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Acupuncture provides options for health treatments

| Monday, Aug. 13, 2007

It's a practice that can remind some of a sideshow in a traveling carnival, but the ancient traditional Chinese medicine called acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular for those seeking alternative -- or complementary -- treatments for a number of ailments.

Acupuncture, which might seem mystic if you don't understand Chinese culture, is the traditional medicine of pressing needles into any of more than 2,000 points on the body. Each of these points connect to a pathway, or meridian, and the continual flow of vital energy, or qi (pronounced chee) passing through those pathways determines how healthy the physical body is.

Acupuncture, developed in China more than 2,500 years ago, is one of the oldest known medical procedures. Ironically, Americans find it a difficult concept to grasp, primarily because of the philosophy behind it.

"Acupuncture has become accepted worldwide," says Dr. Richard DiSanti of Allegheny Valley Chiropractic Associates in Russellton and Lower Burrell. "But because of its oriental traditions, it is still relatively unknown in the Western world."

DiSanti, who studied to become a chiropractor at the National College of Chiropractic in New York, also is trained and certified in acupuncture. He says that most chiropractors utilize acupuncture as a form of therapy for patients who can't have their muscular skeletal systems manipulated, such as those suffering from osteoporosis, bone disease or women who are pregnant, among others.

Knowing more about its historical origin and recent developments helps in understanding qi. Chinese doctors view the human body as a microcosm of the universe; thus, those elements influencing the universe also affect the body, altering the yin (slow, passive principle) and yang (hot, active principle).

"There is no English translation for the word qi," acupuncturist Judy Fox-Fair says. "There are a lot of different functions it performs -- qi doesn't translate into one certain thing."

Nobody quite knows just exactly how acupuncture works, but much research has led to the thought that it regulates the nervous system, launching endorphins and immune system cells to specific parts of the body. After continued sessions, the body learns to heal itself in the same manner.

"Ideally, we want to use health care to maintain health, not just when we're sick," Fox-Fair says. "We want to encourage the body to heal itself."

And, regardless if you think it's unusual or not, the practice gets results. In 2002, the World Health Organization launched several studies regarding acupuncture and its effectiveness. The final word• Acupuncture has been proven to relieve postoperative pain, nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy, anxiety, insomnia and other kinds of pain.

WHO also reports that acupuncture has proven to be more effective than customary American practices in treating side effects of a stroke, gastritis, rheumatoid arthritis, heart diseases, diarrhea in infants and young children and even psychiatric disorders, among a list of other ailments.

Kathy Marcantonio, of New Kensington, experienced her first acupuncture treatment by Fox-Fair at AK Valley Chiropractic in New Kensington. Fox-Fair treated her to boost her qi and balance her moods, increasing her overall basic wellness.

"I became (physically) comfortable in the office," Marcantonio says. "It was calming, and I felt more relaxed and less tense."

The first session often involves interviews with the patient to learn more about their medical history, their lifestyle and what they suffer from. Then, the patient either lies on a massage table or is treated sitting up, depending on the comfort level and abilities of the patient. After that comes the treatment -- a number of needles are inserted into various points according to the patient's condition, intensity of the condition and the location of their pain.

Marcantonio, like other first-time patients, gave a second look as the filiform needles approached different acupuncture points, such as the section between her thumb and pointer finger. Fox-Fair also can insert needles into the head, legs, abdomen and feet, among other places.

And the needles aren't the normal "doctor's office" variety. Unlike hypothermic needles, acupuncture needles are tiny -- "Some are only as thick as a strand of hair," Fox-Fair describes -- solid, and have a finely rounded tip.

"Patients are most fearful of the needles because it is foreign to the culture," Fox-Fair says. "My 7-year-old daughter will ask me to needle her when she doesn't feel well and has no problem because she has grown up around the (filiform) needles."

The Federal Drug Administration requires that acupuncturists use standardized, sterilized needles, marked for the use of one patient before they are discarded.

The number of needles used on each patient varies. Fox-Fair says, depending on the strength of the patient and the intensity of the condition, anywhere from four to six needles or 20-25 needles could be used in one session.

"I'm not going to make a pincushion or a porcupine out of an elderly woman," Fox-Fair says. "It wouldn't make sense -- that would just be too much stimulation for a weak patient."

DiSanti agrees with Fox-Fair that acupuncture must be used wisely: "You have to be careful," he says. "It is a strong effect that could cause problems. There are times to use it and times not to use it."

Insurance companies generally don't cover the procedure in this state, unless it is a form of workmen's compensation or motor-vehicle insurance, Fox-Fair says. But the sessions cost less than a visit to most Western doctors.

Fox-Fair, who earned her required four-year master degree in acupuncture at the New York Chiropractic College, sees her patients at Back to Balance on High Street in Freeport and at AK Valley Chiropractic. The initial session costs $75, and follow-up sessions cost $60 each.

"Acupuncture is not reimbursable," DiSanti says, "But it is a viable form of treatment and is an alternate form of therapy to co-treat a patient with. Somewhere, medicine and acupuncture overlap."

Interested in experiencing this ancient, traditional medicinal procedure• The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests taking precautionary steps before trying a therapy such as acupuncture. The following steps will result in a most optimal experience into the world of traditional Chinese medicine:

* Speak with your primary health-care provider regarding acupuncture and ask him whether he can recommend a reputable acupuncturist.

* Make a list of acupuncturists and research each one before your first visit. Inquire about their credentials and practice, including where they trained, what licenses or certifications they have and the cost of treatment.

* Check with your insurance company to see whether the therapy will be covered.

* Make a list of questions to ask at the first visit and come prepared to answer specific questions about your health history.

* Assess that first visit to determine whether the acupuncturist is someone you feel comfortable with and confident in treating you.

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