Tag Archives: acupuncture

The Medical System Gave Up On Me

In 1995 I woke up from routine heart valve surgery with the left side of my body paralyzed from a stroke caused by the surgery itself: A tiny piece of tissue had broken away from the valve, traveled through blood vessels and lodged in my brain, blocking the flow of blood with its essential supply of oxygen to the neurons that controlled movement on my left side. I was 43 years old, married, with two young children.

If I had obediently followed the prescribed role of stroke patient in the world of conventional medicine, I would be an invalid in a wheelchair today. Instead, I am back at work as a medical journalist, paying taxes instead of collecting social security.

I recovered because “adapting” to my disability — which is what the insurance company doctor (who had never met me) told me to do after two months of occupational and physical therapy — was not an acceptable option for me. I didn’t want to buy shoes with Velcro, buttonhole fasteners or devices to hold a tomato steady so I could slice it. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or use a wheelchair in the airport. And I certainly didn’t want to spend valuable recovery time learning to use adaptive devices.

During my recovery, the health providers whom I found most helpful were those who recognized the devastation and despair that I felt as the result of this physical calamity. They saw me not just as a patient, but also as a wife, mother, writer and even amateur musician. In their understanding I found the encouragement, strength and hope that I needed to fight back to recovery.

The doctors I found least helpful were those who saw me not as a whole person, but rather as a “stroke patient:” These included the neurologists who shrugged and said “wait and see” when I told them that they must be wrong: I needed my left arm and I needed to be able to walk; and the heart surgeon who breezed into my hospital room just long enough to say, “Sorry you stroked, but heart-wise you’re fine.”

I quickly learned that while the advances of modern surgery can save your life, the conventional medical system — along with the insurers who pay for it — is not set up for full recovery.  The goal of the system was to get me out of the hospital or rehabilitation facility and send me home. What happened after that was up to me. The insurance company doctor (the one who never met me) told me that I had “plateaued,” which meant that while I had made progress in physical and occupational therapy, there would probably be no further improvement. I was at an impasse and additional intervention would be counterproductive (not to mention expensive).

As a patient, it feels as if the health insurers and many doctors want us to accept and “adapt” to our disabilities — whether we are recovering from a heart attack or stroke, suffering from chronic illness or pain or trying to manage the difficulties of growing older.  It is easier to prescribe pills and adaptive devices than to help us take responsibility for our bodies and our health.

I chose to fight my way back to recovery, and this is a tough thing to do for those of us who are accustomed to seeing our doctors as omniscient beings who control our health.  I learned about methods of healing outside of mainstream conventional medicine,including Traditional Chinese Medicine, chich has used acupuncture for thousands of years to treat stroke patients . Yoga, from the equally ancient Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine, gave me strength, balance and peace of mind. The Alexander Technique — a powerful system of movement education — taught me to use my body with less effort and reduced pain. Pilates exercise coaxed my weakened muscles back to work and craniosacral therapy restored my body’s natural rhythms.

I was fortunate: I had the will, the family support, the research skills and the financial means to pursue unconventional healing methods. Fighting the system is much harder for those who don’t have the money, the knowledge of alternative therapies or the emotional strength to keep up the lonely struggle for recovery.  Too often, such people live with pain, disability and despair.

Doctors must understand what illness means in the lives of their patients. They must use their positions, their authority and their words wisely. They have the power to heal, but they also have the potential to destroy hope and, along with it, the chance to recover.


Filed under acupuncture, Alexander Technique, chronic illness, Chronic Pain, Doctors, Stories of Hope, stroke, Traditional Chinese Medicine

Strength and Serenity for Women With Cancer

In what appears to be a perfect union between Western academic medicine and complementary/alternative treatment, a Harvard Medical School oncologist is studying the use of acupuncture to help alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment for women. Cancer specialist and surgeon Annekathryn Goodman, MD has added acupuncture certification to her many other credentials and now offers this complementary treatment to her patients undergoing cancer treatment at the Vincent Women’s Care Division of Massachusetts General Hospital.

“My personal vision is to create a center for women with cancer that I am calling ‘Strength and Serenity,’ says Dr. Goodman. “My goal is to use complementary modalities, particularly acupuncture, to alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment that we have difficulty managing with Western medicine.” She has found the treatment helpful for alleviating neuropathy—pain or burning or numbness in hands and feet, as well as nausea from chemotherapy or radiation or from the cancer itself. “Sometimes I treat women before the chemo, which seems to lessen their suffering,” she says. “Acupuncture also seems to help people who are done with their therapy but still have side effects such as fatigue, depression and anxiety as well as neuropathy. So many people are on antidepressants to help them with their stress. Acupuncture seems to help alleviate symptoms.”

Since 2004, Dr. Goodman has been transforming a sterile  Mass General exam room into a tranquil environment for hour-long sessions of acupuncture, which uses tiny needles to stimulate energy or “qi” (pronounced “chi”) points on the body, based on 5,000-year-old methods from Traditional Chinese Medicine. She uses heat lamps to warm up the needles, replaces harsh fluorescent lights with softly glowing lamps, plays soothing music and adds bamboo shoots and fabrics as decoration. “My focus is to balance the patient’s energy, or life force,” says Dr. Goodman, “This treats the ‘root’ of the problem, which then helps to alleviate the ‘branch’ symptom, whether it is constipation, nausea, headache or depression.” (Please see How Do We Heal for more details of acupuncture.)

In a recent research collaboration among the Mass General Vincent Women’s Care Division, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana Farber Cancer Center, acupuncture was found to create a modest improvement in white blood cell counts among women undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer. (Cancer treatment tends to lower white blood cell counts, which compromises the immune system.) In a review of worldwide data about the use of acupuncture to alleviate side effects of cancer treatment, Dr. Goodman found that the evidence in support of acupuncture was “helpful but the data was mixed.” “It is hard to unify existing data in a scientific way,” she says. “But there is certainly interest around the world in studying the use of acupuncture to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients.” For her part, she hopes to continue the work of the Strength and Serenity Center to conduct education, research and clinical care not only about acupuncture, but also about other forms of complementary care for women with cancer.

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Filed under acupuncture, Cancer, depression, Healing, Health, Stories of Hope

Healing Arts for Marfan and Chronic Pain

I recently helped to organize a Healing Arts workshop for the National Marfan Foundation annual meeting, which was held in Boson this year. More than 30 participants heard and asked questions of a panel of complementary/alternative practitioners who discussed managing the symptoms of Marfan syndrome—particularly chronic joint pain—with Tai chi, the Alexander Technique, acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), nutrition, and craniosacral therapy. Combining alternative treatments with conventional care is called “integrative medicine,” and putting together your own personal healing combination is an excellent way to take responsibility for your health. These healing modalities have applications for anyone suffering from chronic pain.

The workshop began with Tai chi and Alexander teacher Jamee Culbertson leading us in the opening movements and breathwork of a Tai chi form that is thousands of years old. Research has found that these ancient, graceful, meditative movements improve balance and reduce falls. As we breathed deeply and moved slowly in unison, the room seemed to transform into a kind of “sacred space,” as the group united with a shared purpose and energy. With two volunteers, Jamee then demonstrated how the Alexander Technique reduces pain and eases body movement through simple awareness of habitual actions that may be restricting activities. Both Tai chi and the Alexander Technique are gentle, non-invasive practices, and do not stress joints or ligaments.

Eurydice Hirsey, a trained chiropractor and craniosacral therapist, then talked about the use of craniosacral therapy to ease pain and improve movement by enhancing the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid. This is done through gentle touches on the head and sacrum, following the body’s own natural rhythms and movements, without force or pressure. While chiroporactic may not be indicated for most people with Marfan syndrome, the light touch of craniosacral therapy can ease tight muscles and reduce pain, even in those who have had spinal fusions, by focusing on other areas of the body where movement is possible.

Acupuncturist and researcher Stephen Cina shared his orthopedic investigations into the nature of connective tissue and its possible relationship to the meridians (energy pathways) used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. A practitioner either inserts tiny needles into “points” on the skin that correspond to the energy meridians (the needles are usually painless), or applies pressure with the hands (acupressure) on these same spots, in order to reduce pain. And naturopathic intern Amanda Daeges–who has Marfan syndrome, talked about maintaining integrity of connective tissue through what we eat and drink: specifically whole foods and whole grains that include nutrients and trace minerals. She also stressed the importance of drinking enough water. (Divide your body weight in half to find out how many ounces of water you should drink each day.)

All of these complementary modalities (and many more) are described in detail here, has well as profiles of practitioners and personal experience stories.

VERY important: Before you try any complementary/alternative practices, always check with your doctor.


Filed under acupuncture, Alexander Technique, Chronic Pain, Health, Marfan Syndrome, Tai Chi, Traditional Chinese Medicine

Paying for alternative treatments

Research is increasingly demonstrating the effectiveness of certain complementary/alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, tai chi, yoga, meditation and biofeedback for chronic pain, reduced mobility and other ailments. Why then are more insurance companies not paying for them? I think more of us need to “vote with our feet” by demanding coverage for proven alternative treatments and switching to insurance companies that pay for them. We and the health care system will all benefit. As one study found, support for lifestyle changes that prevent disease is far cheaper than hospitalization and expensive pills!


Filed under acupuncture, Chronic Pain, Health, Tai Chi