Many swear by it, but acupuncture remains a controversial treatment for any condition, let alone SCI. The author didn’t just research it. She tried it herself.
By Kristin Beale
In February 1997, Jackie Miller damaged her spinal cord while hanging curtains in her son’s room. The doctors told her that she was a C-level injury and would never be able to walk or move her hands again. Though trained in the western tradition, with a PhD in molecular biology and experience teaching at the Harvard Medical School, Miller was curious about alternative treatments. She asked her friend, a Chinese medicine expert, to perform acupuncture on her, in hopes of gaining some improvement. “All I wanted to do was hug my children,” Jackie said, “and I couldn’t even do that.”
Acupuncture is one of the oldest, most commonly used medical procedures in the world. It consists of inserting thin needles into specific points in the body to improve health and relieve pain from a particular muscle in the body.
For persons with spinal cord injuries (SCI), acupuncture is said to help the nervous system as it tries to repair itself and regenerate lost movement and feeling. This includes promoting bowel and bladder control, reducing spasticity and spasms, managing autonomic dysreflexia, and most importantly, maintaining overall health. Along with these benefits, acupuncture is thought by proponents to remove energy imbalances and blockages that stand in the way of recovery, and to promote circulation around the spinal cord, leading to better circulation in the limbs and torso.
While ‘inserting needles into points in the body’ sounds painful, everyone reacts to acupuncture differently. Most people feel minimal to no pain as the needles are inserted. Some become energized by the treatment, and others become relaxed. Only in rare cases does acupuncture cause discomfort or pain.
Dr. Frederick Paola, both an M.D. in internal medicine and an allopathic doctor, feels strongly about acupuncture. “I became interested in acupuncture first, looking for another option to offer to my patients,” Paola says.“My interest in SCI came later, after I took a job at a spinal cord injury center.”
Paola, who practices in Naples, Florida, thinks that acupuncture should be and is becoming more mainstream. He says that “somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 allopathic physicians have been trained in medical acupuncture.” Paola also states that acupuncture “should be expanded into conventional medicine” and practiced in the acute stage of an injury.
Dr. Ming Qing Zhu, founder of the practice of administering acupuncture in the scalp, expresses the need for additional rehabilitation in conjunction with acupuncture by the use of an analogy. Zhu believes that “patients with SCI are like people trapped inside a dark room. Those who stay motionless will remain in the room forever. Those who exercise are probing for an exit, but the door is closed,” he says.
“Scalp acupuncture acts like a key. It opens the door and allows light to shine through. However, the person still needs to move towards the door, and lift his legs over the threshold in order to step out into the sun. Otherwise, he is still confined in the room no matter how wide the door is opened.”
Zhu is based in China where he runs an acupuncture clinic. His clinic has several specialty areas and treats victims of stroke, diabetes, autism, back pain, asthma, SCI, and many more.
The scalp acupuncture that Zhu is referring to finds specific points and nerve endings in the head. It is practiced by inserting short, fine needles into those points. It has exhibited obvious advantages over traditional body acupuncture in treating neurological conditions, Zhu says, because it has been found to have more positive results and outcomes. Also, scalp acupuncture is more practical because the needles can be left in for longer periods of time, most commonly three days.
Acupuncture works to remove energy imbalances and blockages through the releasing of “qi” (pronounced “chee”), its proponents claim. Qi is a sort of energy that flows in the meridians of a body and carries information from an acupoint to a part of the body. Acupuncturists believe that balanced, healthy qi is the solution to a lot of problems by helping everything to run smoothly, such as the bladder or other organs.
To get maximum results, acupuncture is not to be administered without another form of rehabilitation; a patient should be doing some other form of therapy at the same time as acupuncture. Using the example of physical therapy and scalp acupuncture, the needles are left in during a workout to help the person to isolate muscles, resulting in less compensation by other muscles. If practiced correctly, acupuncture has proven to promote and significantly accelerate functional recovery.
When Jackie returned home from the hospital, she continued her acupuncture and physical therapy. A combination of these things brought Jackie to the point that she can now walk with two canes and no leg braces. In addition to this, she can type with two fingers, answer the phone, drive, cook, and work her job of designing science curricula. In Jackie’s case, acupuncture made all the difference. Acupuncture helped her transition from dependence to independence, she says.
With all this said, I received acupuncture for roughly a year and a half. At the time of my acupuncture treatments, I had a complete spinal cord injury at the T8 level. I started acupuncture at a gym that I worked out in California. At first, I had acupuncture applied in the body, removing the needles after the one hour session was over. Then, as I became more knowledgeable about the different types of acupuncture, I began treatment in my scalp. I would put the needles into my head and leave them in while I did intense physical therapy. The needles did not come out until three days later; I did everything in them, including take a shower.
This stopped on the day that I realized that I was ‘going through the motions’ by putting the needles into my head. When I looked back over my time of getting acupuncture, I became aware that I had not seen significant improvements or recovery because of the needles.
I admit that, while working out, I was able to better isolate muscles and perform steadier movements. The bad part was, when the needles left, so did the improvement. I understood that it would take time to build the muscles stronger and make the movements more pronounced, but I was impatient and preferred to work for immediate results.It was then that I decided not to continue this therapy, but rather concentrate on the ones that I knew worked for me.
From Jackie’s story and my experience, I conclude that the effect of acupuncture varies greatlyfrom person to person. While some will see major improvements and recovery, others will not see anything at all. This makes acupuncture a risky investment.As always, consult your physician before starting any program.
Kristin Beale is a freelance writer from Virginia.