Soft music and dim lighting soothe Colleen Kozak-Mark as acupuncture needles sink into her forehead, face and arm. She barely seems to notice.
"It doesn't hurt," Kozak-Mark said. "You feel a little pressure only on the face, that's all. I don't feel anything on my arm."
Jean Liu inserts the exquisitely thin needles by hand or through a tube-like applicator she taps with her finger. A needle on the face may be inserted 1/2 inch, or just into the surface of the skin, while the back may take a needle 1-1/2 inches deep and the buttocks as much as 3 inches deep.
The sterile, single-use, disposable needles usually remain in the skin for about a half-hour while the patient rests. Some, like Kozak-Mark, fall asleep during the therapy.
Kozak-Mark has been coming to Liu for treatment since February. She has been living with pain since she was in a car accident about three years ago, when she was seven months pregnant. Although she feels lucky that her unborn son survived the accident and is now an active 3-year-old, the crash left her with compressed disks in her neck, herniated disks in her back, sciatic pain and soft tissue damage.
"I really battled depression for a while because if you're in pain all the time, you don't know what to do," she said. "Acupuncture has helped me tremendously. I'm not tired all the time because I'm not living with pain all the time. I'm actually able to exercise without pain, and I wouldn't have been able to do that in February."
She said acupuncture has also brought her some relief from fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome and sinus problems.
"I don't even take sinus medication any more," said the Penn Township woman.
Acupuncture can also be used on children, but the needles are inserted for only a very short time, according to Liu.
"Acupuncture is a very safe treatment," said Liu, who is a certified acupuncturist and certified herbalist.
Through acupuncture, Liu said, she can treat a long list of conditions. Some of them are asthma, depression, back pain, colds, flu, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, knee pain, neck pain, bladder and kidney problems, paralysis and numbness, stress, skin problems and drug dependency.
Through acupuncture, she has treated more than 250 patients who wanted to quit smoking, and saw about 75 percent to 80 percent succeed. "They don't feel much withdrawal," she said.
Acupuncture originated in China about 3,000 years ago, said Liu, who has 22 years of experience applying its techniques. Acupuncture points are located at numerous sites on the body. The place where a needle is inserted can be far from the area that it is being treated.
The therapy is based on a philosophy that energy pathways connect organs and other body systems, and these pathways can be stimulated with acupuncture at specific points to restore health.
"Acupuncture is used to treat illnesses, prevent disease and improve wellness," said Liu, who was trained in the use of acupuncture while in medical school in China.
But despite growing acceptance of the ancient Chinese treatment — with 281 practitioners in Pennsylvania — skepticism remains. The National Council for Reliable Health Information, a nonprofit organization based in Loma Linda, Calif., labels acupuncture an unproven treatment "based on primitive and fanciful concepts of health and disease that bear no relationship to present scientific knowledge."
"Research during the past 20 years has failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any disease," the council contends. "Scientific literature provides no evidence that acupuncture can perform consistently better than a placebo in relieving pain or other symptoms. <#201> "
American interest grew 30 years ago, fueled by a rumor that New York Times reporter James Reston received acupuncture anesthesia for an appendectomy while visiting China, but acupuncture was only used for postoperative cramps, according to the council.
Still, it is estimated between 10 million to 15 million Americans spend approximately $500 million a year on acupuncture, which is not covered by Medicare and Medicaid, but is covered by many insurance companies if it is performed by a licensed physician.
All states permit the practice of acupuncture.
After graduating from medical school, Liu worked in a Beijing hospital for about 10 years as a medical doctor and then worked in Chicago for a physician as an acupuncturist and herbalist before coming to Westmoreland County about six years ago. She incorporates her knowledge of herbs into treatments for some patients.
Her facility, The Chinese Acupuncture Center in South Greensburg, attracts regular patients from as far away as Philadelphia and Ohio.
When she first came here, some of the patients who knew the receptionist asked her not to tell their friends they had been there because they were afraid other people would find the therapy odd.
Now, Liu said her list of local patients keeps growing as people who have had treatments recommend her to those they know, and a lot of local physicians refer patients to her.
"I think people are more open now to Eastern medicine," she said.
While acupuncture is sometimes covered by car insurance settlements and workers' compensation following injuries, many of Liu's patients find her treatments so helpful they pay for them on their own.
One regular patient, Bill Yancey of South Greensburg, started coming for acupuncture treatments after suffering a debilitating back injury that left him with a titanium rod in his back and two fused disks. His injury is so severe that he can't stand for more than a couple of hours without pain that radiates from his lower back to his ankle. He sleeps in a recliner most of the night to lessen his discomfort.
During his treatment, he lies face-down as Liu lines up needles on both sides of his upper spine and along the base of his spine. Liu attaches wires to some of the needles on his lower back and sends electrical stimulation to the nerves there. This procedure is not used on all patients.
Another variation on acupuncture treatment that Yancey said helps him is called cupping or suction. In this treatment, Liu lights a cotton ball (clamped in a medical instrument) on fire and holds the flame inside an upside-down glass jar for a moment to use up the oxygen. She quickly places the ball-shaped jar over a needle on the patient's skin. The suction draws the skin up slightly around the needle and increases the blood flow to the site, Liu said.
"I've had aqua therapy, yoga and massage," Yancey said. "This is the best."
On a scale of 1 to 10, he would rate his pain before treatments at 4 to 9, even when he uses medication, which only sometimes "takes the edge off." After an acupuncture session, he said, his pain drops to a comfortable 2 and stays there for a couple of days if he's careful not to overdo physical activity.
"It does better than the pills," he said.
An acupuncture treatment can range in cost from about $50 to $80, and it can take a few treatments before the patient begins feeling improvement. Some people do not respond to acupuncture and have to seek relief through other forms of treatment.
For Ruth Cravotta of Black Lick, acupuncture was the key to a higher quality of life. Before beginning acupuncture treatments, osteoporosis was causing her so much pain that she'd have to lie down after only a short time on her feet.
"I was in such agony. It was terrible," she said. "I don't know what I would have done without her (Liu). It makes you feel like a new person."
Cravotta, who also has suction applied during her treatments, learned about acupuncture from a friend. Before starting treatments, Cravotta talked to her family doctor, who encouraged her to try it. Now, the active senior credits Liu and acupuncture for giving her back the full life she enjoys.
"I tell her (Liu) she has magic hands —golden hands," Cravotta said.
Liu, whose medical training covered both Western medical practices and Eastern methods, encourages her patients to consult with their regular doctors and use whatever methods work best for them.
Kozak-Mark, for example, also sees a chiropractor and uses some herbal remedies. Yancey uses a gel heating pad and does some water therapy at home with a jet tub and a massaging shower attachment.
Both Kozak-Mark and Yancey see their doctors and use some pain-relieving medication, though far less than before trying acupuncture. Kozak-Mark said she went from needing three pain-relief pills a day to none or one.
"I swear by this," Kozak-Mark said. "Even after one treatment, I felt like I could've conquered the world after that."