It starts off almost innocuously, a little tickle in the back of your throat before you head to bed, maybe watery eyes that you attribute to staring at your smartphone for too long. Then you wake up completely congested, with a runny nose and a hacking cough, head full and sinuses aching. It’s the beginning of allergy season (every season) in Louisville.
Last week, the weather warmed to a pleasant 65 and sunny, bringing all the runners and cyclists out into the wild, dogs to dog parks, bar patrons to patios and pollen straight into my sinuses. A hacking cough (so bad it feels like it’s bruised my chest and ripped apart my abs), a stuffy nose and an unpleasant case of post-nasal drip have been my reality for 168 hours. So fully have my allergies taken hold, that for three days I haven’t slept through the night, waking up five, six, 10 times in the middle of the night to have a coughing fit and grab a glass of water. I have a constant headache, I am sleep deprived, my body hurts and I sound like a pack-a-day smoker (thanks to the aggressive coughing ravaging my vocal cords). Now, my teeth hurt because I’m fighting what has turned into a sinus infection – the first I’ve had, ever.
Growing up, allergies didn’t really factor into my life – there was some sneezing here and there, especially when the pollen count was high, but nothing that really disrupted my everyday. Cut to Michelle the college freshman, moving an hour northeast of home, ignorant of the bustling allergen hell that is Louisville. (This is quite literally the worst city in the country for allergens). Since that fateful day five years ago, my allergies have gotten exponentially worse. This fall, ragweed allergies were so bad that the flood of fluid swimming around in my head partially deprived me of my hearing for three months. Three months.
You could say it’s been a battle.
It’s a war that I’m definitely not suffering through alone — according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year, collectively costing them over $18 billion. And allergies are a serious matter – the sixth leading cause of chronic illness. Here in Louisville, these numbers feel magnified as we seemingly have basically every airborne allergen mother nature has available (plus smog!).
This week, I’ve been desperate. The knowledge that I can only take so many OTC drugs without sending my liver into a tailspin has been weighing down on me. Without exaggeration, I told my family and friends that if I didn’t find a solution, or a way to reasonably manage my suffering, I would have to move far, far away. So, I started looking for alternative treatments.
I briefly considered the new Louisville salt cave, but something about the healing powers of salt didn’t strike a chord with me. I eagerly looked into the possibility of a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, but it doesn’t appear to be actual treatment for allergies (though it may offer a few minutes of reprieve from pollen-tainted air). Acupuncture became a beacon of hope, offering a potential holistic approach to my problem.
While the science of acupuncture is unclear – and sometimes Westerners have a hard time believing in Eastern medicine – the practice has a demonstrated effect when treating pain and nausea, with many theories as to how sticking needles into your skin can influence the inner workings of the body. For me, it makes sense that stimulating the nervous system (in this case by poking it with needles) can have direct effects within connected systems. Plus, I’m apt to consider the possibility that something that several populations of people have been using for thousands of years may work, especially when those people have a demonstrated longevity.
I forgo any drugs the morning of my appointment – I want to be able to measure, as best as I can, if it works. My acupuncturist, Lindsay, greets me by name as soon as I walk in, and we spend a while talking about my health and symptoms, basically working up a health profile. The conclusion being a diagnosis of spleen and lung qi (chi) deficiency.
Having this qi deficiency basically means that the energy between my spleen (the producer of the phlegm, in Chinese medicine) and my lungs (the containers of phlegm) is messed up and making me sick. Since I know that the spleen is a big player in the immune system and I can feel the obvious impact of my lungs in this problem, I can buy the diagnosis. She treats my deficiency by targeting a few points — near my ankles, around the navel, one in my arm, a few in my fingers and a spot under my collar bone.
I don’t really feel the needles going in — the bed I’m laying on is comfortable, the room is warm and I haven’t had a fit of coughing in a little while. I’m staring up at a mobile, drifting off. She lights some herbs on fire and leaves me alone. I can feel the warmth from the herbs on my feet and my mind is empty. I have no concept of how long I’m on that bed. After a while I start getting chills, emanating from behind my shoulders and spreading like ripples in a pond. I’m not cold, so I think the acupuncture must be doing something.
Lindsay releases me soon after, pulling the needles out (completely painless) and giving me some herbal cough drops to take home. We schedule a second session – for some, the effects can start immediately; for others, they can take up to three or five sessions.
Will these sessions help me survive this allergy season? I’m not sure. I know that that my acupuncture session was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in a long time. And I know that when I went to bed that night, I only woke up once to cough (as opposed to the previous night’s five times). Last night, two nights after the acupuncture, I was able to sleep a solid 10 hours without interruption. My voice is coming back, it’s a little easier to breathe and I cough a lot less now. But I know that the number of drugs and cough drops and cups of tea I’ve consumed are contributors to how I’m feeling.
So, did the acupuncture assuage my allergies, really?
I don’t know, but I feel good enough about it to keep my second appointment.