Lara Wagstaff had been experiencing chronic sinus problems and intense hormonal mood swings for months. The Ventura, California, aesthetician had tried numerous remedies, but nothing was making a difference. Ready to think outside the box, Lara decided to try acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medical practice.
“I was very skeptical about the whole needle issue,” Lara says of her initial hesitation, but any fears were put aside during her first session. The practitioner “explained the diagnosis and treatment in detail and was so gentle in placing the needles that I barely felt them,” Lara says. “I felt a sense of calm and warmth once the needles had been in place for about 20 minutes.” Lara returned for several more treatments and found relief through a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies. “The treatments successfully addressed my sinus infections and greatly reduced my premenstrual symptoms.”
Ancient Practice, Modern Medicine
Acupuncture, originally practiced in China more than 4,000 years ago, is based on the idea that a vital energy, known as qi (pronounced “chee”), flows through the body along 20 meridians, or channels. When this energy is blocked, the result is symptoms or pain.1 By stimulating specific points on the meridians—with acupressure, tiny stainless-steel needles, or heat (moxibustion)—these blockages can be cleared, thereby relieving symptoms.
“The ancient Chinese recognized the vital energy behind all life processes,” says Cally Huttar, PhD, LAc, who practices traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Ketchum, Idaho. “In developing an understanding of the prevention and cure of disease, the ancient physicians discovered a system of cyclic energy flowing in the human body along specific pathways. Each pathway is associated with a particular physiological system and internal organ. Therefore this medicine is often experienced to be more comprehensive in preventive care, working with the immune system, the organs, the blood, the fluids, and the psychoemotional aspects of health.”
Huttar, who specializes in women’s healthcare and emotional wellness, also treats patients experiencing pain patterns, with a focus on rehabilitation after surgery and trauma. The number of issues that acupuncture can address, Huttar says, is long and varied and includes everything from low back pain to allergies to depression. In fact, in 2003 the World Health Organization (WHO) published an official report listing 28 diseases, symptoms, and conditions that have been shown through controlled trials to be treated effectively by acupuncture.
Acupuncture and Cancer Treatment
Included on the WHO list are symptoms related to cancer treatment. In recent years studies and clinical trials have increasingly indicated the positive impact that acupuncture can have on patients’ quality of life during cancer treatment. Specifically, researchers have been investigating the role of acupuncture in relieving pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.1
Misha Ruth Cohen, OMD, LAc, is a doctor of Oriental medicine and a licensed acupuncturist who has practiced Asian medicine for more than 34 years. Dr. Cohen is well aware of the benefit that acupuncture can provide to cancer patients, and she cites two studies that specifically speak to the impact of acupuncture on side effects of treatment. In one study of breast cancer patients suffering from hot flashes, researchers found that adding acupuncture to breast cancer treatment may help manage symptoms with fewer side effects than conventional pharmaceutical treatment.2 In the second, twice-weekly acupuncture treatments were found to relieve severe dry mouth in head and neck cancer patients being treated with radiation.3
“Some of the greatest benefits with acupuncture treatment are in the area of symptom management during cancer treatment,” Dr. Cohen says. In addition to the relief that patients can find from side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Cohen adds, is the benefit to those experiencing post-surgery pain and recovery, fatigue, and depression during cancer diagnoses and treatment. “We can also help women who go through premature menopause have an easier time with the symptoms associated with reduced hormones,” she adds. If a diagnosis is terminal, “acupuncture can also be used for pain management at end of life, when spirit points are often used as part of palliative care.”
Patients Find Relief
When Rhonda Radliff was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in November 2007, she knew right away that she wanted to incorporate complementary therapies into her treatment plan. So when she began to experience fairly intense side effects shortly after beginning treatment with the targeted therapy drug Sprycel® (dasatinib), she turned to acupuncture. “When I began treatment, the medicine had to work hard to diminish the amount of disease, and I had lot of side effects from the chemotherapy. Since I didn’t want to take even more drugs, I did some research and saw that acupuncture would help alleviate, or lessen, some of my side effects.”
Rhonda, who is treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, sought help from Meide Liu, LAc, through the hospital’s Place of Wellness, which offers patients a variety of complementary therapies. In her initial year of therapy, Rhonda found relief from bad bone pain, fatigue, headaches, and nausea. “It also seemed to help reduce the rashes and swelling caused by the chemo,” she says. She continues to combat lingering side effects and says that the treatments provide relief: “Dr. Liu knows just what to do to help reduce the swelling, fatigue, and bone pain.”
Collaboration and Care
Patients like Rhonda, who benefit from acupuncture as part of an integrative healthcare plan, speak to the value of a collaborative approach between Eastern and Western practitioners. Dr. Cohen is inspired by the increasingly open communication that exists between practitioners of the two traditions. “It is important to me that we are developing new lines of communication between Eastern and Western practitioners and are bridging the gap that has existed for a long time,” she says. “Up-and-coming new practitioners—both Eastern- and Western-trained who are interested in exploring and supporting each other’s medicine—inspire me.”
For Huttar, inspiration also comes from the collaboration between patient and practitioner that emerges in her work. “I feel that healing is a mutual effort between the patient and the practitioner, and I am truly inspired by the courage and determination that some people make when entering into a therapeutic relationship with this medicine.”
To gain the full benefit of Chinese medicine therapy, the practitioner who administers the treatments should have reputable training and a keen sense of the philosophical underpinning of Chinese medicine. The best way to determine if a practitioner meets these standards is to ask a lot of questions about his or her training, length of practice, scope of practice, specializations, attitudes about wellness and disharmony, and understanding of Chinese medicine philosophy.
Meeting Basic Standards
Every acupuncturist should be licensed (in states with licensing requirements) or certified. In almost all states, there are state licensing boards and nationally there is the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM, www.nccaom.org). If a person lives in a state without a state licensing board, it is particularly important that an acupuncturist has a certificate from NCCAOM. Acupuncture degrees in this country come from accredited schools of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine schools and colleges.
You want to find a practitioner who is schooled in the Chinese medicine therapies that you want to use. There are practitioners who are licensed acupuncturists (LAc) but do not offer herbal therapy; there are others who are herbalists but provide no acupuncture; there are licensed acupuncturists who also have training as herbalists; and there are practitioners who provide acupuncture and herbal therapy.
An herbalist (who may also be an acupuncturist) should have either a certificate of training or a long-standing reputation and years of experience. Many schools train people in herbal medicine, but there is no independent licensing for Chinese herbalists. A very few states, including California since 1982, require practitioners to take an exam in both acupuncture and herbal therapy to be licensed to practice acupuncture. NCCAOM does offer an herbal certification, but it doesn’t lead to licensure.
You also want to decide if you are looking for a primary care physician, someone to work with your primary care doctor, or simply someone who can provide short-term treatment for a specific complaint.
If you are looking for a primary care physician, I recommend someone who is knowledgeable about all aspects of Chinese medicine and Western medical procedures—someone who will know when to refer you for Western evaluations and testing and is willing to work with a Western doctor if doing so provides you with the best therapy.