Piercing Insights Acupuncture Therapy Slowly Making Gains in the Mainstream

Chi — the traditional Chinese concept of a life force or energy — isn’t an easy concept to explain. Debra Rusenko needed a growl and a resigned sigh to describe it.

“If you’re driving down the highway and someone cuts you off, you go, ‘grrrrr,’” she said. “And at the end of a long day, you’re tired, you cook dinner, then later you see the dinner dishes and go, ‘uuuhhh.’ You want to balance your ‘grrrrr’ with your ‘uuuhhh.’”

Rusenko, as a licensed acupuncturist with Abundant Wellness Center in Chicopee, helps people do just that. She can discuss the benefits of acupuncture from both the American perspective — how properly inserted needles reduce muscle tension and stress and improve circulation — and from the traditional Chinese perspective. That philosophy, which might date back as much as 5,000 years, is based on chi, and how sickness and pain are basically imbalances in the flow of the body’s energy. Acupuncture is a way of restoring the balance, making it perhaps the earliest example of a holistic approach to health.

“From an Eastern perspective, acupuncture can be understood as the means of balancing the yin and yang of the body, as well as opening up and balancing the channels that run through the body, and balancing the chi — the life force that flows through the body,” added Jacob Wenger, a licensed acupuncturist who plies his trade at Laprise Chiropractic & Wellness Center in Springfield.

“In a healthy body, chi flows freely and unhindered,” he continued, “but when the body becomes diseased or stressed, the chi is blocked, and this leads to pain and discomfort. The Chinese have a saying: ‘if there’s movement, there’s no pain, and if there’s no movement, there’s pain.’ So acupuncture makes sure that the movement of chi is balanced in the body.”

For a practice that has been around for at least 2,000 years and perhaps as many as 5 millennia, acupuncture has fairly recent roots in America, having been in common use for no more than 40 years. But although it’s still considered an alternative therapy by mainstream medicine, a slow acceptance has emerged in some quarters, particularly on the West Coast and in other progressively minded regions — like Western Mass.

Sharp Focus

Acupuncture is anything but a one-size-fits-all solution to medical problems, Rusenko said.

“Every time someone asks me questions about acupuncture, I tailor my answers to their personal background and what they’re coming in for,” she said, noting that the four most common complaints are body pain, stress, digestive problems, and women’s issues, such as premenstrual syndrome, menopause, and infertility. That’s right — acupuncture, she said, has been shown to increase the success rate of in-vitro fertilization treatments.

There are different forms of acupuncture practiced throughout the world; for example, Chinese acupuncture uses a different type of needle — about the width of a dog whisker — inserted deeper than in the traditional Japanese style. But all forms recognize the basic set of meridians, or lines of the body, along which needles are inserted.

“Rivers flow in more than one place,” Rusenko said by way of explaining how a needle inserted in a certain place can affect the health of an organ or tissue elsewhere. “Nobody actually knows why or can prove the theory, but there’s plenty of empirically based evidence. As they say, billions of Chinese people can’t all be wrong, even if the modern scientific method of double-blind studies isn’t great at proving or disproving the effects. But lots of studies have demonstrated an excellent effect on specific things, such as back pain and migraines.”

“Essentially, every culture gets introduced to the basics of acupuncture, and adds to it,” Wenger said. “In the West, we focus a lot on balancing the nervous system by releasing endorphins, and by releasing trigger-point muscle fibers that are caught in contraction by placing the needle into that trigger.”

Some might be skeptical of a practice which, as Rusenko admitted, is best proven anecdotally. But Wenger isn’t surprised that increasing numbers of people are giving it a try.

“I think people are becoming frustrated with the limitations of Western medicine,” he said. “Western medicine is great for acute situations and for dealing with infectious diseases, but when it comes to chronic conditions and long-term care, it doesn’t work as well as some of the alternative treatments. More and more people are trying acupuncture every day, and it’s becoming more accepted within each state as far as the legality of the practice and insurance coverage.”

Rusenko agreed, adding that popular acceptance of acupuncture is also somewhat dependent on geography. “New England has become more aware of alternative therapies, and the West Coast has been doing it for a little longer.”

She noted that closed, Communist societies shut off much of Asian culture from the West for a long time, but starting in the 1960s and 1970s, acupuncture and other practices began to filter across the ocean. “Around the ’70s, relations started to open up, and Asian medicine specifically became a point of interest here, and Americans started studying it,” she said.

Not surprisingly, the biggest barrier for some people considering acupuncture is needle anxiety — and practitioners understand that’s a very natural reaction.

“There’s a common misconception that acupuncture hurts, but it shouldn’t hurt if done properly,” Rusenko said. “It’s common to feel a sensation of dullness, heaviness, tingling, sensations you can’t put your finger on … but there shouldn’t be a burning sensation, and it shouldn’t feel sharp.

“Most of the time, people don’t feel the needle being inserted,” she noted, unwrapping one of the thin, flexible, stainless-steel needles she uses — just once, of course — on patients, “It just feels like a tap on the skin.”

“Many people come in with hypodermic needle fear,” Wenger added, “and there’s definitely a level of anxiety with the first treatment: ‘is this going to hurt?’ ‘It’s strange to have needles all over my body.’ But generally, after the first treatment, people are pretty relaxed, and it makes sense to them.”

Pinning Down the Problem

To Rusenko, it all comes down to what each patient needs.

“I see 10 different headaches in a day, and rarely do I perform the same treatment twice,” she said. “It’s very individualized and tailored for the patient.”

It can also be a complementary therapy for patients also receiving chiropractic care or massage. Rusenko said people can achieve some relief from muscle tension and aches and pains through such modalities, but she believes acupuncture is a less fleeting solution — or, at the very least, a good partner to those other therapies.

“Acupuncture can make the chiropractic treatment last longer,” she said. “It can make the pain relief from massage therapy last longer. The goal is the same — maintenance for body pain — but adding a little acupuncture to the mix has a tendency to reduce discomfort over a longer period of time.”

Wenger agreed that acupuncture treatments are by their nature very individualized. “It’s different than Western medicine in that we’re not just treating the symptom, we’re looking at the whole body and searching for the underlying root of discomfort and disease.”

Rusenko believes acupuncture will become even more effective as it moves further into the mainstream because, right now, it’s typically a patient’s final course of action.

“We’re usually the last stop, which is unfortunate, because the sooner you get the treatment, the faster it will work,” she said. “As a general rule, with someone who has had shoulder pain for 12 years, it will take longer to make an impact than on someone who has had it for 12 days. People tell me, ‘I have surgery scheduled in three months; can you fix me instead?’ Well, yes, but I wish I had seen you 11 1/2 years ago.”