Alternative treatment: A look at acupuncture

Acupuncture may be ancient — estimates range between 3-4,000 years old — but it is not an ancient Chinese secret. It's used all over the world by acupuncture practitioners as well as medical doctors.

We spoke with two experts to learn more. Lorene Wu is a medical doctor with a Family Practice office in La Grange. She is also an acupuncturist and is . Caroline Jung is a nationally board certified acupuncturist practicing in Chicago and is president of the board of the Illinois Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Prime Time asked Wu and Jung to provide the basics of this medical art and how it might work for you.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the insertion of sterile thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate hormonal and electromagnetic responses, explains Wu, which balance the flow of energy or "qi," (pronounced "chee").

These channels run throughout all areas of the body — legs, arms, backs, etc. Qi or life energy moves through these channels, says Jung. "When our qi becomes out of balance, symptoms arise such as the common cold, back pain, any illness and its symptoms," she adds.

Placing fine, thin needles into specific points along the channels balances the flow of qi in the body, in turn balancing the qi itself, with the aim of relieving illness and symptoms. 

"Acupuncture always treats the root (cause) and branch (symptom) of any illness," says Jung.

Who can practice this treatment?

Most states require practitioners to be board-certified and licensed. They receive their board certification through the NCCAOM (National Commission of Certification of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine).

"Several practitioners are legally allowed to perform acupuncture such as licensed acupuncturists, physicians, chiropractors, dentists and veterinarians," says Wu. "However, look for NCCAOM certification/L.Ac. to insure the practitioner had adequate training. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (medical lists MDs and DOs who have completed 500 hours of acupuncture training."

Jung says you can learn more about each state's requirements at

Can it be used in conjunction with traditional western medicine?

Jung answers with an enthusiastic, "Absolutely. Acupuncture is wonderful to integrate with any western medicine treatment. Integrative medicine is becoming more widely used among all practitioners — western and eastern practitioners alike."

Wu seconds the enthusiasm. "Acupuncture can absolutely be used to complement most Western treatment," she says. "Occasionally it is used instead of Western treatment — for example acupuncture to treat musculoskeletal pain. But often is used with Western modalities, such as to lessen side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Each system has its own strengths, and together are very powerful."

Jung says that acupuncture does not interfere with any western medicine therapy. "One of the beautiful aspects of acupuncture," she adds, "is that it makes us more receptive to western medicine treatment, therefore, making the healing process that much more comfortable and efficient."

What conditions does it help for those 50 and over?

Wu says people over 50 are often treated for the following: musculoskeletal pain including lower back pain, neck pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, and other types of arthritic joint disorders; menopause; gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux; hypertension and other cardiac conditions; asthma and other lung disorders; chronic sinusitis and allergies; hearing loss and tinnitus; stroke; memory loss; anxiety and depression; and diabetes support.

What is a typical first visit like?

A typical visit varies depending on whether one is visiting a medical doctor with an acupuncture component or whether one is visiting a practitioner alone. In Wu's office, a typical visit includes a medical history from both a Western and Chinese medical perspective; a Western physical exam; a Chinese physical exam of mainly tongue and pulse; needle insertion and retention for 20 to 40 minutes.

A first time treatment and consultation with Jung lasts for about an hour and a half. The patient will complete a health/medical questionnaire. The practitioner goes over the medical and family history and presenting symptoms. Similarly the pulse is taken and a tongue diagnosis made. "Both of these types of diagnosis tell us a lot about what is going on in all of your systems and where the qi may be out of balance in the body," says Jung.

This is followed with acupuncture treatment and then discussion of the patient's treatment plan.

Is the treatment painful?

Both Wu and Jung agree that acupuncture is not painful.

"I know it is thought to be a painful experience since we use needles but the acupuncture needles are very thin and fine and they are comfortable during the treatment," says Jung. "There is a sensation felt when the needle is inserted and it is a sensation of heaviness and sometimes it feels like a dull sensation as well. Most patients fall asleep during the treatment because acupuncture is such a relaxing experience."

Wu describes the needle insertion as not a pricking pain but instead experienced as pressure or deep ache. "During the treatment, the patient might experience needles tingling or movement within the body, which are excellent signs of the flow being restored to the body," she says. "Most people are relaxed or even energized after a treatment. Often there is a sense of well-being after a treatment because beneficial hormones have been released."

How long is a typical length of treatment?

Acute conditions can resolve after one treatment and chronic conditions can take longer, says Wu. 

"For most ailments, weekly treatments for about six to10 weeks is a general recommendation to start with for a patient," she says. "Although, it really depends on the patient, what their symptoms are, how long they have had the symptoms, the severity of the symptoms."

A typical follow-up treatment is usually about 45 minutes to an hour, says Jung.

What are the costs; does insurance pay for it?

The cost varies depending on the area of Chicago. The downtown area ranges from $90-120 for follow-up visits and in the suburbs the price may range from $70-90, says Jung.

Wu says costs range from certified acupuncturist charges of $120 for new patients and $65-85 for return visits to MD charges of $365 for new patients to $170 for return visits. "The charges vary with the number of other services provided such as herbal or nutritional counseling, prescriptions written and labs ordered, and the expertise of the practitioner," she adds.

Acupuncture is not routinely covered by most insurance plans or if it is will be limited in number of treatments and conditions covered. Medicare does not cover acupuncture but some supplemental insurance plans do. Both Wu and Jung say to check with your individual company to find out if acupuncture is covered.

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