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Needle phenomenon

Tamara Miller
Preston Utley/Vail DailyAmie Brooke Nelson places an acupuncture needle in a patient's foot. Acupuncture has become increasingly popular.
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EDWARDS – Needles have done for Val DeVine what no pills could. DeVine, a 50-something part-time Edwards resident, has smoked for 35 years, suffers from daily migraines and has problems with her neck and back. But as of last week, DeVine has been migraine-free for 10 days. Her neck and back, both of which would “go out” frequently, have been in working condition for two months. She hasn’t had a cigarette for two months, either. “That’s a miracle,” said DeVine, who credits her recent trips to a local acupuncturist for making her feel better. “It’s done a whole lot. The migraines took the longest to heal, that took four weeks. But everything else, she seems to fix.”The Chinese have been practicing acupuncture for more than 3,000 years. But the medicine started to gain widespread recognition and credibility in the United States just in the past few decades. Growing demand for acupuncture has encouraged some traditional Western doctors to include it in their practice and some health insurance companies to reimburse clients for treatment, said Jim Dowden, executive director for the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. Most patients are like DeVine, and try acupuncture after Western medicine has failed. “I’m not adverse to modern medicine,” she said. “It’s just that the Chinese have got to be on to something. They’ve been doing it for 3,000 years.”The needlesThink of acupuncture and most people picture a patient with needles stuck all over her body. But there is a very specific method to acupuncture.The treatment is based on traditional Chinese medicine, whose core belief is that energy – known as qi (pronounced “chee”) – flows through certain pathways in the body. Those pathways are called “meridians”, and each meridian connects to one specific organ or group of organs that control specific bodily functions, said Amie Brooke Nelson, DeVine’s acupuncturist. Brooke Nelson, whose practice is part of the Vail Integrative Medical Group in Edwards, is licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental medicine. When there is too little or too much of that energy in a meridian, illness results. An acupuncturist works to restore balance and health by applying needles to certain points along meridian lines, Brooke Nelson said.The needles stimulate hormones and other body chemicals, which should correct the energy imbalance, she said.

Typically, a patient will come in complaining of one or two problems, such as a headache or problems sleeping. During that first visit, Brooke Nelson will talk to the patient about their overall health only to find out that the patient actually has other complaints as well. A headache and foot pain may be interrelated, for example.”Injuries are a results of a systemwide issue, when the body is weak in some way,” she said. When Brooke Nelson puts a needle in a patient’s foot for a headache, it’s because the two may be connected. Brooke Nelson uses sterile, disposable needles that she unwraps just before placing in the patient. The most commonly used needles are about as thin as a strand of hair. They are placed in the top layer of skin, and most describe the sensation as a small pin-prick, – if they feel it at all – she said. Not your average doctor’s visitA session with an acupuncturist takes about an hour. Brooke Nelson has prospective patients fill out a health history for their first visit, which can take up to 90 minutes.In addition to asking questions, an acupuncturist may take a patient’s pulse at several points along the wrist and look at the tongue to observe shape, color and coating.Office receptionist Kristen Belanger volunteered to serve as the demonstration model for Brooke Nelson. After looking at Belanger’s tongue, Brooke Nelson asked if she had had trouble sleeping recently. She had. The problem may be related to a disturbance in the meridian connected to Belanger’s liver. Needles were placed in the foot and hand while Belanger laid on the bed. “I can feel a dull ache coming up from my foot,” Belanger said. That’s a sign that the acupuncture is working, Brooke Nelson said. Most patients feel different after their first session, though their ailment may not be gone, she said. It can take several sessions – a typical amount would be six to eight – to have real improvement, she said.

“The healing process is not immediate, especially if the problem is chronic,” she said. The herbal methodBrooke Nelson will also prescribe herbs or teas to help a patient’s health process. DeVine has been drinking a strong green tea, which is supposed to curb her cravings for cigarettes. She’s on milk thistle to minimize the nicotine withdrawal.The best way to take herbs is to boil the leaves with water to make a tea. But most Americans are too turned off by the taste to take the herbs regularly, Brooke Nelson said. That’s why she usually prescribes pills. They are easier to take and patients are less likely avoid taking them. Along with the herbs, DeVine has been asked to avoid dairy products to clear up congestion. “Making dietary changes along the way can clear up 50 percent of the reasons why they seek acupuncture in the first place,” Brooke Nelson said. “It also allows patients to play an active part in their healing. Typically it’s just, ‘Give me a pill and fix me.'”Not just for painWhile acupuncture is best known as a treatment for pain or nausea, studies show it has been effective for other problems, too. Some prisons use acupuncture to minimize the withdrawal symptoms for prisoners who used drugs, Dowden said. This is becoming more popular as prisons ban smoking – a common habit among people who have given up illegal drugs. “It has a good success rate as an alternative and it’s relatively easy to administer,” Dowden said. Acupuncture is getting more popular as a treatment for law-abiding people who want to quit smoking, too. “I’ve tried to quit a hundred times,” DeVine said. “You jump out of your skin while you are trying to quit. It’s serious, serious withdrawal. (Acupuncture) is able to minimize the withdrawal.”There are some studies that have shown acupuncture could help lower blood pressure and help patients with brain injuries or other neurological disorders. But more needs to be learned. “I don’t think anybody will say it’s a magic bullet for any particular condition,” Dowden said. “What it always is is an alternative. It used to be for chronic back pain the alternatives were medication, operation or physical therapy. Now there is another option.”



Better than modern medicine?It’s difficult to track how popular acupuncture is becoming, but signs say it is getting more respect, Dowden said. In addition to studies showing the technique can be effective, enrollment in acupuncture programs among traditional medicine students has increased. Dowden’s organization – which serves specifically medical doctors who practice acupuncture – had about 180 members in 1991. Now there are 1,800. Enrollment in an acupuncture training program at the University of California, Los Angeles hit a high of 300 per class in the late 1990s, Dowden said. That enrollment has tapered off to about 150 per class, but there are about 20 programs across the country. Scrutiny of Chinese medicine continues to keep some potential patients away. So does the fear of needles. DeVine’s chiropractor recommended that she visit an acupuncturist after attempts to help her neck and back didn’t work. That forced her to overcome a longtime aversion to needles.”I don’t get a shot without having to lie down and taking blood is a major ordeal with me,” she said. “I have a terror of needles but she doesn’t hurt me.”Acupuncture is getting some respect with health insurance companies, but, Dowden said, most companies only cover the treatment for certain conditions or in very small amounts. “It should in fact be embraced,” he said. “It’s a lot cheaper to reimburse for half a dozen acupuncture visits than to reimburse for a back operation.” Brooke Nelson also argues that acupuncture can be less expensive in the long run. Rather than several trips to a doctor – which can cost more than $100 a pop without insurance – a typical acupuncture visit is less than $100. Instead of expensive surgery to fix an aching back, a few months with acupuncturist could be the less invasive, less costly solutions, she said. DeVine suggests that Western medicine and Chinese medicine, like acupuncture, are compatible. “There’s a time and a place for this and there’s a time and a place for a surgeon and a knife,” she said. Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or tmiller@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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