An Ancient Form of Medicine – Studies Show Acupuncture Helps Treat a Broad Range of Conditions

Emily Angotti had never heard of the Chinese method of healing known as acupuncture until her daughter came home from medical school and told her about it.

But it has made a remarkable difference in her life and is a modality she has turned to repeatedly for pain and other problems.

“I would probably be in a wheelchair without acupuncture; I was looking for anything that would help me when I found it,” she said, adding that she has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lung cancer, and severe allergies. “I don’t know how it works, but for me it has been a miracle.”

Angotti said her family doctor sent her for treatments when physical therapy failed to relieve the pain she was suffering as a result of from fibromyalgia. “It was so bad that I couldn’t walk,” she told HCN. Acupuncture has also helped with stabbing pain that occurred after she had a portion of a lung removed and medication made her so nauseous she couldn’t continue taking it. “It helped me breathe better and has also helped my allergies.”

Marianne Mahoney and her family have also benefited from acupuncture.

“I began getting it for my daughter when she was 7 years old,” she said, explaining that she was uncomfortable with the idea of putting the girl on steroids for a long period of time for an autoimmune disease. “I did a lot of research and was concerned about the side effects of the drug. And I have no doubt that Chinese medicine was one of the factors in her slow, but profound, recovery.”

She also utilized acupuncture herself after a variety of surgeries that resulted in pain and complications. “It works on all aspects of your health and wellbeing. Every time I have acupuncture, I get a deep sense of immediate relaxation, and it has provided me with enormous relief over a period of time,” she said.

Angotti and Mahoney are among millions of people who have turned to acupuncture for help in relieving pain and curing conditions that range from insomnia to infertility, headaches, asthma, depression, anxiety, and more.

The treatment, as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, is a procedure that stimulates points on the body through a variety of techniques. The one most often scientifically studied involves penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are manipulated by the acupuncturist or by electrical stimulation.

“It’s a great treatment for a variety of conditions and has been used for more than 5,000 years,” said licensed acupuncturist and nationally certified herbalist Susana Byers, who has offices in Easthampton and Amherst. “The great strength of Chinese medicine is that it is truly holistic, since it treats the connection of body, mind, and spirit as one. In fact the World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture as effective for treating allergies, depression, dysmenorrhea, headache, knee pain, low back pain, adverse reactions to radiation and chemotherapy, as well as a host of other conditions.”

Dr. Shewee-Tian Chou, of the Acupuncture and General Medicine Center in Springfield, is a licensed physician in China as well as the U.S. He practices Eastern and Western medicine, incorporating Chinese herbs and other modalities into the treatment plan as needed.

“I don’t know how it works, but for me it has been a miracle.”

He began studying acupuncture in China 57 years ago under his father’s tutelage. “When I was 7 years old, I saw my father help people in wheelchairs and thought he had magical powers,” he told HCN, adding that he spent years studying Chinese medicine, became a physician in the Republic of China, then went on to study Western medicine to gain modern scientific knowledge, and finally became a boardregistered physician in Massachusetts.

“In Oriental medicine, a disease is viewed as the result of an imbalance in the body,” Chou said; practitioners of acupuncture aim to correct that imbalance.

The needles used in the treatment are usually about the size of a cat’s whisker, so there is little if any pain and no bruising. They typically remain in place for 15 to 30 minutes. In ancient times, they were manipulated by hand, but today, battery-operated electrical stimulation is used, which is consistent and comfortable.

“But the needles must pierce the skin to a certain depth and in a certain direction,” Chou explained. “It is not a simple procedure that someone educated in Western medicine can learn in a short period of time.”

And success depends on the severity of the problem. “The longer someone waits, the longer it will take to fix,” he said.

Inner Workings

Although many people turn to acupuncture to resolve a specific issue, others use it to maintain their health and well-being.

“There are many diseases and physiological dysfunctions that do not yet amount to a disease that can be cured by acupuncture,” said Chou, explaining that sometimes people go to their doctor with vague symptoms and leave without a diagnosis, but still don’t feel right.

Byers concurs. “Acupuncturists are interested in your diet, your lifestyle, and all aspects of your life as it impacts your health,” she said. “A lot of people feel there is something wrong with them, yet nothing shows up in tests, so their doctors send them home. But they still don’t feel right. And acupuncture is really good at putting the body back in balance by improving the immune system.”

The cost of private sessions typically range from $60 to $125, although there are low-cost clinics at which treatments cost $20 to $40. And some acupuncturists use a sliding scale.

“People generally feel somewhat better after one treatment, but to fully resolve a problem may take a number of treatments,” Byers said.

Chou said his working definition of acupuncture is that it “works to normalize physiological functions by balancing the chemicals in the body.”

Chinese medicine says energy comes from chemicals, and energy runs through meridians in the body. “Even water has a chemical formula,” he said, adding that chemicals are used in every bodily function, including digestion.

Chou was the director of a hospital in China that employed both types of medicine, and he treated people from all over the world, including a doctor from Florida who wanted to learn acupuncture. He also trained many practitioners in the discipline.

He said the modality was first discovered about 5,000 years ago when a cave dweller’s illness was cured due to pressure from pointed objects on certain parts of the body. “And experience taught man to apply pointed bamboo, wooden sticks, or rocks to certain locations on the body to treat illnesses. Gradually, Chinese physicians discovered the nerve centers strategically located at certain vital points of the body, Chou noted.

But although acupuncture is an ancient form of medicine, it did not become popular in the U.S. until 1972, when President Nixon’s secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, traveled to China accompanied by a journalist for the New York Times. The journalist had an emergency appendectomy in a Chinese hospital, and doctors there used acupuncture to relieve his pain.

However, Byers says many misconceptions exist about the treatment. “Some people think it’s nothing more than a placebo. It’s very hard to prove how it works in a way that Western medicine accepts. But there are many scientific studies that show that it is effective,” she said.

Byers offered more insight in how acupuncture works. She explained that, when life energy, known in Chinese medicine as ‘qi’ (pronounced ‘chee’), doesn’t move smoothly through the body, it is due to a blockage in the meridian. For example, when a person has neck or shoulder pain and feels a knot or hard spot, it is the result of the blockage of energy.

Chou said treatments enhance the immune system by causing the brain to release positive chemicals. “Acupuncture stimulates the skin, and the nerve endings transmit the sensation through the spine to the brain. Then the brain discharges chemicals, including endorphins, hormones, and others which the body needs to fight the disease and increase the immune system. The brain produces chemicals instead of the person having to take medication.”

The goal is holistic treatment of the entire person, since a blockage can result in a variety of symptoms or conditions that can affect people in different ways.

“We treat the person, not the disease. For example, if someone is suffering from insomnia, it may be due to a variety of reasons,” said Byers, adding that causes could range from constipation to worry or anxiety.

“There is not one treatment strategy for any Western disease,” she told HCN. “But acupuncture is very good at helping people minimize sickness, such as the effects of colds and allergies. We can help to build their immune system or treat their fever and sore throat. And if they have a cold, they may also have neck or shoulder pain or a runny nose, and we can treat that, too.”

Chou said acupuncture is effective in treating many problems at once, as some are secondary. It works because “we are trying to normalize physiological functions. And different combinations lead the brain to produce different chemicals.”

Scientific studies show acupuncture relieves pain in the body by releasing natural painkillers or opiates, Byers said. But depression often occurs in conjunction with chronic pain.

Mahoney agrees. “When you are ill or injured and have a bad outcome, you get depressed,” she said. “And our bodies can’t be well if we are emotionally stressed. But acupuncture doesn’t separate the two. Acupuncturists look at your whole system, and the way it works is amazing.”

Both Chou and Byers cited cases of people with a wide range of conditions they have helped. Byers recalled, from her early training, conducting an externship at a Veterans’ Administration hospital where acupuncture was used to treat patients who could no longer take pain medication due to damage to their kidneys. “It provided them with the only pain relief they could get,” she said. “And there is a cumulative effect with treatments. The more you have, the longer the relief lasts.”

Health Maintenance

Byers often combines acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicine, which she says is quite safe as long as the herbs are obtained from a licensed, certified practitioner.

“Many people use acupuncture as a last resort,” she said. “But it is more effective if people seek treatment earlier. It is very valuable and is a complementary form of treatment that can be used in combination with Western medicine.”

Mahoney agrees. “Acupuncture is phenomenal,” she said. “I have a smile on my face after a treatment. And we are lucky to have many skilled acupuncturists in Western Mass.”