The plight of the acupuncturist


I have written before about the use of dry needling in the physical therapy (PT) community. It continues to be concerning that improperly trained professionals (in fields outside of acupuncture or Traditional Chinese Medicine-(TCM) are taking a delicate skill that has been exclusively used by TCM and acupuncturists for thousands of years, and are now employing it in painful ways by inserting needles to release a trigger point in the muscle. Most of my patients that have admitted to me that they have had it done while going to PT have talked about how painful, almost brutal it was, and did not the receive the results promised. This is a practice that has had the acupuncture community up in arms because it introduces painful, unskilled needling that causes harm and also gets misconstrued as acupuncture. It is the same as when doctors and chiropractors claim to do “acupuncture” without the theory, the clinic hours and the education that the acupuncturist has had to complete through at least a 3.5 year Master’s Degree, so again, years of training not a weekend course granting hours. Acupuncturists practice TCM which is an independent form of medicine, not just a technique. I think it is crucial that this fact be emphasized, this isn’t about adopting a technique and suddenly assuming that it’s acupuncture or TCM that is being practiced. I recently learned that PT is now using Gua Sha—-another techinque that Chinese Medicine has used for thousands of years. I understand why doctors, PT, and chiropractors use these practices, because they work, these concepts get results. But the true results don’t come from how they are just being mixed and matched in existing practices and don’t come with the rigorous training to execute them properly and justly for the patient. It is difficult to sit idly by while these techniques are not regulated by “regular/conventional” medicine yet are added to enhance their practice so irresponsibly yet my “alternative” medicine is often mocked, disregarded, and almost never covered by insurance as readily.

I am not interested in regulating what other healthcare providers do, that can sit among them and their patients. However, patients should be educated on what these techniques are and realize what level of training is actually required to execute them properly. I have seen and read countless of stories/articles of the harm that results from improper training, the punctured lungs, the injured muscles/tissues, rashes, infections. While I know that not all cases of improper use of needling and TCM techniques will result in injury I know that it will not result in a comprehensive betterment of the condition for which a patient is seeking treatment.

My patient had been going to PT for pain in his back and legs because his doctor directed him to it and insurance covers it. So he went for 18 weeks and he himself stated that he had not seen results. When he came to see me, however, we addressed these same concerns, and after 3 treatments his back pain was 85% better and leg pain improved by over 50%—per his estimation. He had told me how painful the dry needling that his PT used on him had been. After the 3 treatments with me he decided he was feeling better and set an appointment for three weeks out, although my recommendation was that we keep treating his condition to further improvement. Instead, he continued with PT because, again, insurance covers it, not because of results. He immediately noticed that his pain was returning by continuing the PT/dry-needling. So he returned to me for acupuncture and due to his “experiment” he is clear on how acupuncture has once more provided significant pain relief. Acupuncture is a medicine, not a a “technique” learned during some 12-hour weekend course.

He will continue to go to PT and pay out of pocket for acupuncture because medicare, and his supplemental insurance doesn’t cover acupuncturists. He has claimed to not really see the results from PT but is willing to go along with it because it is covered under his insurance. It baffles me that these practitioners are getting paid without the need to produce results, they will continue to get patients, now using acupuncture techniques to try and improve their practice, and I can’t even compete fairly because insurances don’t cover my services the way they do theirs.

All I am advocating for is equal chance in treating people. If we are to have mandatory health insurance then the right of the consumer to all medicines that can help should be  available. There shouldn’t be exclusion. I should have the right to compete with these providers who are merely using my techniques when I am, in fact, trained fully in acupuncture and TCM. I should have the right with the studies that have shown acupuncture’s effectiveness for pain, sleep, headaches, etc and be allowed to help those who are in need and have their insurance cover these services equally. If we are federally penalized on our taxes for lack of insurance then give people all options for their healthcare.
Trying to limit what these other types of providers do with ‘their acupuncture’ and their limited use of techniques that TCM has used for thousands of years, isn’t necessarily the answer. But my training as an acupuncturist, building my business from scratch, advocating for a medicine that is clearly giving results should allow me and my patients to benefit without financial penalty.  I am here to heal, to treat people as a whole, to listen, and get them their desired results. Equal medical coverage should be available so that the patient has the option in their health treatments and their choice for health care providers.

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