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Acupuncture Gains Acceptance in Western Health Care

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Annie Finnegan

Oct. 3, 2000 -- It happened in a split second at the wholesale tree nursery where Mark Scheller works. He was loading a customer's tree into the back of a truck when the tree slipped and hit him in the head. The aftereffects? "A couple of screwed-up disks; horrible, debilitating headaches, plus my left shoulder felt like a rock," Scheller tells WebMD. "I couldn't work. I was sitting in a chair for 12 hours at a time. I just couldn't do anything."

In the two years that followed, he saw seven doctors. "I was going anywhere to find relief," he says. Then a homeopathic physician insisted that Scheller see Ian Cyrus, an acupuncturist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. The weekly treatment involves 15 or 20 needles inserted at various points on Scheller's ankles, knees, and the left side of his back.

"It's pretty unpleasant what he's doing," Scheller says. "He inserts the needles several times. It doesn't go into the muscle, but it's pretty uncomfortable." But the results, he tells WebMD, are "definitely dramatic. ... I was able to do my job ... not feeling 100%, but I could deal with that. It's been a real long time since I've gotten the massive headaches. ... I definitely feel like I'm making progress."

Acupuncture would never have been his first choice of treatment, Scheller says. "For those of us in the Western world, it's a pretty far-out thing. But I wouldn't put up with it if it didn't work."

Since it surfaced in the U.S. in the 1970s, acupuncture has gained acceptance as an alternative to traditional Western medicine, for pain relief and for treating a variety of other health conditions. Millions of American patients are seeking acupuncture treatments, performed by physicians, dentists, acupuncturists, and other practitioners.

One of the eight branches of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been traced back at least 2,500 years. "Archaeologists have uncovered ancient stone needles dating back 5,000 years, evidence that primitive treatments were used -- perhaps to treat wounds in time of war," says Lixing Lao, PhD, who heads a National Institutes of Health-funded study looking at acupuncture's effectiveness in relieving postoperative dental pain.

The ancient theory, Lao explains, is that patterns of energy, or Qi, flowing through the body are essential for health. Disease occurs when there are disruptions in this flow. Acupuncture involves placing needles to stimulate certain points close to the skin, which is believed to correct these energy-flow imbalances.

At his Philadelphia clinic, Cyrus treats about 60 patients a week. "These people are on several [medications]; they have a range of problems, from clinical depression to anxiety to a myriad of [muscle and bone pain syndromes] ... carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain," he says. "They're being managed by medication, but they don't want to be medicated anymore. They've tried everything under the sun, and nothing's worked. So they seek out people like me."

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