Point Taken

Thought of acupuncture make you queasy? Think again.

Bryn Mawr physician Jingduan Yang will be the first to admit that traditional Chinese medicine attracts certain types of patients. They’re the sort who don’t mind an evaluation that includes inspecting the tongue for signs of discoloration or discussing, over tea, problems in their lives that may be causing symptoms.

Mostly, they don’t mind undergoing the most important component of TCM: the insertion of fine needles into specific points in the body. This, in turn, unblocks the flow of qi (pronounced chee)—or energy.

“They often come to us because Western medicine has no answer to their medical ailments,” says Yang of the Tao Institute of Mind & Body Medicine, a facility he established in Mount Laurel, N.J., with offices on the Main Line.

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Patients who arrive with a diagnosis—chronic Lyme disease is a common one—and those seeking relief from physical pain often have a specific reason for trying acupuncture. “They don’t want options like surgery or medications,” says Yang, who began his medical career as a neurologist in China and was a research fellow in clinical psychopharmacology at Oxford University before completing a psychiatry residency at Thomas Jefferson University.

A 5,000-year-old procedure, acupuncture is generally described as a therapeutic intervention that works because so many diseases are related to the skin, muscles and nervous system—areas that have direct contact with slender needles. That doesn’t really explain why it’s also effective in treating ear, nose and throat problems, not to mention certain respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive disorders, or even psychiatric issues like depression.

Needles are grouped according to their clinical effects on lines called meridians, and then stimulated with manipulation, heat or electricity. You might have seen those Chinese drawings of male patients seemingly covered head to foot with dots, including the face and crown of the head. Those “acupoints” are surprisingly insensitive. The sensation is more like a soft pinch than a needle’s prick.

Studies suggest that acupuncture points act as strategic conductors for electromagnetic signals, which are relayed at a greater rate with the procedure. How the Chinese first identified that reaction is one of the many mysteries of this scientific art, underscoring TCM’s holistic approach.

While other cultures have adopted their own interpretations of acupuncture, the TCM style is based partly on the premise that blood and one’s qi circulate in a cyclical fashion through the meridians. The gentle insertion of fine metallic needles serve to trigger the circuitry, so to speak. At the Tao Institute, for instance, cosmetic acupuncture is said to reduce the signs of aging and restore radiance by improving blood flow and the balance of qi.

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Traditional Chinese medicine has a real knack for explaining complex systems in simple terms one can visualize.

“What does it mean to have stress? To me, it’s a mix or set of emotions—it could be worry and fear, grief and sadness,” says Yang. “Chinese medicine explains how that excess of emotions can affect you physically. Your grief or sadness affects your lungs and large intestine, or your worries and obsessions can affect your stomach and spleen.”

Research suggests that acupuncture encourages the production of hormones, analgesics and endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which can change the brain’s long-term ability to handle pain and cravings. That’s why it may be effective in treating conditions as diverse as acute injuries, smoking and obesity.

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The success of acupuncture in treating pain has been reinforced by brain imagery studies that clearly show that it affects blood flow in the brain’s pain perception centers. Need further convincing? Duke University Medical Center is often seen as the Western center for validating acupuncture’s use in modern times. It was among the first to compare the effectiveness of drugs versus acupuncture, finding little difference in the two when it came to treating chronic headaches.

Duke researchers have also thrown scientific weight behind acupuncture’s mind-body-spirit associations, supporting its usefulness in alleviating postoperative sickness and nausea, and confirming its positive effects when combined with local anesthesia. “I always tell people they have to wear the magic glasses to see that there’s a mental and emotional part to TCM,” says Yang, who’s spent decades honing his East-meets-West approach to healing.

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In a typical week, Yang might use acupuncture, herbal remedies, dietary supplements and neuro-emotional techniques to treat patients. He advocates daily meditation and even offers free classes in the ancient practice of Falun Dafa at Bryn Mawr Hospital. In addition to serving as founding director at the Tao Institute, Yang practices psychiatry and medicine at Jefferson University Hospital’s Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine.

Yang has completed a fellowship with internationally recognized integrative medicine pioneer Dr. Andrew Weil. He now serves as a nonresident faculty member at Weil’s integrated medicine program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Yang readily supports acupuncture’s status as the crown jewel of alternative medicine. And the facts seem to back him up. According to the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, an estimated 8.2 million Americans have tried acupuncture and about 2.1 million undergo regular treatments. Most first-time patients are seeking relief from post-surgery or chronic pain.

Experts credit the 1997 National Institutes of Health’s Consensus Development Conference on Acupuncture for prompting Eastern medicine’s shift from fringe to mainstream. The NIH dubbed acupuncture a safe and effective treatment for certain conditions, acknowledging that it fits the needs of public wellness programs and addresses a certain population that’s increasingly skeptical of the drug industry and the high cost of surgery.

AAAOM predicts that, by 2014, the profession known as AOM “will be fully accessible to the public throughout American healthcare.” Already in the past decade, postgraduate training programs in alternative medicine have sprung up on college campuses around the country, most recently at Harvard University.

The way Yang sees it, acupuncture and Oriental medicine are the ultimate in primary care. “You really have a one-on-one dialogue with your doctor,” he says. “You want to pay attention to the body’s response to treatment—whether the patient is getting better or worse—and adjust accordingly.”

For more, visit taoinstitute.com.

Most Popular Reasons for Trying Acupuncture

• Pain management
• Smoking cessation
• Fertility support
• Control of chronic Lyme disease
• Post-cancer care
• Anti-aging and cosmetic improvements
• Weight control
• Depression
• Substance abuse

Five Things to Do Before You Try Acupuncture

1. Check with your health insurance provider.
A growing number are covering acupuncture, though often with certain stipulations.

2. Investigate your options. Spend time researching your needs and various practitioners by visiting a membership organization like the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

3. Know who’s treating you. There are rigorous training standards for acupuncturists in this country, but licensing requirements vary from state to state. Most physicians who practice acupuncture are members of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture.

4. Consider the time spent in treatment, and the cost involved. The course of treatment for many conditions averages between four and six sessions, with initial visits starting at $150.

5. Evaluate your commitment to alternative medicine. Unlike traditional medicine, acupuncture often has a cumulative effect, requiring patience and fortitude.

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