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

Thursday 16 December 2021

My second trip to Lesvos to offer acupuncture to refugees


After my first trip to Lesvos in August this year, when I saw the huge need for treatment and human care amongst the refugees living on the island, I decided to go back to offer my skills and to use the needles and moxa I had left from the donations made by Balance UK and Phoenix Medical UK. Through a fundraising page, I collected enough money for my flights and my stay, which came from contributions made by friends, colleagues, and even people I have never met, to whom I am very grateful.

I arrived on the island on November 20th to a surprisingly cold and windy morning. I immediately realised I hadn’t packed the right clothes for the trip. I wasn’t expecting it to be hot but I didn’t expect it to be so cold either! I travelled on a weekend to give myself time to rest, prepare, and discuss the appointment schedule for the week with Fabiola, the incredible woman founder and director of my host organisation, Earth Medicine.

Acupuncture cabinet at Earth Medicine

Earth Medicine had just moved to new premises, a huge house in Mytilene, the island's capital, and it now boasted three different rooms where treatments could be done. In one of the rooms, I found a dedicated acupuncture cabinet where all my needles and moxa equipment had been lovingly placed for my arrival. I was warmly welcomed by people I had met back in August and the first week was already fully booked with treatments. During my stay, there were many people coming to offer a hand, all of them from Germany: a photographer who has been documenting the lives of refugees in Europe for some time, four young women of Afghani and Syrian descent who have started an organisation dedicated to help people from these countries, a young physiotherapist, two homeopaths- one of them I had met in August, and a young woman who was driving the blue van used to transport people from the camp to the clinic and back, including wheelchair users.

In contrast with my first visit, when we were sweating constantly in the intense heat and people living in the camp were unable to sleep because of this, this time the temperature at night was very low and we had strong winds and stormy weather for many days. This, and the shorter days, had a definite impact on the refugees’ physical and mental wellbeing and made their symptoms even more severe and even more urgent. There were several older women from Syria with the exact same presentation of water accumulation in the whole body that produced severe pain and soreness everywhere, their pain was so intense that they could hardly be touched. There were also men and women in their 40’s and 50’s with dangerously high blood pressure and sugar levels – often occurring simultaneously- that no amount of medication seemed to be able to control. Amongst the refugee population, these conditions are not a result of any dietary excess but purely a consequence of severe trauma and of the high stress and uncertainty that comes with living in a refugee camp. I understood that without treating the stress and trauma already lodged in these bodies, the pain, the sugar levels, and the blood pressure could not be forced to become stable. We saw some – often dramatic- improvements in most of these cases as a result of a multidisciplinary approach which this time involved homeopathy, massage, scalp and body acupuncture, and loads and loads of moxa.

Severe leg swelling- 
Severe leg swelling after a few sessions

The other group that deeply concerned me was the young men in their late teens and 20’s. I only treated seven of them during this trip but I was told that the refugee camp is full of them. These young men, like most people I saw, are highly traumatised by what they have lived and seen in their countries of origin, by the fact that they had to leave everything they knew, by the dangerous and treacherous journeys through different countries, by their experience of being on a crowded dingy for hours not knowing if they would drown – most of the people I have met in Lesvos cannot swim-, and by the fact that no young men are offered asylum even when their families have been granted it. As a result, they feel imprisoned in the refugee camp, unable to return home to more violence and unable to make a life somewhere else without papers. Now, if you have a son, a nephew or have ever known any young men of this age group, I ask you to imagine them in this situation. I have a nephew of this age and I know he is full of dreams, of plans, and hopes for the future and he is eager to not waste any time and impatient to get where he wants to. Young refugees are just the same, only they have no opportunities to do anything with their lives. What they see is their lives is passing them by, their dreams shattered every day, the hopes of being someone and perhaps having a family one day becoming unreachable, they feel useless and futureless, they are depressed, outraged, angry. The young men I treated, were being consumed by all the trauma and the sense of overwhelm. This was burning them from within. All of them – and also some older men I treated- had been increasingly losing their appetite, losing their ability to digest, rapidly losing weight and, as a result, the strength of the bodies was decreasing every day. 

An extremely weak young man
having moxa treatment 
I felt particularly worried for a 22 year old Syrian who had been forced to flee his country after being persecuted by the people who assassinated his father. He had been in Lesvos for nearly two years, and for over a year had been continuously losing weight. He was so weak he didn’t even have the strength to sit up so when I first met him he would come into the clinic and lie down for hours with a blanket over his head. He couldn’t eat much because his stomach was constantly sore, so sore it was extremely painful to touch it. I treated him every day from day one. I could see his body was shutting down and felt sure that at some point in the near future there would be no return. I used very few needles on him: on his body only to encourage his digestive system to work again, and on the scalp for his trauma, depression, and the anger and frustration that were making him implode. I also did moxa on him every single day. After 4 treatments, he started to sit up more, and over the next weeks he gradually looked more present and had more energy to interact with others – which I didn’t see him do to begin with. He was also having a good meal every day offered to him at the Earth Medicine house. By the time I left, he was sitting up all day and said he had no discomfort in his stomach, he was feeling stronger and we both thought he had put on a little weight. He was also cooking evening meals in the camp as well as having lunch with us. Earth Medicine is giving him food vouchers so he can get himself ingredients for his evening meals as those who have been refused asylum cannot buy their own food. I just hope that he will continue to eat and get strong and find something to cling onto so that he has some desire to continue living. I also hope that his appeal will result in an offer of asylum so that he can rebuild his life and help his family.

I have found that a certain combination of scalp acupuncture lines can be highly effective to reduce several of the most common PTSD symptoms. I learned these lines from Dr Suzanne Rubidoux and are part of the system developed by Dr Lin Xue Jian for “Psychosomatic disorders”. Most of these are found on the area over the frontal cortex of the brain and have a strong calming and grounding effect that makes someone who is highly wired, unable to settle, very depressed, anxious or even very angry, feel more peaceful, relaxed, and even content. I used these lines on most of the people I treated and they invariable helped promote relaxation, peace, and good sleep. In several cases they also reduced anxiety and depression, reduced the frequency of panic attacks and of angry outbursts. This was of course no antidote to the harsh reality that people are living but I could see how the reduced stress response offers access to other levels of a person system so that we can promote more balance and wellness in the internal body.

Scalp acupuncture used alongside
body acupuncture

I was able to give 187 treatments to 30 people during my three weeks in Lesvos. This is thanks to a team effort of all those who were working with Earth Medicine while I was there- driving people, making appointments, cooking meals for all of us, interpreting for us, and finding out who had friends in the camp who could benefit from treatments-, as well as those who contributed with their donations.

I have had a lot of praise for doing this work, for which I am thankful. However, I feel I have gained a lot from this, maybe even more so than I have given. For a start, I have literally felt my heart expanding, and I have felt more alive and human since my first trip to Lesvos than I have ever felt. It is a wonderful thing to feel connected to other human beings to the point of realising we are all exactly the same, even if this connection is brought on by their deep suffering. Within this connection, every person I have met has transformed into a family member which means I now have a place that is full of my mothers and grandmothers, my brothers and sisters, my children, nephews, and nieces. The success of the Earth Medicine project, with which I am so proud to collaborate, lies in the understanding of our common humanity. Rather than “charity” it offers “community”. A place where we all belong and exchange what we have, where we are just humans interacting with other humans rather than white people with brown people, Christians with Muslims, rich with poor, therapists with sick people.

I have a friend who always says that if something amazing is happening where we are, chances are it is happening in many other places already. I know he is right and I hope that we will all see this grow during our lifetime. My wish is that one day we will all find each other in this new place, where we are all part of the great human family, where we look out for each other, where your pain becomes mine and so does your joy.


With gratitude and love,


If you would like to donate to Earth Medicine to support their work in Lesvos, please click here

Friday 3 September 2021

Giving acupuncture to refugees in Lesvos


I have just spent over 3 weeks in the Greek island of Lesvos, 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 Lesvos 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 negotiate 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 Lesvos. 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 Lesvos 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 Lesvos. 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 Lesvos 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 Lesvos 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 Lesvos 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 Lesvos to give acupuncture to refugees before the end of the year please visit my fundraising page here