’s gone bad.” She was saying that one of my blood vessels in my left leg had gone bad, which, it’s safe to say, pretty much freaked me out.

I went back to the first doctor, and she interpreted the ultrasound results. “You have varicose veins, but your deep vessels are fine,” she told me.

“But the lady downstairs running the ultrasound machine said that one of my blood vessels in my left leg had gone bad!”

“Really?” She looked at the test results again, frowned, and excused herself to make a phone call.

I grabbed the test results and took a look myself. They seemed to indicate that everything was normal.

The doctor returned, telling me, “no, your deep blood vessels are all fine.” That was a relief, but I felt like going back downstairs and smacking that other woman.

That resolved, the doctor finally got to the bottom line. “Your varicose veins are not serious enough for surgery. They won’t get better, but you can do some things to prevent them from getting worse. You’re not in pain, so there’s no reason for surgery, but if they do ever get really bad, surgery is an option.”

“Is that surgery expensive?”

“Well, what do you consider expensive?”

“I don’t know… about how much does it cost??”

“Around 20,000 rmb [$2,500 US].”

The things I could do were (1) avoid standing for long periods of time, (2) wear an elastic band around my leg, (3) take the medicine they gave me, (4) — optionally — acupuncture.


The doctor told me she didn’t know how I felt about acupuncture, but that it could possibly help my condition. They had their own acupuncture specialist there in the hospital, and I could have my first session right away if I wanted to try it.

I think I’m a pretty open-minded individual, but I’m definitely skeptical about a lot of Chinese medicine. Still, I don’t lump acupuncture together with tiger penis soup and that sort of “Chinese medicine.” After having been told that my condition wouldn’t get better, I was eager to try something that might help. So I agreed to it.

A nurse guided me into the acupuncture room. She had learned that I spoke Japanese, and for some reason liked to talk to me in Japanese. So, with a douzo (“please”) I was ushered into the acupuncture room.

The acupuncture doc was a thin, oldish Chinese man. He seemed very confident. He asked me to lie face down on the bed. It was one of those beds with a hole for your face so you don’t suffocate. Then he asked me not to move.

The doctor proceeded to insert five disposable acupuncture needles into each of my legs behind the knee. The first few in my left leg I hardly felt. Then he stuck one into the nerve. I felt like a powerful electric shock was surging through my lower leg, from the knee down. My leg jerked wildly, but I managed to restrain the rest of my body.

“Ah, you’re sensitive,” the doc observed. Cute.

The right leg went a little more smoothly, but there was still a bit of discomfort accompanied by an involuntary jerk when he inserted the needle into the nerve.

The needles inserted, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure what was next, but I figured the worst was over.

Then, to my horror, the doc brought out some clunky electrical device and started hooking it up to the needles. “You may feel a little something,” he told me as I braced myself.

I was not at all prepared for the electric shock that came next. It was even more powerful than the insertion of the needle, and my leg went into involuntary spasms. I think I might have cried out a little. The doctor quickly turned down the voltage, but not before I decided that he was an evil, evil man and I hated him. He then repeated the process with the other leg, the second electric shock being just a bit less violent than the first.

He adjusted the voltage so that the current kept my legs involuntarily twitching, nonstop. It was very uncomfortable. It kind of felt like I had had too much caffeine and was all jittery, but I couldn’t move around and work off the energy. Plus I was very conscious of the feeling that there was an electrical current running through each of my legs. Twitch, twitch, twitch went my legs.

I was able to bear it, though. I asked the doc how long he needed to leave the power on. I figured I could handle five minutes of it. “Half an hour,” he said cheerfully as he left the room.

Needless to say, it was a very long half hour. I can tell you from experience, your body doesn’t get used to an electrical current flowing through it. My legs twitched nonstop for the whole 30 minutes. The doctor put on some classical music, but it just seemed to taunt me.

By the end of that treatment, I was sure I would not be back for more acupuncture. It also turned out to cost way more than I had understood. 400 rmb ($50 US) for each session! Not continuing the acupuncture treatments was the easiest decision I’ve made in a while.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: October 13, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    Maybe next time you should give the tiger-penis soup a try. Or try my own personal favorite, the medicine that cured my erectile dysfunctions: the panda black-and-white-hairy-testicles stir-fry. I’m telling you, they need to market this!

  2. That was laugh out loud funny. Other people’s discomfort often is. How come there’s no photos of when the current was flowing?


  3. John, I’m sorry, but that’s hysterical! I love the way you tell stories.

  4. Michael Max Says: October 14, 2004 at 12:24 am

    yeah, makes a good story. But, for us acupuncturists it is a sad story. I’ve been in Taiwan and China doing advanced study and practice of both acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I’d have to say, that I think much of the acupuncture I’ve seen here in the East is, well, …horse horse, tiger tiger. Not so great. I’ve met and worked with some good practitioners, but I’ve also seen some heavy handed docs that I did not think they knew much about what they were doing. Pain=gain is NOT acupuncture in my opinion.

    Anyway, US$50 for a treatment is China is a complete rip off. Sessions with a great doc should not be more than RMB 100. Those parts of the hospitals that cater to westerners are just money making machines. I don’t know about the docs ability of level, because I usually had an “in” at the hospitals (as I was studying there) and would see the docs in the “Chinese” side of the hospital.

    Acupuncture can help varicose veins. It takes more than one treatment. Herbs can help too. But, you have to find a good doc, and that can be a real trick. Some docs are truly talented and gifted healers. others are there because of the “guan xi”. Too bad you are not Beijing, because I know a fine acupuncturist there.

    Do see if you can find another doc. And always make sure they use disposal needles. Chinese hospitals can be scary. let me tell you!

  5. yeah, that did sound both nightmarish and funny. I thought only pregnant women and men over 70 got varicose veins. I hope you aren’t going to have any future posts about gout and dentures.

  6. I’m really glad Michael posted. When I was 16, I had bad allergies (exema) on my face. I went to an acupuncturist and took Chinese herbs. Every time I had an acupuncture session, my allergies would clear up for three days, then get worse again. I don’t remember how many sessions I did. I just remember being extremely surprised that it actually worked, because I was VERY skeptical. I think Michael is right–You need to find a good doctor.

    I am developing more and more faith in Chinese medicine. For example, if you ever have a case of diarrhea here (at least in Shanghai) you can (as you probably already know) take berberine hydrochloride pills 盐酸小檗碱片, which are available in every medicine store. These pills do not, I suppose, constitute a classic Chinese medicine because the main ingredient, the berberine alkaloid, has been isolated chemically. Berberine, however, is derived, from an old Chinese remedy. The stuff is extremely effective. By the way, if you know golden seal, a Native American herbal remedy, then you are already familiar with berberine. It’s an amazing antibiotic. And in the pill form it only rinses your gut. It doesn’t get into your blood. So you can target the diarrhea-causing bacteria without putting your body through the stress of a system-wide antibiotic. I swear, you’ll notice it working within 8-12 hours. It can turn one-week’s nightmare into one day’s minor discomfort. The point is, the stuff is extremely effective, reliable, cheap and, well (so I like to think) herbal, but it’s almost unknown in, say, the States. Partly, I suppose, because U.S. citizens are not plagued by chronic diarrhea, unless, you’ll excuse me, you’re talking about our president.

    I know my rant about this over-the-counter herbal derivative took us away from the main point (my sympathy really goes to you, John–what an awful experience you had–I’m serious). But I feel that, as Michael says, a good doctor could help you find a very effective cure consisting of herbs and acupuncture. And, as I think Michael would concur, acupuncture doesn’t, to my knowledge, need to use electric shock. Especially not the extremely uncomfortable kind. And I agree that RMB 400 sounds fishy, though I have no experience. Your story reminds me of a foot massage I had once that I paid too much for. During the whole embarrassing incident, the guy giving me the massage was trying by pressing too hard to test my manliness in front of my girlfriend, who was being massaged next to me by a very cute girl as I glanced over enviously. “Ouch,” I said, “Stop that! Oh my god! that HURTS!” And I paid for the privilege. Why didn’t my girlfriend let me get massaged by the cute girl, as I had originally requested? “Because the man looked like he was going to press too hard.” Thanks a lot. Not too trivialize. Just commiserating. That massage, however, really was traumatic. I guess you would have to have been there to really understand.

    another isolated automaton in the simulacrum… ~laska

  7. Michael Max,

    Thanks a lot for the information. I haven’t totally given up on acupuncture; a co-worker of mine says she knows a good doctor that worked for her. (And he doesn’t use electricity!)

    Originally I had thought that the deal was 400 rmb for 10 visits. Turns out thet recommended 10 visits, and it was 400 rmb each time! Insane. Stupid “international hospital.”

  8. 托的,

    Yeah, I thought only pregnant women and men over 70 got varicose veins too. But now I’ve got them in one leg. I think it runs on both sides of my family.

  9. Laska,

    I can vouch for your claim — that 盐酸小檗碱片 berberine hydrochloride stuff works great! It’s pretty cheap, too.

    The medicine the hospital gave me is also somewhat herbal. It’s called Aescuven forte (迈之灵片).

  10. to tell the truth, it doesn’t sound all that different than acupuncture I’ve had in the US. They like to either plug that low voltage thing in, or twirl them by hand. I never minded either one so much, and it really helped.

  11. Anonymous Says: October 14, 2004 at 4:06 am

    “….acupuncture doesn’t, to my knowledge, need to use electric shock.”

    Very true. No matter what you are told otherwise, the use of electrical clips was a telltale sign that the doc was (a) not a good acupuncturist, and/or (b) deliberately jacking up the cost by adding science-fictional myth that he believes westerners (and ignorant Chinese) suck up to.

    I don’t know this for sure but his letting the needle strike a nerve to the degree of causing limb movement was a sign of a fake acupuncturist, too. Good acupuncturists cure without seeing the patient stir more than a “fssss….” Giving you many needles on both legs was not right either—SciFi myth making again. I am sorry to have to add insults to your injury with these smart ass accusations but they may help someone else, or you the next time.

    So to sum it up, you really got a raw deal on this one. My pedestrian questionnaire for qualifying a real acupuncture treatment, therefore, would be:
    How many needles (avoid more than 6, replay the sarcastic movie scenes of 170 needles on whose was it Bette Midler’s skull);
    Where (avoid “all near the symptom sites”);
    Needles stay for how long (avoid >12 min maybe);
    Electricity involved (avoid yes);
    Would it hurt (the right answer: there could be occasional “allergic punctures,” in which case scream or pinch me, and some puncture spots are designed to react with mild, INNER spasms).

  12. That was me.

  13. I’m sorry to know that you are sick. John B also worte a new post to tell that he was sick. I feel bad:-(.

    I think that Chinese traditional hospital(中医院) would be a better choice than international hospital. Their acupuncturists are rather professional. Acupuncture-therapy in a hospital shouldn’t be used by electricity. Doctors should use their hands to adjust how deep and heavy. I agree that the doctor who treated you is a bad and lazy guy.

    But, in any case, don’t lose the confidence to Chinese traditional treatments. They do work!!! Next time, hope you can find a good doctor using all your guanxi(关系). You know social relationships in China are very important. Maybe they can decide how nice treatment you can get.

    Take care,

  14. Yeah, geez; acupuncture already feels enough like an electric shock without electrifying the needles.

    Sounds kind of like a Monty Python skit: “Look, mate, these veins wouldn’t de-varicose if you put four million volts through them!”

  15. I absolutely love your blog and your stories. Your trip to the hospital is no exception.. Hilarious and – due to my horrible fear of needles – frightening. But nonetheless… I’ll be back to see what you have to say next..

  16. What’s with the Americans when it comes to needles? They are all afraid of them, injection needles or hair-like acupuncture ones. The Chinese are more used to ’em.

  17. True, acupuncture needles aren’t very scary…
    until you run electricity through them!!!

  18. I happaned to be a qualified surgeon back in China,
    the price for medical treatment now is really way
    beyond my anticipation. I remember one appendicectomy costed
    someting around 600RMB.
    Don’t know if the needles help shrink your
    enlarged vein.

  19. Michael Max Says: October 17, 2004 at 9:22 am

    Acupuncture should not be without feeling. But, it is not a feeling of jabbing pain or electricity. It should be 酸痛sensation. And generally speaking you should feel relaxed and comfortable after an acupucnture treatment.

    I’ve seen more than a few heavy handed docs in China and Taiwan. The just laugh at us westerners if we complain of pain. But, the Chinese ALSO don’t like that kind of treatment, they are just usually too polite to say anything. they just stop going to treatment.

    As to herbs, they can definately be helpful. Again as with any doc, you need to find a good one. Someone suggested you use your 关系。那当然咯!

    Do ask around. Do avoid the “international” hospitals. The chinese medicial schools usually have a clinic attached to them where some of the good and experienced docs work. You might check that out.

    One problem with the non-international part of the hospital, is that they are less likely to ue one use sterilized needles. You DO NOT want them to poke you with these. It blows my mind that some basic sanatiation gets so ignored. My advice is buy a couple boxs of needles in various lenghts and take your own, if they do not have one use needles. You SHOULD watch and make sure they are opening up sterile packages of needles as they are putting them in. I so wish I did not have to write this kind of advice.

    You would think they would “get it” by now. while most docs I’ve seen that I think are good do use the one use needles. I’ve seen some fairly famous docs in one of the Beijing schools, just wipe needles down with alchohol and then reuse them. very very scary.

    Should you get to Taiwan, I’d be glad to have a go at those varicose veins of yours

  20. Michael Max Says: October 18, 2004 at 6:11 pm

    One other thing about varicose veins. I had a patient in the west where I used to practice, he had had surgury on one leg for the varicose veins, but it did not help so much. So, remember, western surgury is not always the answer.

  21. Late entry, but I also have been having a new and exciting experience with Chinese accupuncture! About two months ago, my left leg started hurting quite a lot. After not going away like I thought it would, I decided to go to my local Hangzhou hospital which uses East/West medicine. Six pins in the back of the leg, some areas much more sensitive than others, followed by the electric shock treatment for 30 minutes.

    Result?: Mixed. I think they diagnosed the problem correctly (that I had pinched my nerve and that my back was not aligned correctly), but the accupuncture seems to have only a temporary effect. Their other treatments they do to me (herbal steam on my lower back and those suction cups) seem dubious as to their value. But at Y135 for three sessions, it is much cheaper than what you went for in shanghai.

    Enjoy the stares!

  22. Anonymous Says: January 2, 2005 at 7:39 am

    I got a sore throat and my eyes turned pink red every morning,So finally decided to visit a Doctor in Shanghai.I arrived the place weekend holiday and signed the registration form and in just few minutes the Doctor came.He asked me and i told him about my sore throat and my eyes turned pink red.The doc got his flash light and check my throat in less than a minute, then say Ah!! I know. He write his findings and say OK its finished.I shocked he said OK,I complaint regarding my eyes then he said that,you need to go to other doctor.In few minute the nurse aid bring me to other doctor for my eyes for evaluation .After the check-up i went to counter to pay the medication and professional fee.It also turned out to cost way more than i had expected, 400Rmb Professional Fee for the two doctors in just few minutes.You still lucky John you pay 400Rmb for 30 minutes season ,thats not too expensive as compared to my experinced

  23. You might want to consider vitamin therapy for your varicose veins; vitamin e is good for the circulation, and certain b vitamins ( i don’t remember which) are useful to prevent circulatory problems.

  24. I went to acupuncture for tinnitus. I would pay altogether under 300 yuan per month or 12 visits. When in Nanjing hospitals, if I get a doctor trying to practice language – that is language raping me – I take off right away. It’s a sure sign that the person is a cheat. On the other hand, if the doctor can’t even speak standard Chinese, that’s the best. He knows his stuff, has worked within his community for many years and doesn’t complicate his practice with extraneous studies. My doctor, 徐乃陽, works at the provincial TCM hospital in Nanjing and can cure tinnitus, usually within a month, and very cheaply. So contrary to what we might think, paying more gets you less. Greedy, selfish and ultimately unhappy people make for terrible doctors.

    Thanks John for sharing your experience.

  25. Hi!

    Just read the above message from Heirabbit that she knows a doctor to cure tinnitus – am myself suffereing from tinnitus for the last 10yeears and thus would be grateful if more contact details of this doctor are given – am based in shanghai

    My doctor, 徐乃陽, works at the provincial TCM hospital in Nanjing and can cure tinnitus, usually within a month.


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