At an acupuncture clinic in Nairobi's Muthaiga, there are hundreds of needles of all sizes that are usually stuck on patients’ eyes, feet, ears and even tongues. About 16 to 20 of these needles are used on the different body parts to relieve pain or rejuvenate the body.
Acupuncture, a complementary treatment long shunned by many Kenyans is growing in popularity with about 10 acupuncturists now in the market to serve from women undergoing in vitro fertilisation, patients with Tourette Syndrome to men with persistent pains.
Tara Manji, an acupuncturist at Apples and Sense clinic says acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine that views pain and illness as a sign that the body is out of balance.
‘‘It restores good health through rebalancing pathways of energy running through the body. This is done by the insertion of ultra-thin needles at specific points to trigger a natural healing response,” she says.
In her clinic, she has patients aged between three and 86. There is greater demand now as more Kenyans seek alternative therapies to treat different health conditions.
“I see around 50 to 60 patients a month. On average, 10 per cent of these are new patients. A majority of my clients are female, well-educated and in their 30s and 40s,” she says.
Most Kenyans who visit acupuncturists, Ms Manji says, have fertility problems or struggling with pain.
‘‘The four most prevalent reasons people come to me is fertility issues, pregnancy support, pain management and psycho-emotional disorders,” she says, adding that unlike Western medicine which tends to look at symptoms in isolation, acupuncture examines the connections between different body parts, the symptoms and how they influence each other.
A number of patients who seek alternative therapies use them in addition to drugs and surgery and research shows that they may not necessarily share the information with their doctors.
A 39-year-old woman is one of the Kenyans who opted for acupuncture to manage polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition that affects hormones and may cause infertility. She also has endometriosis and fibroids which causes her irregular and painful periods.
“I opted for acupuncture after struggling with low energy levels, mood swings and stress following years of trying to get pregnant,” she says.
She says the needles are not painful, but there is a little surge of energy when they prick.
“If you are tense and apprehensive, there’s little pain. After a session, I feel relaxed. After a few months, my menstrual cycle became regular and I conceived. I had a session once a week for four to five months, each session lasting an hour,” she says, adding that before acupuncture she had tried fertility drugs for four months and three rounds of in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
The patients sought anonymity for privacy reasons.
J.B. who is 56 years old also does acupuncture to manage rheumatoid arthritis, a disease where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissue, joints and internal organs.
“The needling can be painful but after a while it feels relaxing. Sometimes after the treatment, I felt tired and other times energised. I have had the treatment for a year, once every two weeks with each session lasting an hour,” she says.
She says she chose acupuncture because it relieves the pain and regulates her immune system.
I.M, a 28-year-old has been doing acupuncture to help her with a complicated pregnancy. She says instead of feeding her unborn baby many drugs that are harmful, she prefers acupuncture which is chemical-free.
Even as women opt for acupuncture to improve their chances of conceiving, researchers argue that the procedure does not directly improve pregnancy outcome.
In a Jama medical journal, Australian researchers said acupuncture may have other benefits like making a woman more relaxed, less stressed and it elevates moods; factors that help improve pregnancy outcomes. Other studies suggest that the needling stimulates the nervous system to release chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals change the experience of pain and trigger the release of other chemicals and hormones, which may re-establish haemostatic balance within the body.
A visit to an acupuncturist costs Sh8,000 per session but for home visits, which are mostly limited to bedridden patients, it costs Sh10,000 per hour. For some lucky people, insurers such as Aetna, Bupa and Cigna cover acupuncture therapy in whole or for some sessions, but most local medical insurance providers do not pay.
Over the years, Ms Manji who has been practising in Kenya for seven years says her clientele has shifted from primarily being expats to Kenyans.
“I have also seen a significant increase in the number of men who come for acupuncture; whereas a few years ago, not many were willing to try it,” she says.
Arvid Pathak who is based at the Naturopathy Yoga and Acupuncture Centre in Nairobi's Parklands has been practising since 1992.
He says he sees patients as young as 15 years old with the oldest being 70 years old. Most come to seek pain relief for conditions such as arthritis and nerve problems. “Of late, I see more women coming to us for fertility treatment. I think more patients are taking it up because of feedback, there is more information about what acupuncture is and also the fact that people are becoming more conscious about their health,” he says.
He sees between nine and 10 patients a day with each session lasting between an hour and an hour and a half.
Over the years, research has shown that non-drug remedies may offer relief to some chronic ailments such as cancer and digestive difficulties.
Spinal manipulation, for instance, done by chiropractor is being used to treat back pains, massages are used to manage neck pains and sometimes patients struggling with persistent headaches are advised to take a long rest.
A.S, a 33-year-old man who has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder which sparks certain movements and sounds, started doing acupuncture to manage his facial muscular spasms.
He says at first the needles hurt when they are inserted.
“It is a matter of getting used to the needling. It is less painful than getting blood drawn, for example. I usually feel a little drained of energy after each treatment but my symptoms reduce almost immediately,” he says. He has had over 30 sessions and currently does one a month. “I decided to try acupuncture because apparently there was no Western cure for my condition which I had been living with since I was a child. The condition deteriorated to a level that I could not function and a few sessions of acupuncture made a huge difference,” he adds.
S.R, another man who is 42-year-old started doing acupuncture to relieve acute pain on his back and lower hip.
He attended about six sessions, each lasting an hour.
“I tend to favour alternative or non-allopathic systems for minor health issues. I believe acupuncture is a credible healing modality,” he says.
But despite the growing popularity, Ms Manji who holds a Bachelor of Science in Acupuncture from University of Westminster, London says there are many myths that the therapy is a form of satanism or witchcraft.
“Once, a patient brought members of her church choir to my clinic to make sure that the singing protected her from evil while undergoing the treatment. Many people do not understand what acupuncture is and just assume it is an Eastern, esoteric ritual,” she says.