The fertile realm of acupuncture
Victoria Mary Clarke talks to acupunturist Karen Costin, who specialises in treating women for infertility and during pregnancy
A HEAVILY pregnant lady with an alarming array of needles sticking out of her legs waits quite contentedly in reception. I can't help feeling squeamish.
"Don't worry," says Karen Costin, a slender, vibrant blonde with a firm handshake. "She's just being induced. Acupuncture is wonderful for inducing labour."
Karen decided to become an acupuncturist after her mother took her, at the age of 16, to be treated by a practitioner who was then Ireland's only acupuncturist. The problem that she was treated for was an irregularity in her menstrual cycle. The fact that she herself specialises in treating women who are pregnant and women who are having difficulty getting pregnant is, she says, coincidental.
Today she runs a highly successful practice in Dublin and many of the women who have come to her have so far, she says, been able to conceive and give birth, despite having had no success with conventional medicine.
Several of the people I spoke to described her as something of a genius. Genius, she says, runs in her family, but not the kind she deals in. Her father was a famous racing car designer and everyone else in the family is mechanically minded. In fact Western medicine, Karen says, is too mechanically minded and therefore can't get to grips with a system which treats the spirit as being the source of all illness and therefore addresses the spirit, first of all, in a treatment.
The system which Karen practises is called Five Elements acupuncture, "Which is the system that was used to treat the emperors, before China became communist. It deals with the body, mind and spirit. By treating the spirit, that then heals the emotions, which then heal the body. So the body is the last place to heal.
"In our society, we have doctors who specialise in all the different parts of the body and other doctors for the mind, and the priest is the one who is supposed to treat the spirit, God love him! So we don't have spirit doctors, which they have in other cultures."
But the spirit is so ephemeral, I say. How do you even define it?
"I define the spirit as that part of you that makes you get up in the morning and say, 'It's a beautiful day!' Or, 'What a crap day,' even if the sun is shining. The internal experience. Everybody's spirit is unique, so everybody's perception of reality is different."
It is difficult to describe how acupuncture works, she says. "It's not like describing the mechanics of a car, even though that is the way most of us think of the body as a machine that breaks down, occasionally, and has to be fixed.
"I once had to give a lecture about acupuncture to a group of doctors never again! They just couldn't understand that you can have a bladder meridian that starts in the eye and ends in the toe!
Having practised for 12 years, she has been encouraged and rewarded by the successes. And if it is working, maybe people don't need to understand just how it works.
The means of diagnosis is, itself, highly complex. "I use the colour of the face, the sound of the voice, body odour, emotion and the pulse," she explains. She sniffs me and asks if I'm wearing perfume. I am, I confess. Is it horrible?
"Yes, I do tell people not to. To come in with no make-up and without using any products. Because you can't get an odour through a waft of Chanel!"
Most of the women Karen sees have been diagnosed as having unexplained infertility.
"That's an issue that's getting bigger in Ireland and IVF is becoming more prevalent, but it's very toxic. And the success rate is very low. Your chances of getting pregnant are between five and 15 per cent. And apart from the aftermath of all the chemicals in your body, it's still quite a taboo.
"People feel that they are supposed to be able to have children, and that if they can't there must be something wrong with them. The husbands feel impotent, too. I've counselled a lot of people through break-ups, as a result of it. They feel like failures and they become obsessed with the fact that they aren't getting pregnant, and with their age, and quite desperate."
SO WHAT can Karen do for them? "The first thing that we do is to calm their spirit, so that the obsession goes. You can't possibly expect your body to perform if you are that obsessed.
"And all the women that I've worked with say the same thing that after two or three sessions, they might not be pregnant, but they are no longer obsessed. They start thinking about things like going on holidays, which they would have never dreamed of doing!"
I spoke to Fiona, who had been trying for five-and-a-half years to get pregnant when she discovered Karen. "I had had IVF and had miscarried five times, always very early on in the pregnancies. I had every possible test done, but they couldn't find anything wrong with me. Karen was able to detect that my levels of oestrogen and progesterone were too low for me to be able to sustain a pregnancy, and with the aid of acupuncture and herbs, after a year of treatment, I am five months pregnant and feeling great!"
Fiona was told about Karen by two friends who also managed to have children after having been diagnosed with unexplained infertility. It makes sense, she says, because the acupuncture strengthens your body from within, so that your health improves and therefore your chances of conceiving are increased.
For people who are already pregnant, Karen designs a programme that sees them through to the birth and afterwards.
"Acupuncture is wonderful for treating all those symptoms that you get when you are pregnant, like oedema, high blood pressure, back problems, not being able to sleep. There has been a lot of research done in China into the effects of acupuncture on pregnant women. With breech births, for example, they have 85 per cent success rate with turning babies around, which means that the woman doesn't have to have a caesarean section."
During the final weeks, Karen is on call 24 hours a day. It's a big commitment, she says, so she can't take on too many people.
"And it's a big commitment for the women, especially the ones who decide to have a natural birth. No drugs! Just breathing and acupuncture. But it's quite amazing. It's especially amazing to be able to empower women so that they can take an active role in their pregnancy and labour. People are far too frightened of childbirth, and they really don't need to be. It's supposed to be a natural part of life."
Karen Costin, Tel: 01-2805009