Before President Nixon opened up US relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1972, Americans knew virtually nothing about acupuncture. It had been mentioned in an 1892 medical textbook by the renowned physician Sir William Osler as a treatment for sciatica, but back then opium, morphine, cocaine, and pure heroin were all available over-the-counter so doctors didn’t bother to pursue acupuncture.
Click here for some wonderful old patent medicine labels, one of which (“The Mother’s Friend”) actually recommends morphine for teething infants. But don’t be too shocked. Today, psychiatrists routinely medicate children under ten with antipsychotics like Seroquel and Abilify.
When President Nixon made his historic visit to China, his press secretary James Reston needed an emergency appendectomy and had acupuncture for post-operative pain. For perhaps the first time, most Americans saw what acupuncture looked like and were exposed to 2000-year-old Chinese medicine. A few weeks later, photographs appeared in magazines like Time and LIFE of patients undergoing surgery after receiving acupuncture as their only anesthetic. I was a resident when these photos came out and clearly remember that everyone thought the pictures were doctored (Photoshop would not arrive for decades).
Through the concerted efforts of the medical establishment, acupuncture, as well as the use of Chinese herbs, went through some very difficult times. Each state has its own rules on the scope of a medical practice, which describe what someone who calls herself a physician may and may not do. These rules are created, as you might guess, by conventionally trained physicians.
In the early 1990s, when I first became involved in the uphill battle to get acupuncturists their own license to practice, the Illinois State Medical Society declared that anyone except an MD or DO who performed acupuncture was practicing medicine without a license, which could put them in jail. To make the penalty even harsher, one physician suggested an acupuncturist would be practicing unlicensed surgery, since the needles, like a surgical scalpel, pierced the skin. A well-known Chicago acupuncturist had the chutzpah to perform acupuncture on TV and was promptly arrested the next morning, though as I recall he was released the same day.
Change occurs slowly, oh so slowly
But then, kicking and screaming, one state after another, including Illinois, began to license acupuncturists. To this day, however, when a clinical study is published showing that acupuncture works for yet another medical condition (there are literally thousands of such articles), there’s always a chorus of protests from the same physicians about the quality of the clinical trial.
Most of these docs, who refer to acupuncture as “quackupuncture,” also loathe chiropractic medicine and nutritional and functional medicine, and whatever you do don’t get them started on energy medicine, homeopathy, or Reiki. Interestingly, some of these anti-alternative medicine docs manage to get their edits inserted into Wikipedia articles. To recognize them, look for phrases like “no scientific evidence” (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), an emphasis on side effects, and the use of a lot of quotation marks, like “energy medicine.”
The endlessly quotable Alan R Gaby, MD, guru of nutritional medicine, once said something along the lines of “Don’t get exasperated with these doctors. We’ll start seeing real progress when they finally die off.”
It’s happening now
And, truly, doctors around the world are sitting up and paying attention to clinical trials using Chinese medicine in ways they never did in the past.
For example, acknowledging a real problem with opioid dependence in the US, Daniel J Pallin, MD, an associate editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, was impressed with a study that looked at 300 patients who entered an emergency room complaining of acute pain from any cause. This pain might be a heart attack, sciatica, gallstones, kidney stones, and so forth. In almost any acute pain situation, the patient usually receives a small dose of IV morphine to quickly relieve her misery before doctors proceed with diagnostic tests.
In this particular study, half the patients received the routine morphine, the other half immediate acupuncture. They were asked to signal when their pain was better.
The success of pain relief was significantly different between the two groups (92% relief with acupuncture, 78% with morphine). Time-wise, acupuncture beat morphine (16 minutes for acupuncture vs. 28 minutes with morphine). And, of course, side effects were virtually nonexistent with acupuncture (2.4%) compared to morphine (56%). The conclusion, as published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, was that acupuncture could find a “central place in the management of an acute care setting.”
Then, a scant two weeks later, the British Medical Journal’s Acupuncture in Medicine conducted a meta-analysis (a review of previously published studies) on the effectiveness of acupuncture to improve memory, focus, and concentration. The patients, a total of 500, had either self-reported the problem to their doctors or been referred by family members for mild cognitive impairment.
The results were very encouraging. After two to three months of acupuncture, patients in the study reported improvement that was confirmed by their personal observations and neurologic testing.
To think that 44 years after Reston’s acupuncture treatment in Beijing, every day thousands of patients are receiving acupuncture treatment from licensed acupuncturists as well as chiropractic and conventionally trained physicians who have taken training in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). My personal bias is this: if you’re considering acupuncture, seek out one of the licensed acupuncturists in your area, simply because their education in the incredibly complex field of Chinese medicine is much more thorough. Chinese herbs are a very important part of TCM and are virtually never addressed in the abbreviated acupuncture education of MDs (medical doctors), DOs (doctors of osteopathy), or DCs (doctors of chiropractic).
WholeHealth Chicago’s team of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners—Mari Stecker, Cindy Kudelka, and Helen Strietelmeier–have years and years of clinical experience. In fact, Mari was the co-founder of the original version of WholeHealth Chicago almost 25 years ago.
On a lighter note, perhaps Mari’s special training in facial rejuvenation acupuncture explains why she apparently hasn’t aged a day.
David Edelberg, MD
A note on cupping from our acupuncturists
If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you’ve probably seen the dark circular marks on the bodies of Olympians, left after a treatment called cupping. Cupping therapy has cultural connections in Asia, South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Many cultures use cupping as a remedy for issues including upper respiratory infections, digestive issues, common colds, asthma, and muscular pain and stiffness.
Cupping has been used in China for thousands of years. The original cups were made of bamboo, but today the most commonly used cups are made of glass or plastic. A pumping device or fire is used to create a suction on the skin, which increases blood circulation to the local area, relaxes muscle tension, and stretches tight fascia. Cupping is most effectively used on fleshier parts of the body, such as the back, neck, and hip areas, and can be very effective in helping relieve pain in these areas.
Cupping itself creates a trauma to the body, activates its natural defenses, and thus promotes a healing response. When the immune system is activated, it sends immune fighter cells to the local area to clear any local blockages in the muscles and tissues. New blood and oxygen then circulate to the area, alleviating pain and/or dysfunction. The dark red marks are a result of the stagnation of qi and blood, according to Chinese Medicine. Although they look like bruises, they are not painful and if the same area is cupped several times, generally there are fewer and fewer dark marks as the circulation in the area is improves. The color of the marks can range from pale red to dark purple, the color signifying the level of stagnation. Pale red is mild stagnation and the darker and more purple the marks, the higher degree of stagnation.
If you’d like to try cupping, we recommend seeing a practitioner who is properly trained in this powerful therapy. WholeHealth Chicago acupuncturists Mari Stecker, Cindy Kudelka, and Helen Streitelmeier all incorporate cupping into their treatments.