Ten years ago, you used needles for stitching-not healing. These days, it’s a different story. Once on the fringe of alternative medicine, acupuncture-a 3,500-year-old Chinese medical procedure in which needles are inserted into points of the body to cure illness-has gone mainstream. Twelve million Americans now spend half-a-billion dollars a year on acupuncture treatments. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the acupuncture needle as a legitimate medical tool. And many doctors believe that the FDA win soon endorse acupuncture as a viable medical treatment.
But how does acupuncture work and what can it remedy? According to Chinese doctrines, acupuncture relieves blockages along energy pathways in the body. Some Western doctors theorize that acupuncture merely stimulates the release of endorphins, which relieve pain. But however it works, studies show that acupuncture can relieve joint and muscle pain, digestive problems and stress. Acupuncture has also been used to combat addictive behaviors such as overeating and smoking.
To got the inside story on the effectiveness of acupuncture, we asked four women to undergo the procedure. The women, ranging in age from IS to 38, all suffered from common medical conditions-a weight problem, sports injuries, stress overload and cigarette addiction. We teamed them up with acupuncturists holding M.D.s or the equivalent degree in China. Most were registered with the American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists in Los Angeles and were selected for their proximity to the patients. Here’s what happened.
A cure for chronic pain?
Eight years ago while skiing, Kathy Green hurtled headfirst into the outstretched branch of a large pine tree. Luckily, she suffered no broken bones and was able to get up and continue down the slope. But her right knee, thumb and hip never fully recovered. Sharp pain in those areas would flare up after any type of exercise. “I never had the injuries checked out by a doctor. They didn’t seem bad enough,” says Kathy, who relied on heavy doses of nonprescription painkillers in- stead. “But over the years, the pain has become progressively worse.” Kathy hoped acupuncture would offer some relief.
At her first appointment, the acupuncturist, Ying Xu, stuck two needles in Kathy’s right hip, four in her right hand and another four in her right knee-all acupuncture points along the liver meridian that purportedly energize her afflicted areas. “It didn’t hurt,” says Kathy. “The needles just popped right in and I immediately felt a rush of light-headedness. It actually felt good.”
Next, Xu attached a thin wire to the end of the needles to send a light electrical current into the acupuncture points. As soon as she turned on the juice, Kathy’s index finger began to jump. “I had no control over it,” says Kathy. “My finger was hopping up and down like a jackhammer.” Xu quickly reduced the electrical current until Kathy’s twitches subsided and she began to experience a steady, comfort- able, pulsating sensation.
After the first session, Kathy felt completely relaxed. “My thumb didn’t hurt at all,” she recalls. Xu repeat- ed the electrically enhanced procedure for the remaining three sessions. Gradually, Kathy’s hip and knee discomfort began to decrease. By the end of the treatment, the pain had completely disappeared. Five weeks later, Kathy was still pain-free. “It was incredible how fast it all happened,” she says. “I’d do it again in a second.”
Trying to kick the habit
Each year, for the past eight years, Molly Wretzky has quit smoking. And each year, within four months of going cold turkey, she’s been hooked by the habit again. This time, she was determined to quit for good- even if it meant trying acupuncture. “I’m terrified of needles,” she admits.
The initial consultation calmed Molly’s fears considerably. Dr. Zeiger explained the theory that acupuncture would help her body quickly rid itself of the nicotine and other toxins deposited by cigarettes over the years. Once the toxins were gone, her cigarette cravings would diminish.
During their first acupuncture session, Dr. Zeiger inserted one needle in each wrist. He said this would access Molly’s lung meridian to promote healing. In addition, to induce relaxation, Dr. Zeiger placed four acupuncture needles across the crown of Molly’s head and inserted one on the top of each foot. “The needles didn’t hurt at all,” she says. “I was so relaxed after the session that I couldn’t wait to get home and go to bed.” Fatigue is a common reaction to acupuncture treatments, though scientists have not yet determined the reason for this.
The second session was even more relaxing. In fact, Molly fell asleep in the reclining chair. Still, her desire to smoke did not simply vanish overnight. “I was itching for a cigarette,” she says. To calm Molly’s nicotine withdrawal symptoms, Dr. Zeiger prescribed the anti-anxiety herbal supplement avena sativa. (Made from the oat plant, the herb is thought to act as a natural tranquilizer.) As she went through the tough detoxification process, Molly endured two more difficult days without lighting up. “I felt like I had a bad case of the flu,” she says.
“But in my mind I was sure I could make it.” Even though the withdrawal symptoms were more intense than those at any other time she tried to quit, she recovered faster. After a third session, Molly’s cravings for a cigarette had vanished. She hasn’t smoked in five weeks.
A weighty issue
When you’re a mother of two young children, it’s hard to stay in shape. Just ask Michelle Ghaffari. After the birth of her second child, she barely has time to sleep, much less work out. “My meals range from quick-fix foods like peanut butter sandwiches to Chinese takeout,” she laughs. “It’s been a year-and- a-half since my daughter was born and I still haven’t lost the 20 pounds I gained.”
Dr. Lu informed Michelle that acupuncture would help calm her appetite and rebalance her body. “He also told me I’d have to cut out all carbohydrates except brown rice and oatmeal,” recalls Michelle. “I nodded in agreement, but in my mind I knew there was no way I could stick to such a strict diet.”
At her first session, Dr. Lu inserted one needle in each of Michelle’s legs, just to the side of her shin, along the stomach meridian. He also inserted two needles directly into her stomach, one about two inches above her belly button, the other about two inches below it. The needle placement was designed to help decrease Michelle’s appetite. Dr. Lu left the needles in place for about 20 minutes. “I must admit, it hurt a little. I have really sensitive skin,” Michelle says.
On Michelle’s second visit, Dr. Lu repeated the procedure. This time, perhaps knowing what to expect, Michelle found the process less painful. By her final week of acupuncture treatments, she had lost 4 pounds, despite the fact that she failed to follow Dr. Lu’s nutritional advice to the letter. “My appetite has decreased and I’m more energized,” she says, “but acupuncture is far from a magic bullet. I still have to watch what I eat.”
Michelle, however, received one unexpected medical benefit that occurred during her treatment: the temporary relief of her lower back pain. “I’d mentioned in passing that I have back pain, so Dr. Lu used a procedure called cupping. He took these suction cups, each about the size of a silver dollar, and stuck them in the middle of my back,” ex- plains Michelle. “The suction cups burned like crazy and the pain was agonizing for a couple of minutes.” Nevertheless, Michelle’s back pain went away completely during her treatment, though it returned a few days later. “The pain would probably go away permanently with more treatment, but I’ll never subject myself to cupping again,” says Michelle.
Respite from Stress
A typical day for Shanequa Collins begins at 5:30 A.M. She’s at Sun Coast Community High School by 7 A.M., takes demanding advanced placement classes all day and gets home at 6:30 p.m. After a light dinner, Shanequa stays up until midnight to complete her homework. Weekends aren’t much more relaxing. She spends Saturday and Sunday working at a department store. It’s hardly the life of a carefree teen, and stress has begun to take its toll: Shanequa suffers from migraines, chronic stomach pain and ulcers. “I worry nonstop,” she says.
Shanequa turned to acupuncture for help. During her first session, Dr. Regard inserted a needle in each of her forearms, one behind each elbow and one below each kneecap. A few minutes later, a stomachache that had been bothering her all day was completely gone. “I started to feel sleepy,” Shanequa says. Fifteen minutes later, Shanequa was totally relaxed. “Dr. Regard told me to go home and take a nap,” Shanequa recalls. “I ended up sleeping from 6 P.M. through the night.”
The next day, to her amazement, Shanequa felt totally calm. After a follow-up visit a few days later, she felt emotionally lighter than she had for years. “It was as though a sudden calmness just snuck up on me,” she says. “I noticed I didn’t feel as worried as I usually do. It was such a relief.” Five weeks later, Shanequa was still feeling less stressed- though she attributes some of this to a much needed summer vacation.