Points against pain Acupuncture grows in popularity as complementary healing therapy

David Quick/Staff Sally Pittman undergoes an acupuncture treatment for migraine headaches and other pain due to Parkinson's disease.

More than two years ago, Sally Pittman — who has a triple whammy of pain from lifelong migrane headaches, sarcoidosis and Parkinson’s disease — used to go through about 120 pills of the painkiller hydrocodone every month.

Then someone suggested that she see local acupuncturist Polly Christy, and it changed her life for the better.

Pittman’s migranes have eased significantly, both in the frequency and severity, and now one bottle of 60 pills of hydrocodone lasts up to three months.

“Acupuncture has helped me tremendously,” says the 62-year-old former accountant who is on disability. “Besides relieving my pain, acupuncture helps my balance, my mobility and motor skill function. ... I’m going to come no matter what. It’s worth it. I see it as a necessity.”

Western medicine’s acceptance of acupuncture has been slow, but increasingly it is being demonstrated in the description of the ancient Chinese practice as a “complementary” rather than an “alternative” therapy.

Acupuncture involves inserting long, very thin needles just beneath the skin’s surface at specific points on the body to control pain or stress.

Some still believe that acupuncture’s powers remain as a psychological placebo effect, but recently reported studies gave “the most robust evidence” to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option.

Medical researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and several universities in England and Germany examined 29 studies involving 18,000 adults and gave acupuncture a thumbs-up for relieving pain from chronic headaches, backaches and arthritis, according to The Associated Press.

The new analysis was published Sept. 10 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. The federal government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine paid for most of the study, along with a small grant from the Samueli Institute, a nonprofit group that supports research on alternative healing.

The researchers concluded that the needle remedy worked better than usual pain treatment and slightly better than fake acupuncture. That kind of analysis is not the strongest type of research, but the authors took extra steps, including examining raw data from the original studies.

Locally, Dr. Arthur Smith, a board-certified pain management specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina, says he believes in acupuncture and its ability to ease pain.

“Even though it works, we still don’t know how it works,” says Smith, noting that the “art” has benefited from nearly thousands of years of trial-and-error, notably the most enduring pain management process in the history of mankind.

“Studies are hard to do on acupuncture, and you can get conflicting results because of placebo effects, but there are placebo effects in all treatment studies,” Smith says.

Smith, along with acupuncture practitioners, say a major benefit of acupuncture is that it has no side effects. The only downside, Smith says, is the possibility of bruising or risk of infection at the needle site and the cost.

Typically, an acupuncture session can cost up to $100, but to be effective, at least four to six sessions must be undertaken to see if it works. That expense usually is out-of-pocket. Medicare does not cover acupuncture. While some private insurance plans do, those plans usually cap coverage at about six per year.

While that pricing structure is different, some local acupuncturists use a pay-what-you-can “sliding scale.”

Chad Houfek, a graduate of the Southwest Acupuncture College in Boulder, Colo., and the College of Charleston, founded Charleston Community Acupuncture nearly three years ago on Savannah Highway in West Ashley to make acupuncture more assessable to the public.

“The main barrier for people getting acupuncture is out-of-pocket expense,” says Houfek, who is part of an international movement called The People’s Organization for Community Acupuncture. “We let people determine what they want to pay, from $20 to $40, and how long they want to stay.”

He admits his lower-cost service does raise suspicion.

“The first question I’m always asked is, ‘Do you reuse your needles?’ ” says Houfek, noting that the answer is “no.”

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Like Houfek, local acupuncturist Sarah Stowers also graduated from C of C and the Southwest Acupuncture College in Boulder. She has her own practice, Charleston Acupuncture on East Bay Street, and takes clients at One Respe Wellness Center on Spring Street.

Stowers has noticed not only a growth in her clientele but an increase in the number of acupuncturists in Charleston.

“It’s definitely growing. In the four years since I’ve been here, the number of acupuncturists has doubled,” Stowers says.

Acupuncturists and married couple Polly and Colby Christy moved to Charleston to set up practices in 2005 after graduating from and apprenticing at the TAI Sophia Institute in Maryland, where acupuncture already was moving into the realm of complementary medicine.

The Christys say that medical students from the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania even took the four- to six-week residency in acupuncture at TAI Sophia.

So Polly Christy was in for a rude awakening when she called the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control about licensing and was referred to body piercing.

“That was little bit of a shock to me, to be coupled with body piercing, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s not my license,” Christy says. “This is a 3,000-year-old practice that most of the world still uses as their primary form of medicine.”

Christy notes that acupuncture also approaches health with attention to lifestyle, notably eating well, exercising and managing stress.

Colby Christy says it’s been difficult to connect with local hospitals and doctors, other than the ones who have had acupuncture, but says he hopes that will change.

“It’s pretty amazing what can happen with these itty-bitty filaments of a needle that aren’t dipped in anything.”