Stephanie Wu offers acupuncture with neon lighting and pop art basketball prints

‘I want to merge what I’ve learned about ancient healing with a modern person’s lifestyle’

By Alan Chazaro

Special to The Examiner

When I fractured five bones in my left foot in 2021, I became distinctly aware of my body’s complex needs for the first time. I attended appointments with an orthopedic specialist through an HMO, but they felt impersonal, burdensome and expensive. My doctor rushed in and out while my co-payments and bills piled up. At one point, I questioned why I kept returning.

Then I heard about acupuncture and decided to give it an open-minded try. My introduction came at the hands of Stephanie Wu, a San Francisco-based practitioner whose passion for sports medicine, basketball and sneakers appealed to my interests.

Wu was about 9 years old when she first experienced acupuncture. “My parents took me to this guy who poked me with a needle,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what it was, but afterward I felt better.”

Though born in the Bay Area, Wu spent most of her upbringing in Taiwan, where she was exposed to traditional Chinese medicine. Her mother studied the art of acupuncturing, enrolling in classes for it. Wu chuckles as she recalls seeing her mother trying to needle herself each morning as part of her practice.

“Chinese medicine can solve all your problems,” Wu’s mother told her.

Acupuncture — along with herbal remedies, cupping and tai chi — form a spectrum of ancient Chinese practices that have endured for millennia. Although a quick Google search will reveal that traditional Chinese medicine is often described as a pseudoscience, Wu is among many working to dispel misconceptions.

Following grade school in Taiwan, Wu returned to the U.S. to attend Rice University, where she majored in Chinese, history and biology. The combination of disciplines deepened her interest in the body and Chinese culture. An interest in fashion, sneakers and basketball followed. You can see her diverse influences in her acupuncture clinic, which has neon lighting, Taiwanese brands and pop art basketball prints.

“I want to merge what I’ve learned about these ancient ways of healing in a way that makes sense to the modern person’s lifestyle,” she says.

After eight years of training, Wu has her own practice, Stephanie Wu Acupuncture at 1404 Church Street in Noe Valley, where she offers a personalized experience for newcomers like me.

I entered Wu’s acupuncture clinic with a bit of nervousness. Getting poked beneath the skin with a bunch of tiny sharp objects didn’t exactly strike me as enjoyable, and I did no prior research. I was hoping to be soothed — if not healed — in a way that my regular doctor in our rapid-fire bursts of interaction had been unable to provide. I also wanted to learn. Wu turned out to be the ideal choice.

“Good circulation is the key to life,” she tells me after I’d settled into the space. “The theory in Chinese medicine is that pain comes from a lack of flow or circulation. We help with that.”

As she began to put the first of a few needles into targeted locations, I realized that acupuncture is an artform and medicinal practice based on a completely different axis of philosophy. Rather than trying to understand the body from the inside (for example, through x-rays or surgery), it approaches health from the outside (stimulating sensation and increasing blood flow).

This may seem disbelievable. Indeed, despite existing for 3,000 years, acupuncture has often been discredited as a viable form of medicine and does not always qualify for insurance purposes. The distrust of acupuncture goes back to at least 1882, when a Chinese emperor banned acupuncture from the Imperial Medical Institute. China again outlawed the practice in 1929.

But interest in acupuncture has endured around the world. For decades, for example, UCSF has conducted studies on its effects, limitations and benefits.

“It’s great that we’re researching this, but the reality is that it’s too complex and it can’t be explained or translated fully,” Wu says. “They are two different languages. I don’t know if Western medicine can truly understand or explain how Chinese medicine works because the framework is so different.”

Wu tells me that Chinese medicine operates on patterns, connection and intuition. Rather than trying to narrow down an issue to a singular cause and effect that can be solved with a definitive remedy, she says she views something like a broken foot with many variables and factors that can change based on the patient’s needs that day.

During our time, she explains the types of foods I should be eating, provides an ointment that she makes herself with an impressive stash of herbs in the back of her clinic and offers exercises to build back my foot strength.

In comparison, while visiting my doctor in a multilevel medical facility in Oakland, he tells me vaguely useful things like “pain is your best guide” and “this could take eight to 12 weeks.” I’m past the 12-week range now, yet he continues to show me an x-ray of my foot before moving on to his next patient.

About 45 minutes into my acupuncture session — with more needles in me than I’d ever imagined — I feel calmer, at peace and, surprisingly, pain-free. The acupuncture activates a warm stimulation in my foot I hadn’t felt for weeks prior. It’s not that it healed my fractures; rather, it brought a wave of relief and feeling of tingling circulation.

I leave feeling restored — not only physically, but spiritually — due to Wu’s style of care. The next morning, I wake feeling better than I had since my injury occurred. It isn’t just my foot that somehow feels fresher, it is my mind.

“I try to educate my patients and give them context of what I’m doing,” Wu says. “That makes it a more useful experience when they can also learn something.”

It’s all been enough to convince me that there is more than one methodology to resolve any problem. I am still going to my regular doctor, but I’ve also become a believer of the needle and needler.

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