by Susan Hamilton

If you're like many Americans -- one in three, according to the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine -- you use some form of alternative medicine. You probably visit your chiropractor, naturopath or acupuncturist more often than you do your primary-care physician. That's what the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported in November 1998. And it's a trend that just keeps growing.

Many of us are embracing a more holistic health philosophy. We're requesting that our health practitioners look at us as a whole person -- body, mind and spirit. Rather than treating the illness that has the patient, practitioners are being asked to focus on the patient who has the illness.

"I knew back when I was in medical school that there was a better way to treat people," says Dr. Linda Hole, who has been practicing complementary medicine for 20 years, much of it in Spokane. "I've seen my patients change from more educated, wealthier people to everyone." But why is this so?

"Allopathic drugs and treatments have many side effects," she explains. "People are looking for a safer way. There are also many things that mainstream medicine doesn't have an answer for."

Other Inland Northwest practitioners of complementary medicine echo this sentiment. "Many of my patients are frustrated with the medical system," says Saskia Peck, a local acupuncturist. "They say that their symptoms are not being addressed or helped."

Restoring Balance -- Over the past decade, acupuncture has garnered a reputation as one of the most effective forms of alternative therapy. It's also the most widely accepted form of complementary medicine that is recommended by physicians. This is, no doubt, a result of a National Institutes of Health statement in 1997 that "the data supporting acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies."

Acupuncture is a healing method that has flourished in China since at least 400 B.C. It utilizes techniques that have been refined over many centuries. Acupuncture gained notoriety in the West in 1971, when a well-known reporter for The New York Times, James Reston, described how acupuncture had eased his pain after an emergency appendectomy in China where he was covering President Nixon's visit.

His acupuncture treatment "took about 20 minutes, during which I remember that it was a rather complicated way to get rid of gas in the stomach, but there was noticeable relaxation of the pressure and distension within an hour and no recurrence of the problem thereafter," Reston wrote.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine based on the opposing yet complementary principles of yin and yang. The acupuncturist seeks to correct imbalances of the yin and yang forces in the body by revitalizing a type of energy called qi (pronounced chee). Illness results when qi isn't flowing smoothly or when it gets stuck.

Traditional Chinese practitioners maintain that qi flows through the body in defined pathways, called meridians. Each meridian links a number of areas of the body as well as various organs and their functions. By activating some of the 2,000 acupuncture points on the body's meridians with thin needles, acupuncturists stimulate qi and help it to flow freely.

So how does acupuncture work? Studies have shown that during acupuncture treatments, body chemicals called opioid peptides (better known as endorphins) are released, thereby inhibiting pain. When acupuncture needles are placed in the skin, the immune system is stimulated, blood flow is altered and body chemicals (including hormones and neurotransmitters) are released, resulting in a wide range of physiological effects. Acupuncture patients report feelings of relaxation, decreased swelling and less pain after their treatments.

Acupuncture in Action -- A 1997 National Institutes of Health consensus panel concluded that "there is clear evidence that needle acupuncture is effective for postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting, nausea of pregnancy and postoperative dental pain."

I have found acupuncture to be most effective in pain relief," says Howard Lee, who practices acupuncture in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. "I have also had success in dealing with organ-related problems, such as digestive, respiratory and reproductive issues."

Lee's findings are backed by the National Institutes of Health. Its 1997 consensus panel found clear evidence of acupuncture's value in relieving muscle pain. Those who suffer from osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, sciatica, low back pain and menstrual cramps may also find help from acupuncture.

Acupuncture is accepted by mainstream medicine for the management of various types of pain, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, headache and tennis elbow. At Lincoln Hospital, an inner-city facility in New York, Dr. Michael Smith has been using acupuncture for 30 years at the facility's drug-and-alcohol treatment program, where he treats upwards of 200 patients a day.

Acupuncture is very useful early in drug treatment," he reports. "It gets patients stable enough to participate in our other services, such as 12-step groups."

If you're a middle-aged American, you face a 90 percent chance of developing high blood pressure, according to a recent report in JAMA. "There is an extensive base of literature from Asia and Russia showing that acupuncture does indeed lower blood pressure," says Dr. Randal Zusman, Director of Blood-Pressure Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. "A substantial number of our patients have responded with significant reductions in blood pressure."

Under the Needle -- So what's it feel like to be a human pincushion? It's relaxing and energizing at the same time. Here's what my first visit to an Inland Northwest acupuncturist was like.

At first, it's all talk -- about my symptoms, that is, and how they affect me, emotionally, physically and mentally. Then my pulse is taken for several minutes. My acupuncturist says she's feeling for the quality of the pulse to see how my qi and blood are doing. Next, my tongue is checked for color, coating and shape. Why? "Your tongue is the mirror of your body," Peck says.

As I remove some of my clothing and lie on my stomach on the massage table, I'm covered with a towel. A heat lamp keeps me warm and comfortable. Hair-thin needles are inserted into specific points on my back about a half-inch into the outer layer of my skin. It really doesn't hurt. It just feels like tiny pin pricks. On certain points, I feel a sensation similar to a light electrical charge. At other points where needles are placed, I feel a slight tugging sensation. The acupuncturist rotates a few of the needles "to energize the qi more fully," she says. This portion of my treatment lasts about 30 minutes, but I'm feeling no pain.

At my second visit a week later, more needles are inserted into my back, legs and hands. Towards the end of my session, I also experience a moxibustion treatment. This involves putting a walnut-sized piece of herb on top of one of the needles and lighting it. The pungent aroma fills the room and the warmth brings heat to my stagnant meridian. The lighted needle is removed after a few minutes. I'm noticeably relaxed and a bit sleepy after this treatment. That night, I sleep deeply.

After two more treatments, my symptoms have improved and I now see my acupuncturist only for periodic "tuneups" every few months. The treatments cost $60 each, which my insurance plan covers.

Picking a Provider -- It's all about credentials. Most states require acupuncturists to be licensed by passing written and practical exams, such as the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) test. Acupuncturists should also have a Clean Needle Technique certification as approved by the NCCAOM. Training is the next requirement. A good acupuncturist will have at least two years of training, preferably in a recognized acupuncture program.

Physicians who practice acupuncture should have at least 200 hours of acupuncture training. Ask about your practitioner's experience in treating others with your condition. The acupuncturist should provide a diagnosis after taking your history and performing an exam. And remember that acupuncture is not a quick-cure remedy. A good practitioner will be able to estimate how many treatments it will take for your condition to improve. Finally, ask others who have experienced acupuncture who they recommend.

One of the advantages of acupuncture is that there are few side effects, especially when compared with Western medicine. Rarely will an acupuncture treatment cause a condition to worsen temporarily. There may be slight bleeding or bruising after the needles are taken out, but this is also a rarity. Since acupuncturists' needles are sterile and disposable, there is an extremely small danger of infection.

Pregnant women should take care if they're seeking acupuncture, since needles can bring on uterine contractions if they're placed on certain areas of the body. However, acupuncture has a reputation for easing nausea during pregnancy.

Always discuss the medications you are taking, especially blood-thinning drugs, with your acupuncturist. Conversely, keep your prescribing doctor informed about your acupuncture treatments.

Finally, remember that acupuncture has been around for thousands of years. "If acupuncture wasn't so effective, it wouldn't have survived so long," explains Lee.

Publication date: 02/12/04

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