If the answer has 11 letters, it’s probably “ACUPUNCTURE.”
The practice may still be an exotic concept to many people, but it’s steadily gaining acceptance locally, according to Dr. Kandi Nix-Gillespie, a Carbon Hill native who is one of north Alabama’s few acupuncturists outside the Birmingham/Huntsville axis.
Gillespie was attending Texas Chiropractic College in 2005 when she learned that one of her professors had studied acupuncture with top Asian practitioners and offered a course in it. Though she was about to graduate, she stayed on for acupuncture training.
”The significant event for me was when my dad had acupuncture,” she recalls. “He’s pretty skeptical of nearly everything, and when it worked wonders for his shoulder pain and range of motion, I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
The main reservation of new patients is that the procedure involves needles, which makes them think of hypodermics. Gillespie, who practices at Gillespie Chiropractic in English Village, eases those fears by explaining that acupuncture needles are roughly the width of a human hair — about one-fourth the size of a sewing needle and less than one-tenth the size of an average hypodermic.
”It’s nothing at all like getting a shot,” says Gillespie. “Hypodermic needles have lots of irregularities in their surface, but an acupuncture needle is so smooth that instead of tearing into skin, it slides through it. Plus, they’re not inserted deep enough to touch the main nerve root, just the pathways surrounding it.”
As a result, most patients report that the treatment is pain free, and that the insertions feel more like a touch on the skin, as opposed to a stick.
Gillespie found that her acupuncture training was simplified by her chiropractic certification beforehand. “You go by certain landmarks on the body — muscles, point locations and so on — and we’d already learned those in chiropractic.”
Despite the procedure’s long-standing use, medical science still doesn’t know exactly how it works. One of the effects of the tiny needles is to release the body’s own pain-killing endorphins and enkephalins.
Though most of Gillespie’s patients come with symptoms of neck and lower back pain, acupuncture is also used for relieving a wide range of other conditions: headaches, allergies, stress and tension, hormone imbalance, plantar fasciitis and more.
Many Americans first became aware of acupuncture and its benefits by way of a 1993 PBS documentary by Bill Moyers exploring alternative medicine. Titled “Fantastic Voyage: Healing and the Mind,” one of the locations he visited was China, and the cameras showed a hospital patient undergoing brain surgery while wide awake and talking, with acupuncture and its endorphin release as her only anesthetic.
‘Energy balance’ is key
Early Chinese practitioners discovered a natural energy source in the body that they refer to as “chi,” (pronounced as “chee”) and they believed that the key to health is energy balance. They classified many disease symptoms as either “cold” or “hot,” and developed a range of acupuncture variations such as moxibustion, the burning of a small cone of herbs at a needle’s insertion point.
A more modern variation uses electrodes to induce a small electrical flow at the needle site, on the same principle as TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) units. Knee pain is another popular use for acupuncture, Gillespie says, and the treatments can relieve pain for patients who have had joint replacements years previously, often prolonging the time before a second replacement surgery is needed.
“When I first moved back here I wasn’t sure how it would be accepted, because new trends usually start in the western part of the U.S. and move east, sometimes slowly. But the acupuncture side has actually grown a little faster than my chiropractic because there are so few people in this part of the state who do it.
“Several patients come in because they’ve first had acupuncture on a cruise and found it beneficial, or else they’ve had treatments in Birmingham and want to avoid the drive.
“When you have people in their 80s coming in, who you’d never think would agree to something so seemingly far-fetched, you know it’s reached a new level of acceptance.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is email@example.com