Health & Wellness

Eastern Medicine on the West Side

Does acupuncture hurt and other questions for Beth Steinberg: Licensed Acupuncturist

How and when did you become interested in the field of oriental medicine?

I wanted to be a medical clinician from a very early age. I adored my pediatrician and wanted
to emulate him; he was so calm and caring. I studied political science as an undergraduate at Barnard College, and then earned a Master’s in public administration with a concentration in public health from Columbia University.
I worked briefly in the public sector, and then raised three children. When the youngest was in second grade, I decided I was ready for Chapter Two, and began researching professions in allied health. When I met the dean of Pacific College I was very impressed with the breadth of knowledge he possessed as a medical anthropologist. Though I was skeptical regarding Chinese medicine, I decided to take a leap of faith and enroll.

What training is required to become an oriental medicine practitioner?

To practice acupuncture in New York State, you need to graduate from an accredited school of acupuncture and pass the national exam administered by the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine). My school, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, consistently ranks in the top ten acupuncture schools in the US——and I am proud to be a graduate.
Our four-year training includes classes in Western medicine such as biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, orthopedic and neurological evaluation as well as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. We also work in our school clinic for three years under the supervision of experienced clinicians to develop technical and diagnostic skills.

How rigorous is the training?

It’s extremely arduous; had I known how tough it was going to be, I doubt I would have begun! There is a lot of memorization, as there is in Western medical education, and it was very rough going. There is nothing simple about learning acupuncture and herbs at Pacific, but I emerged with valuable knowledge and experience. My clinical practice is enormously gratifying, and I love helping my patients.

How does your practice function and how is it different from Western medicine practices?

I am a solo practitioner, as many are in my profession. I see only one patient each hour and spend at least 30 minutes face-to-face with each patient, often more. I think the two most valuable assets for clinicians to possess are listening skills and analytical thinking.
Listening to the patient discuss their concerns is critical to developing a working diagnosis. Diagnosis in Chinese medicine is far more difficult than in Western medicine: we have no blood work or imaging to guide us, but we achieve excellent results with careful listening, keen observation, and rigorous analysis.
Chinese medical diagnosis relies on a medical philosophy refined over more than two thousand years with constant tweaks based on the experience of hundreds of clinicians. The medical philosophical constructs are complex and do not lend themselves to brief summaries.
It’s important for me to add that I deeply respect Western MDs; my father is a retired doctor. I regularly see Western doctors for my own health care and appreciate their knowledge and dedication. I like the flexibility that combining Western and Eastern treatments offers me in maintaining my health. Sometimes, Western medicine alone is fine and sometimes Chinese medicine alone is fine. I find, often, that both together offer quicker healing and resolution.

What advantages does Chinese medicine offer to patients over mainstream Western medicine?
It’s hard to generalize, but in a nutshell, the advantage is our different focus. Western medicine, on the whole, focuses on relieving symptoms, whereas Chinese medicine focuses on identifying the causative factors of the symptoms and treating the underlying condition. We call that “the root” vs. “the branch approach.”
Certainly, it is important to address symptoms, such as pain, and we certainly do——especially in acute conditions. However, we are also interested in resolving the underlying reason for the patient’s concern—whether it’s pain, heartburn, difficulty sleeping, acne, late menstrual periods or rashes. Chinese medical theory provides us with the analytical framework to identify the origin of the patient’s problem so we can successfully address it.
Besides addressing the root of the patient’s problem more successfully, the side effects of Chinese medicine are far more benign than Western medicine. Where Western medicine uses a canon, like steroids for psoriasis or antibiotics for acne, we use precision sniper rifles like acupuncture and herbs—which, properly employed, have minimal to no side effects and can almost always be safely combined with Western pharmaceuticals.

What is a typical course of treatment like?

At your first visit, you’ll complete a d≠tailed four-page medical history questionnaire. Yes, paperwork: surprise! I read it and ask you questions that arise from the information you provided. I allot 45-60 minutes for this part of your visit; then decide on a treatment for you, which will take an additional 30 minutes.
Treatment can include acupuncture or other modalities such as cupping, gua sha, or moxibustion; whatever I think will advance your healing. I also use essential oils as an adjunct to acupuncture and instruct patients how to use them at home for selfcare. I often don’t prescribe herbs at a first visit, but may add a standard or custom herbal prescription in future visits. Follow-up visits last an hour: we talk for 30 minutes, and then I provide a 30-minute treatment.

And for the perennial question of newbies: does it hurt?
I can honestly respond that, no, acupuncture does not hurt.

How is that possible, if it involves sticking needles in a patient’s skin?
Well, we are mostly familiar with needles used for vaccinations or blood draws. These needles are thick and hollow and require the application of pressure to enter the skin and then introduce or draw out a substance.
Acupuncture needles are only the thickness of two human hairs. They are solid, are not inserted deeply and do not withdraw fluid or add any substance to the body. Nerve endings are most plentiful on the surface of the skin, you do feel the insertion of the acupuncture needle, but most patients say that at worst it is like a mosquito bite. The needle remains in your body for the course of the treatment, and although you are aware that something is in your body—it is not painful. Some patients compare the sensation to that of a splinter: they can feel something is there, but it isn’t uncomfortable. Many patients find acupuncture treatments to be extremely relaxing and actually doze (sometimes to the point of snoring) during treatment.

How long have you been practicing and why do you enjoy it?

I have been in practice for thirteen years and I thoroughly enjoy my work. People come to me in pain and worried about their physical condition and I get to hopefully send them home with both their pain and their worry diminished! Their delight and excitement is very gratifying.

Do you specialize in any particular area?

I have a general practice and enjoy treating everyone that walks in the door. I have found, however, that I have an affinity for treating dermatological conditions. I resolved a number of conditions that Western doctors could not successfully address, and provided successful treatment to patients who could not afford standard Western treatments. These conditions included hyperhidrosis, eczema, rosacea, and pityriasis lichenoides. I was privileged to study dermatology with Mazin Al-Khafaji, a British practitioner in Brighton, England, when he taught his series of dermatology classes in New York. Mazin studied Chinese medicine in England and China and he has an international reputation as an expert in dermatology and autoimmune diseases. I send my patients home to cook raw herbs and drink the resulting tea twice a day. The ingredients may change weekly depending on the patient’s progress. Topical treatments sometimes supplement the herbal teas.
The advantage of these treatments over Western medicine is that there is no need to ingest or topically apply any steroids. Steroid medication is standard for many dermatological conditions; but if a patient has a chronic condition, they often require stronger concentrations that can damage the skin, sometimes permanently. I am looking forward to introducing New Yorkers to this alternate treatment for psoriasis, eczema, acne, herpes, warts and many other conditions.

Beth C. Steinberg is a New York State Licensed Acupuncturist, and has been the owner of Westside Family Acupuncture since 2004. Born in Queens, she has been a resident of the Upper West Side for over 40 years. Beth holds a Master’s in Acupuncture and a Certificate of Chinese Herbology from Pacific College, as well as a MPA from Columbia University and a BA from Barnard College. She is a member of the Acupuncture Society of New York and is certified as a Diplomate of Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology by the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Beth C. Steinberg can be reached at 917-359-0430, or through her website

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