The Point of Treatment

Alleviating pain: acupuncture addresses more than just the symptom

Alleviating pain: acupuncture addresses more than just the symptom.

When a fall last year tore one of the rotator cuff tendons in her right shoulder, Twila Williams was not only in a lot of pain. She was worried. Williams, a sixty-two-year-old wallpaper hanger from Danville, Virginia, wanted to avoid surgery at all costs--and she continued to work for six months before seeking treatment.

Several ineffective sessions with a local chiropractor led Williams to Duke, where she was seen by Alison Toth M.D. '94, an orthopedics and sports-medicine specialist. After X-rays and an MRI confirmed Williams' injuries, she began physical therapy. Although that gave Williams some relief, she continued to experience such intense pain at night that she was unable to sleep. Yet she still wanted to avoid pain medication and held out hope for a non-surgical solution so she could continue working.

Williams voiced her concerns to Toth, who in January 2002 referred her to the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine's Larry Burk, also a medical acupuncture practitioner. "When you have pain, your whole system is out of balance and the painful spot is just a weak link," Burk says. "Acupuncture is part of a whole-person approach that addresses more than just the symptom of pain."

Used at Duke primarily to treat patients with pain and nausea related to surgery and pregnancy, acupuncture evolved in China some 4,000 years ago. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non-experimental therapy in 1997. "There's accumulating scientific evidence that acupuncture works," Burk says, "which is why it's moving into more mainstream health-care settings."

The practice is founded on the belief that there are fourteen channels (meridians) that carry our natural energy (qi) throughout our bodies. Acupuncturists place tiny, blunt-tipped needles in specific points along these meridians--but often nowhere near the body parts affected by pain--to manipulate and stimulate the flow of qi and create the balance the body needs to heal itself. The needles are relatively painless, Williams says, and they rarely cause bleeding.

Since Burk began treating her in January 2002, Williams has had a dramatically positive response, including some unexpected health benefits. Beside relieving her shoulder pain, acupuncture seems to have resolved many of her varicose veins and improved a longtime sinus condition.

"I'd heard of acupuncture before and knew it can be used for pain control, so I decided to give it a try," she says. "Dr. Burk explained the procedure to me and made it very clear that acupuncture wouldn't heal the hole in my tendon--that the goal of treatment was for me to listen to my body and be aware of my pain level so that my body could heal itself around the injury."

Williams is back working ten-hour days, during which she totes ladders, boards, and seventy-five-pound buckets. "I feel like I did at thirty, and when I wake up in the morning, I'm ready to go. There's no creaking or groaning," she says. "My mind is clear, I'm pain-free, and I have my full range of movement back.

"I can't say enough about what acupuncture has done for me. There can be so many side effects to medication and surgery. But with this, I haven't seen anything but benefits."

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