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Acupuncture: Moving from Ancient China to the Medical Mainstream
from Our Health magazine, July 2011

OUrhealth articleKristie May was suffering from widespread, intense pain resulting from fibromyalgia. It had her "at my wit's end."

Ellen Nygaard had carpal tunnel-like pain in her wrist and wanted an alternative to drugs or surgery.

Jane Henningson's Lyme disease left her constantly exhausted, with headaches and unceasing pain in her body.

And Jim Harris' lower back pain was so overpowering that "my quality of life was about zero."

These Central Virginia residents and a growing number of others are turning to acupuncture for help with conditions ranging from chronic pain, to depression, to the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy from cancer treatment, and more.

And they are turning to it even though financially it remains largely an out-of-pocket form of health care. But that is changing as acupuncture gains ever growing respect from Western medicine as well as acceptance among healthcare consumers.

Acupuncture is a treatment method developed by the Chinese at least 2,000 years ago. It is a mainstay of Chinese medicine, based on the belief that energy within the body — or chi — flows along defined pathways and that blocking or an imbalance in those pathways leads to illness, pain, and even poor habits and emotional problems. Acupuncturists use hair-thin needles placed at precise points in the skin to stimulate and rebalance the flow of chi and restore health. Treatment is almost always painless.

Ask about an acupuncturist in the Lynchburg area and the name most often mentioned will likely be Dr. Matthew Miller, who, with his wife Dr. Wang Yao, owns East West Acupuncture, one of several acupuncture practices in the Hill City.

In China, Miller and Wang Yao are fully qualified medical doctors, although their training is not recognized in the notoriously inward-looking US medical community. Matthew Miller is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and he is also licensed by the State of Virginia.

To learn Chinese medicine, Miller went to the source – one of China's five top medical schools. The son of longtime and now-retired orthopedist Terry 0. Miller, M.D., Matt Miller became interested in Chinese approaches to health while studying literature at New York University. He first became interested in tai chi, the slow, graceful form of exercise used for stress reduction and promotion of good health. Studying under Tai Chi Grand Master C.K. Chu, Miller then became interested in the broader aspects of the Chinese approach to health.

"Through him," Miller says, "I learned that we often do not practice true health care in the United States; instead, we practice 'sick care.' Our system isn't primarily designed to keep us healthy; it's organized to get us well when we get sick."

Miller realized that the way to really learn Chinese medicine would be to live and study in China, in the Chinese language, and to have access to Chinese doctors. He put his literature studies behind him, first spending three years in Taiwan to become fluent in the language and then moving to mainland China to enter the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he would spend the next six years studying all aspects of Chinese medicine and specializing in acupuncture.

He and his wife — also studying Chinese medicine and specializing in herbal medicine — met at the university. When their studies were completed and it was time to establish a practice, they chose Lynchburg. "Chengdu is a city of 9 million people," Miller says, "and we felt we were at the end of our big city days. We both liked Lynchburg, its lifestyle and its natural beauty, so we moved here in 2002. We thought we would see if Lynchburg was ready for acupuncture."

And Lynchburg seemed to be ready. Mainstream medicine everywhere was becoming more interested in acupuncture as studies confirming the effectiveness of the treatment seemed to pile up. Lynchburg physicians seemed to take notice, especially such physicians as David R. Cannon, MD, an internist on the staff of Medical Associates of Central Virginia who heads up the practice's Division of Integrative Medicine. An active proponent of so-called alternative medicine, Cannon went to China in 1987 to see for himself the value of Chinese approaches and came back convinced of their value.

"I think acupuncture is an incredibly valuable form of treatment, and I was really excited when Matt Miller came back to Lynchburg," says Cannon, who refers patients to Miller for ailments ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to relief from the side effects of cancer-related chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Another physician-believer is Leah H. Hinkle, M.D., a family practice specialist in Forest who says that, although she doesn't have a detailed understanding of how it works, "it does work. With thousands of years of Chinese medicine, you can't go wrong." She sends patients to Miller for relief from ailments as widespread as insomnia, migraines, and complex pain issues.

Dr. Hinkle recommended acupuncture for her patient, Kristie May, whose pain linked to fibromyalgia had her at wit's end. "I was dealing with pain on a daily basis," she says "and the pain was about as much as I could stand." A crippling burden on its own, the pain led to almost constant exhaustion, which was wreaking havoc with her responsibilities as owner of the Little Beacon Preschool in Lynchburg. But after the first few treatments, she says, "The pain was dramatically reduced. I came off almost all of the medications I was on. It's been much, much better for my body." She returns to Miller about once a week to remain pain-free.

The other three patients interviewed for this article — Ellen Nygaard, Jane Hennington, and Jim Harris — report similar success stories. Harris seems especially converted. With tongue only slightly in cheek, he admits that hp had always considered anyone other than traditional, mainstream physicians as "horse doctors." He says that he was pretty rough on Matt Miller when they first met. "I interviewed him just as I would if he were applying for a job with me," says Harris, the owner of the large and successful Harris Trucking Company based in Madison Heights. He's turned into one of Miller's biggest fans. "I went twice a week for a month or so, and by that time I was back to about 85 percent of what I wanted to do," he says, "and now, I can do everything I want to do. I go back about once every quarter for a sort of tune up treatment."

The one dim point in acupuncture's attractiveness is the fact that it is not covered by most health insurance policies in the eastern US, although that has started to shift. Some companies, such as AREVA, do include coverage for acupuncture in employee health insurance policies, and Miller is confident that more policies will cover treatments as insurers realize that his specialty can save major costs in the long run. And Miller is seeing a sharp increase in the number of companies that list acupuncture treatments as allowable expenses for reimbursement through medical flex spending accounts.

NOTE: for more information on acupuncture, check the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Website at www.nccaom.org.

(Article by Rick Piester)

Click here to read this article at the Our Health website.


OUr Health cover
"Ask about an acupuncturist in the Lynchburg area and the name most often mentioned will likely be Dr. Matthew Miller, who, with his wife Dr. Wang Yao, owns East West Acupuncture