On Pins and Needles: The Ancient Art of Acupuncture

BY Emily Colin

The room is dim peaceful. Soothing music plays in the background but otherwise all is silent. You lie sheathed in a sheet on a padded table with thin metal needles studding multiple parts of your body a proverbial pincushion. And youve never been more relaxed in your life.

If this sounds familiar chances are youve experienced the ancient art of acupuncture which originated in Asia thousands of years ago and has been used in the United States for about two centuries. In the state of North Carolina acupunctures history is briefer at least officially. Just ask Page Paterson who was there at the very beginning.

License 001

“When I first went to school there was no law in North Carolina about it ” says Paterson a licensed acupuncturist who holds a masters in acupuncture and currently operates out of the Wilmington Acupuncture and Counseling Center. “The acupuncturists across the state went to the attorney general who told us to get a license in another state. When theres enough of you he said you can lobby.”

So it came to be that in 1989 Paterson opened up a practice jointly in Wilmington and in Chapel Hill. “There was no other acupuncturist here; in Chapel Hill I joined an existing practice. I worked two days a week in Chapel Hill ” Paterson says. She built her Wilmington clientele by giving talks at the Sun and Moon bookstore no longer in operation and by word of mouth. “In five years I was busy enough that I sold my practice in Chapel Hill.”

Paterson wasnt alone. Across the state an ever-growing group of physicians wanted to use homeopathy in their practice and an increasing number of acupuncturists were calling North Carolina home. The time had come to lobby for licensure and as luck would have it the process took just one year. In 1994 Page Paterson became the very first acupuncturist licensed in the state of North Carolina a distinction to which the framed certificate on her office wall with its distinctive “001 ” attests. “We wrote a good law ” she says smiling.

That year Paterson joined an elite group of six other individuals who received their acupuncture licenses. Today according to the Community Acupuncture Network (CAN) around 400 licensed acupuncturists reside in the Tarheel State. Seventeen of them call Wilmington home (source: North Carolina Acupuncture Licensing Board). While our states acupuncturists constitute a mere fraction of the 27 965 U.S. licensees (as of July 2009) its a far cry from the seven pioneers who successfully lobbied for licensure sixteen years ago.

The last two decades have seen a dramatic increase in the United States acceptance of acupuncture as a complementary treatment method for all types of ailments including fibromyalgia migraines infertility cancer pain asthma drug addiction osteoarthritis and more. In 1996 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed acupuncture needles from their “experimental medical device” list. The U.S. Department of Education now recognizes the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine which has links to approximately 50 acupuncture schools. Multiple sources including the National Institute of Health have conducted studies and summits on the techniques efficacy and effectiveness.

Despite these developments theres still a long way to go. “If youre thinking of doing acupuncture be sure you go to a licensed acupuncturist. In North Carolina chiropractors and doctors can do acupuncture without training for it specifically and its covered by insurance ” Paterson warns. Insurance coverage or the lack of it can be a significant impediment to receiving acupuncture treatment. “Progress Energy covers acupuncture and so do a few other companies. But Blue Cross Blue Shield NC isnt required to cover it ” she explains. Instead of traditional insurance coverage they offer acupuncturists a compromise: lower your rates for our customers and well include you on our list of providers. Its a compromise that Paterson and others like her including local acupuncturist Daerr Reid of East Coast Acupuncture cant afford to make.

Fertility Specialist

Reids introduction to acupuncture came in the early 1990s when she saw Page Paterson for endometriosis. Though Reid eventually had a hysterectomy her acupuncture treatments left her “feeling better overall.” Reids interest in psychology she holds an undergraduate degree in the subject from Appalachian State University predisposed her to be intrigued by the mind-body connection implicit in the practice of acupuncture. “You could treat the mind through the body ” she says. “It was a profound life-changing experience.” Today after attending the Boulder Colorado branch of Southwest Acupuncture College as well as massage school Reid specializes in acupuncture for fertility.

 How Does It Work Anyway?

“There are many types of acupuncture ” Paterson says pre- and post-communist Chinese Japanese Korean Vietnamese and the list goes on. Overall though acupuncture is based in part on the theory that we all have energy or qi (pronounced “chi”) flowing through our body along a series of meridians or pathways. Our bodies are balanced between yin and yang with yin representing cold slow or passive energy and yang representing hot active or excited energy. When the balance between the two types of energy is disrupted by stress lack of sleep or a precipitating event the flow of qi is blocked and illness results. Acupuncturists insert thin sterile flexible needles into the skin at points along your body to restore the flow of qi.

“Its better to come in when you dont have a problem so its preventative ” says Paterson. “Sometimes its a last resort. Sometimes theyre healthy and would like to stay that way. Sometimes they dont want to be on medications or their doctor says the next step is surgery and sometimes they tell me that somethings just not right.”

In Reids case she sees women “in all stages of fertility. All of the fertility clinics in the state have acupuncturists they work in conjunction with and studies have shown that acupuncture can help increase in vitro success by 40 percent ” she says. Like Paterson Reid incorporates herbal medicine into her practice.

Acupuncturists use a range of diagnostic tools to treat clients including observation a detailed questionnaire examining their tongues and taking their pulses. In the latter case they arent just determining how clients hearts beat; theyre listening for as many as nine pulses which may be slippery wiry full knotted and other qualities that help diagnosticians determine where the qi deficiency or blockage may lie. In fact trained acupuncturists can tell from a womans pulse if she is pregnant says Reid.

“People come in with a whole lot of symptoms. Of course you want to get their history build a relationship so that they trust you ” says Paterson who also practices complex homeopathics and follows the pre-Communist Chinese tradition of acupuncture. This tradition is based on five elements fire water wood metal earth each of which correspond to specific organs tissues and senses within the body. “The five elements are all about observation. Youre looking for color sound odor emotion to make a diagnosis and youre looking for those things at the deepest level so that youll have much more long-lasting results.”

One of Patersons best tools is a tongue diagnosis. “Its a diagnostic tool of eight principles. Someone with anxiety insomnia possibly panic attacks low body temperature and night sweats might present with a peeled tongue ” she says. “The relation between the kidneys and the bladder might be off. The kidney yin would be deficient not able to anchor the heart. Certain patterns typically produce certain things.”

While Reid also makes use of traditional diagnostic tools in her arsenal shes “very tied into the Western approach to testing and technology ” and likes to ensure that clients dealing with infertility have had a full clinical workup before coming to see her so that she can treat them effectively. “When women come to see me I ask them a lot of questions about their menstrual cycle ” she says. “The more I work with them the more I know whats going on. Sometimes its very complicated but other times its literally a matter of an herbal formula.”

The Other Side of the Needle

For client Heather Wilson who came to see Reid after a devastating miscarriage the experience of acupuncture proved as meaningful as the results. “I love Daerr. Shes so open so affirming. She really listens to you ” says Wilson. A development officer at the Cameron Art Museum Wilson is also a prenatal yoga instructor and a doula. She was determined to do everything she could to make her second pregnancy successful and acupuncture was high on her list.

Reid began by treating Wilson with acupuncture and herbs to strengthen her body following the miscarriage. Then when Wilson became pregnant again she saw Reid twice a month during the first trimester and once per month during the second and most of the third trimesters. “It helped with my anxiety after the miscarriage and my morning sickness. Then when I was about five months pregnant I was running down the stairs and I fell. I could barely stand up when I went to her office two days later but when I left I was fine ” says Wilson now the mother of a healthy eight-month-old boy. “Daerr did an induction series close to my due date. I had the last treatment at 5 p.m. that night and went into labor at 10 p.m. And since I had Thomas Ive been back to see her three times. The relaxation the massage table its restorative. It strengthens your body.”

A complete list of area acupuncturists is available on the NCALBs Web site www.ncalb.state.nc.us.