Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Friday, 3 September 2021

Giving acupuncture to refugees in Lesbos


I have just spent over 3 weeks in the Greek island of Lesbos, offering acupuncture treatments to refugees. I wanted to do this for a long time and had planned to go in the Spring 2020. The pandemic changed my plans, and when the Moria refugee camp got destroyed in a fire last September, I donated most of the funds I had collected for my trip to help refugees who had to sleep rough and had no access to food or medicines during this time. I started fundraising for my trip again this year and finally managed to get enough money to cover my flight and my stay for a few weeks.

Me and the wonderful Earth Medicine team
I arrived in Lesbos very early on Wednesday 4th August , left my bag, had a shower and went straight to work. Earth Medicine, my host organisation, has premises in the centre of the island’s capital Mytilene. I was taken there and introduced to the team of helpers – also refugees and asylum seekers-, and to those who had early morning appointments.  Everything was different from what I had imagined. I had planned to conduct a pilot study using a scalp and body acupuncture protocol for PTSD, alongside giving one to one treatments. To carry out this plan, I needed a large space in which I could offer separate group treatments to men and women and I needed 10-20 women and men ready to receive 10 daily treatments exclusively for PTSD and nothing else. I imagined the space would be easily found in the actual refugee camp.

As it happened, the Kare Tepe camp where Earth Medicine was previously based, had recently been shut down without warning and none of the organisations that had been offering services within that camp for years were given a space in the larger camp – which people call Moria 2.0. I visited the camp a few times and found it desolate and the conditions inhumane. There is blatant disregard to human rights here. There are many elderly and disabled people and small children living here in containers and tents in 40o heat, with no running water, on a ground that is made of dust and gravel and which is difficult to navigate even when you are able-bodied. The toilets are dirty and all of them seem to be up a hill, the camp is next to the sea which rather than an asset is a risk for children and a source of freezing cold gusts in winter; and there is a stinky canal running alongside people’s tents. In here, there are no communal spaces at all, no school, no playground, basically nowhere to feel human again and definitely no place where I could have given the group acupuncture treatments.

Camp Moria 2.0
At the time of my arrival, new local coronavirus restrictions had been imposed on the refugees and they were not allowed to leave the camp after midday. In addition to this, I soon realised that even though every single person living there has experienced trauma and PTSD symptoms, their priorities were not necessarily treating their trauma symptoms but their physical pain, their digestive problems, and their neurological issues. So, I had to let go of my needs and try my best to help people with theirs. I adapted well to the heat  -which I didn't expect!- and to working in an environment that required me to be flexible both physically and mentally.

I spent my first three days breaking the ice talking to people, listening to their stories, and giving some treatments. Most people where surprised to be offered needles as treatment and the translators were working hard to help me explain the benefits. Fortunately, Earth medicine had already printed out some information about acupuncture in Farsi and Arabic so I wasn’t starting from zero. In many cases, I negotiated putting one needle in and only use more if there was no discomfort. Everyone who tried it became a convert and, as the weeks went by, there were more and more people coming from the camp asking to receive acupuncture as they had heard how good it was from someone who had benefited from treatment. I decided not to receive anyone new in the last week so that I would have time to get some completion with the people I was already treating. Many people received daily treatments to begin with but as they felt better, we were able to spread out their sessions. In the three weeks I was there, I gave a total of 145 treatments to 35 people.

These are the main issues I treated:

  • Lower back pain – mostly in young men and older women- usually caused by hard work and cold. Many young men I met had been victims of slavery and exploitation in Iran, Turkey, and Greece, made to work long hours on building sites and factories for hardly any pay. There were some victims of torture too experiencing a variety of painful conditions.
  • Shoulder and neck pain- mostly in young women – usually caused by stress and in many cases by having worked for years as slaves in Iranian sweatshops
  • Neurological symptoms – motor and sensory impairment in some cases due to diabetes, in others from injuries, and one from stroke.
  • Anxiety and insomnia- typical PTSD symptoms caused by the lived traumas of war/violence/loss, this is exacerbated by sleeping in a tent and feeling totally vulnerable at night and by the uncertainty and the difficulty of the asylum process people have to go through
  • Digestive problems- abdominal pain, lack of appetite, and constipation were the most common

Treatments were very successful and in 90% of cases there was great improvement in the symptoms.  The greatest success was in pain levels and we saw faces changing from the typical chronic pain frown to smiley within a couple of days and mobility becoming increasingly easier with more treatments. Anxiety and insomnia also responded very well, greatly relieved with scalp acupuncture lines.

Some happy pain-free faces!

There were two neurological cases that needed a lot more treatment and a lot more attention than others and which made it very hard for me to leave. Treating neurological conditions is one of my passions and I have seen how scalp and body acupuncture can make a difference to people over a period of time. One of them was a 61-year-old woman from Afghanistan who had a stroke before fleeing her country and was carried by her son the whole way across the different countries until they got to Lesbos. Apart from the stroke, she was in complete shock. She responded well to treatment and became increasingly alert and present. As well as treatment, she needed a lot of attention and kindness which she will continue to receive in the Earth Medicine clinic.

The other case was this 33-year-old man:

Mr K, from Syria. Back in 2013, he worked for the Syrian government. When he refused to collaborate in the war, his house was bombed with him inside. The roof fell on his head and he had an injury that rendered him unable to use his R arm and both his legs. He lost the ability to speak too. Mr K had to flee his country in this condition with his wife or they would have been killed. He has lived in Lesbos for several years and has been coming to Earth medicine for massage and physio exercises every day for over a year. His cousin comes with him every time to help him with his exercises.

 His hard work has helped him recover his speech and he can now transfer and give steps on the remedial parallel bars, with help. When I arrived, his movements were very forceful and disorganised, he would tense his whole face and body to move one limb.

I started giving him scalp and body acupuncture from my second day in Lesbos. I used the motor lines and the foot sensory and motor lines on the scalp; and treated the Shaoyang and Yangming channels on the R arm and both legs. After 5 treatments, we started to do exercises with the legs and arm while still having the scalp needles in. As the days went, these exercises became easier and he started to disassociate the movement of his toes, feet, knees, and even his fingers. At this point, we started walking on the bars with the scalp needles, really focusing on sending the messages to the right part of the body to be moved before attempting the actual movement. We were all watching him every day and saw how his movement became much more controlled each day. He was very happy with his progress and so was I!! I gave him instructions to massage the motor and foot lines on the scalp and to continue working in the way we were doing. I am hoping that he will continue getting better. Mr K has a wife and two small children, they all live in the refugee camp and face the difficulties that this involves every day. According to different human rights conventions, vulnerable people with disabilities need to be prioritised for asylum. Nevertheless, this family has been refused asylum 3 times by the Greek government. This is a massive source of stress that curtails Mr K’s progress as well as making you think, what is happening to our humanity?


I am planning on returning to Lesbos before the end of this year so I will start fundraising again in the next week or so. I would also like to invite other acupuncturists to volunteer in the New Year. Earth Medicine will be delighted to host more volunteers and I have been asked by them to interview potential candidates. If you are interested, please contact me directly.

I thank everyone who helped me get to Lesbos this summer, the material and moral support were overwhelming. Also, much gratitude to Balance UK and Phoenix Ltd who kindly donated needles and moxa. I have a lot of needles left in Lesbos awaiting my return so thank you so much for enabling me to help so many people!!

With love and in hope for a better world for all,



If you would like to find out more about Earth Medicine's work, or support them with a donation visit their page here
If you would like to donate so I can return to Lesbos to give acupuncture to refugees before the end of the year please visit my fundraising page here 

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

My Christmas wish

Undoubtedly, this has been the toughest year many of us have experienced. Suffering, fear, anxiety, sickness, and death have been more present in our lives than ever before. We realised we are not as powerful and infallible as we thought, that we are vulnerable beings. I have felt much sadness for all those who have suffered so much, those who have lost loved ones, who have become sick and have been unable to recover, for those who have lost their livelihood and their ability to fend for themselves and look after their families, for those who have been besieged by so much anxiety and fear for the future.

I am one of those hopelessly hopeful people and I always try to find something positive in the darkness. This year, with all the pain it caused, has shown us that human suffering is not exclusively for those who are poor and disenfranchised, that all of us are susceptible to uncertainty, to life becoming unsustainable, to sickness and death. Sad and difficult as this is as a personal experience, it may be the path for our collective growth as compassionate beings. Compassion, collaboration, community are three things that come to mind as greatly lacking in our world. Without these qualities, we will continue to see innocent people killed in pointless wars, drowning in the sea trying to reach a safe ground where they can live and thrive, and experiencing all sorts of unspeakable things. During lockdowns in my city, I witnessed how these three qualities started to flourish, the difficulties bringing out the best of our humanity and urging some of us to help those in greater need than ourselves. This is beautiful and it fills me with hope for the future.

The medicine I practice and cherish is an ancient medicine based on Millenia of documented knowledge, constantly modernised and adapted to changing times and new illnesses. However, it is a medicine originated in the Heart, in compassion, understanding, communication, and connection to one another and to nature. This is the heart of health and healing and modern science has been able to show that compassion, communication, and connection are all key elements to enhance and preserve human health. We cannot heal the body without engaging the Heart.

My heart-felt wish is that our difficult experiences will join us and help us move forward together into a future of greater creativity, health and love; where there is no place for so much hatred and destruction.


Wishing you all a peaceful and warm Christmas and a healthy and love-filled 2021, with gratitude for your ongoing support and trust.

Much love,


Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lockdown reflections

Yesterday's sunset

I watched the sunset yesterday, it was glorious: the huge orange sun slowly sinking into the pink horizon. I happened to notice it just at that time in the evening when the world falls silent for a moment. The birds were waiting for the right moment to sing again and we were all suspended in the eternal few seconds of stillness. I felt so comforted by this as I felt that we, for once, are becoming part, even if an unwilling one, of this “giving space” to the universe to perform its wonders. 

I haven’t really been sitting around reflecting on what the current situation we are living means for us. I have just been adapting to it, creating a little routine that helps me use my time productively and go through each day without feeling desperate. Every morning, I meditate to find my centre and not get knocked off by the turmoil around me, and I imagine sending waves of love and light to all my loved ones, and to all the people in the world. I do read the news from around the world every day and allow myself to feel the grief and powerlessness that seem to me the normal response to the daily death count of thousands of people and to the inaction, the lying, and the inadequate response of governments all around. But, knowing myself I know that if I let myself dwell on all the sadness of the situation, I will get consumed by that sadness and will not serve any purpose either for myself or others.

There are moments, like yesterday’s sunset, when we get an insight into reality. Not the reality of us stuck in our homes or of those infected by the virus, but the reality of a Universe infinitely bigger than us, of which we are part and which is always there for us to see when we come out of our minds and of our relentless train of important activities. In moments like those, we can but acknowledge the fact that there are two different dimensions in which we live simultaneously: The Personal and the Universal. 

At the Personal level, we are who we are within our bodies and with our particular set of experiences, thoughts, and emotions. At this level, we focus on our past, present and future, we worry about how this virus and all the circumstances coming with it will affect us. As part of this level we also feel the connection to our tribe, our family, our friends and loved ones, and all the people that we feel we belong with. Our personal level is all about our basic needs, and the safety of ourselves and our tribe. This is the natural expression or our survival instinct and therefore necessary and an intrinsic part of our make-up. However, an excessive focus on the Personal level can make us feel entitled and righteous, and oblivious of the bigger picture. We may go from being able to accept those outside our tribe and having concern for nature and life itself, to feeling entitled to take all we want from nature and seeing “others” as a danger to our safety who may take away our food, our jobs, our security, or the toilet paper that are rightfully ours.

 At the Universal level, we are part of a whole and who we are, what we think, feel and do, has an effect on our larger realm. This is much larger than our tribe, it refers to the whole of humanity, to nature itself, and to all that exists. At this level, my personal experience is less important than what is happening to the whole and I worry more about the impact of my individual actions on the whole than the other way around. When we focus on the Universal level, we try to do things that we regard as positive contributions to the wellbeing of everyone around us, of the whole of humanity, and of nature itself. However, excessive focus on this level, and I have known some examples of this in my life, can make us oblivious of our families and those closest to us, or negligent of our responsibilities towards our bodies or towards our tribes.

Perhaps it is not possible for normal humans like us to be aware of both of these realms at all times, but it is quite urgent for our human family that we increase our awareness of the Universal aspect of our existence. Our excessive focus on the Personal level is at the root of much of our individual suffering and of all that is dysfunctional in our planet. The lack of awareness of the impact that we have – both as individuals and as part of a consumerist society subjected to globalisation- on the whole of humanity and on nature, is causing our own destruction as well as endless suffering to living beings around the world.

If there was ever a right time for an exponential growth on consciousness, it is probably now that we have been forced to stop and listen. Interestingly, as we stop and listen, we are getting delighted by beauty all around us, beauty that we would normally not see or appreciate fully. This beauty is always there, even if we are not looking. Let’s just sit and watch it. Let’s watch it until we feel part of the scene, even just as spectators. Let’s become part of the scene and dare ask how we can collaborate with it rather than try to direct it or change it at our will, which is what we are constantly doing. Let’s dare ask the scariest questions: How can I continue to live in this world without destroying it? How can I collaborate with life instead of hindering it? What does it look like to be a person aware of their impact on the world, on the lives of all humans and all animals, and on the health of my home the Earth? What does it look like and feel like to be a human being with integrity and awareness? Let’s wait for the answers, perhaps we will get them in our dreams, perhaps the neighbour unwittingly will tell us something over the fence and it will be it, perhaps we will turn the computer on and a video will pop up and tells us things, perhaps we will open a book we have never read and it will open our eyes, or perhaps we will wake up one morning understanding what the birds are saying.

I cannot deny that sometimes my hope for humanity wavers, but there is something inside me that tells me that we have in us what it takes to turn this world around and make it become a welcoming and nurturing place for all who live on it. There was a time when our distant ancestors had immeasurable wisdom, they lived in communion with their surroundings, had awareness of their connection to the Universe, had respect for other species, and had reverence and humility at the magnificence of existence; we have many indigenous communities still living on the planet who testify to this. If our ancestors had the capacity to live like this then surely, we must have at least some of it. Let’s take advantage of the time we have been forced to take and, at least for five minutes every day, let’s try to forget the very real fear of the epidemic and the worries that we all have about paying our bills and keeping our jobs; and focus on the bigger us, the “I’m part of this wondrous whole” us, and see what comes out of that.

May we grow into the people who can make the world a better place for ourselves and all who live on it
 In hope and with love,