Every month Mary Bailey, 64, makes the hour-long drive to The Wellness Tree on Dayton Boulevard. Struggling for years with degenerative discs, arthritis and carpal tunnel, she's tried several doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists and even an acupuncturist in Birmingham. But she didn't find relief until she discovered acupuncturist Wayne Stephens through word of mouth.
"It's made a big difference in my life," she says. "My range of motion is better and he's helped me with pain management. I don't like pain medicine so it's been a great alternative."
Before treatment Bailey had trouble even getting out of a chair due to stiffness and joint pain. After just three treatments, she could straighten up better and move more easily. And she's not alone.
"I once had this old football player, bent over, creep into my office," recalls Stephens. "After one treatment he couldn't believe how much better he felt - standing upright and moving his back trying to feel the pain and he just couldn't find it."
Some patients that Stephens has treated for headaches feel relief before they even get off the table. While not everyone responds so quickly, most feel improvement after one to three treatments, especially for musculo-skeletal pain.
A former athlete and certified massage therapist, Stephens gets referrals from sports medicine doctors all over town. He opened his practice four years ago after studying at the prestigious Five Branches Institute, spending time at its sister school in Hongzhou, China. While he's known for treating pain, he can help everything from infertility to the common cold.
"One of the amazing things to me is I can go in and my sinuses may be acting up," says Bailey. "When he puts the needles in at the base of the skull, within 15 minutes my nose is not dripping anymore."
It was infertility that brought Channel 9 news anchor Latricia Thomas, 30, to Chad Dupuis at The Yin Yang House. After trying to get pregnant for two years - including four rounds of Clomid and two IUIs - Thomas decided to give acupuncture a try. Never one to believe in holistic medicine, she reasoned that even if it didn't actually affect fertility it would at least help manage the stress. Four months later, she was pregnant with daughter Lila, now 7 months old. "After one treatment my husband told me he'd never seen me so relaxed," she recalls. "He called it 'the cloud.'"
Baby announcements plaster the bulletin board of Dupuis' office, posted by many who've tried multiple rounds of IVF before conceiving with acupuncture therapy. Dupuis estimates his success rate for infertility at nearly 100 percent, although the time it takes to treat varies widely. "There was one woman who tried for four or five years," says Dupuis. "We treated her maybe three times and she was pregnant."
Acupuncture is a catch-all term for Chinese medicine, which encompasses herbal medication, qigong (a type of energy healing) and tui na (a type of orthopedic massage) just to name a few. Dupuis also employs a type of healing called tong ren, which was developed by his teacher, Chinese master Tom Tam.
After earning a master's from the New England School of Acupuncture, Dupuis worked with Tam in Boston. Treating roughly 1,000 patients per week in tong ren classes, they began to attract attention from the Western medical community.
In 2006, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute performed a survey study of nearly 300 patients - 89 percent were considered vastly improved.
Despite years of studies there's no solid explanation of how acupuncture works, just plenty of evidence that it does. The Chinese theory is that there are channels of energy that run through the body, called meridians, and an obstruction in one of these acts like a dam that backs up the others. The needles help clear the obstructions.
Studies have shown through MRI that even one needle can light up multiple areas of the brain, but a true explanation still escapes Western doctors. "I don't know enough about that side of the science, but I'd be willing to bet that to really figure out what happens from combinations of treatments, you're talking about figuring out the human genome again - and there's no money in that," laughs Dupuis.
Stephens agrees. "In the U.S. everyone wants proof, especially insurance companies or doctors," he says. "They want double-blind studies and unfortunately there aren't many that prove acupuncture works. However, it's been in clinical trial for 3,000 years - that seems like pretty good evidence."