By Joyell Nevins
Have a pain, take a pill. Have another pain, take another pill. And keep going until the pain stops or your tolerance to the pills grows too strong. But is there another way to fix the problem?
The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) community clinicians and patients think so. One of the methods of pain relief and healing they practice is acupuncture. And one of the places they are experiencing great success is at the externship Veterans Clinic in Linda Vista, where military members and their families are treated for free.
“The first time I walked in here, my back pain was at a seven and my knee was at an eight. I walked out, and my pain was at a two,” said longtime patient Jesse Whitemire, USAF, Ret. “I wouldn’t miss [my treatments] for anything, because I know I’m going to feel better.”
Since 1969, Whitemire has been through more than 30 surgeries related to a host of sports injuries. He has had surgery on both knees, both hips, his shoulders, and ankles, and had the prescription list to match. One of the benefits to his acupuncture treatments has been going from six to eight Percocet tablets a day to one to two tablets.
“I’m so pleased about that,” Whitemire said.
Needles in a nutshell
Acupuncture is a 3,000-year-old healing technique of traditional Chinese medicine, according to the UC San Diego’s Center for Integrative Medicine. It operates from the philosophy that the universe, and the body, consist of energy in two opposing forces: yin and yang. When the forces are in balance, the body is healthy.
The forces stay balanced by a constant flow of energy, or qi (pronounced “chee”), along specific pathways, or meridians, through the body. If the flow of energy gets blocked, like water getting stuck behind a dam, the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function or illness. The Center describes acupuncture therapy as releasing blocked qi, stimulating function and evoking the body’s natural healing response.
Acupuncture stimulates specific sites on the body, known as acupoints or pressure points, to access the meridian and change the flow of energy. It operates under the belief that the body is a connected web – to work on your feet, for example, a clinician might stimulate a point on your ear. One of the first steps of diagnosis at the clinic is to look at a patient’s tongue – the landscape of the top of their tongue is like a roadmap to what is going on within the body.
Stimulation is most commonly done through the insertion of fine needles into the skin. But it’s not one-size-fits-all for the needles. There are long ones and short ones, thicker ones and thinner ones, and even different size handles.
“They’re tools – just like you would use a Phillips screwdriver or a traditional screwdriver in different situations,” Erin Raskin explained. Raskin is one of the supervisors of the Veterans Clinic and a faculty member at PCOM.
Raskin also emphasized the importance of self-care from the patient and taking a look at the whole person – the yang sheng.
“It’s not just address the back pain and get out the door,” Raskin said. “There’s a whole person that’s attached to that back. We’re trying to empower the patient him or herself.”
Her counterpart, Christin Cronin, put it this way concerning the hour-long treatment philosophy: “It does matter what you do the other 23 hours of the day.”
When they were working with Rhonda Klumph to get her stomach in balance – after a foot surgery, Klumph’s stomach was so acidic she couldn’t eat anything but mashed potatoes for three months – the treatment included more than needles on acupoints.
Klumph was given specific recipes and healing foods to bring her digestive system back in balance. Now she is back to eating a normal meal again.
“It was a great success,” Klumph grinned.
She also shared how acupuncture has helped her with back and foot pain. Excruciating back pain is what first brought Klumph to the clinic. After the needling, she was sent home with “seeds” in her ear – tiny black seeds from the vaccaria plant or small pellets that are taped on the ear over specific acupressure points.
“I would push on them and feel the pain just melt away,” Klumph said. “They were placed in the perfect spot.”
Many patients also emphasized how acupuncture affects their sleep.
“I go home [after my treatments] and I sleep so well, so comfortable,” Susan Inumerable said.
Inumerable’s husband, Jerry, is retired Air Force and she works as a nurse. They both come for concerns with their neck, shoulders, and rotator cuff. Inumberable also used to suffer from plantar fasciitis in her feet, but that has been completely cured, she said.
“It makes no sense to a Western trained nurse how [acupuncture] works, but it does,” Susan said.
Just for military
Although PCOM has several externship clinics and works with many unique populations, the clinic in Linda Vista is specifically offered for the military. Cronin served in the Marine Corps and after being on the faculty of PCOM, noticed the need for a military-centered clinic.
“I saw just how creative military members got to treat their pain,” Cronin said. “This is a different way in which to take care of them.”
She noted that it’s not that current military medicine doesn’t want to help; it’s a question of resources. The PCOM Veterans Clinic offers another resource.
The clinic is available for the military and their attached family. Raskin and Cronin both emphasized the symbiotic relationship and the importance of a support system for the service members.
Treatments are offered free of charge. PCOM provides the supplies, American Legion Post 731 donates the space, and the students volunteer their time as part of their clinic hours.
Senior Abby Fleisner said she chose to complete her hours at an offsite clinic, such as the veterans one, instead of the in-house PCOM student clinic because of what the clinicians are exposed to.
“There are all different kinds of stories, of scenarios, that you wouldn’t see [in the school clinic],” Fleisner said. “You’re more exposed to traumatic situations, but I find this setting more interesting and more rewarding.”
The Veterans Clinic is first come, first served on Wednesday nights from 5:30-9:30 p.m. when school is in session. The American Legion Post 731 is located at 7245 Linda Vista Road. For more information about the clinic, call Christine Cronin at 619-847-9613.
For more information about acupuncture or other externship clinics in the San Diego area, visit pacificcollege.edu/patients/san-diego.