Under the Skin: Acupuncture is used to treat far more than just pain

photo Dr. Colleen Smith inserts an acupuncture needle into golden retriever Gus' paw before giving him an electro acupuncture treatment at Chattanooga Holistic Animal Institute. The veterinary clinic practices acupuncture on both dogs and horses.
photo Licensed acupuncturist Yong Oh gives patient Tracy Hilliard an acupuncture treatment.

ACUPUNCTURE AILMENTSHere is a sample of some of the afflictions the World Health Organization says can be treated or alleviated effectively with acupuncture:• Hay fever• Sinusitis• Food allergies• High blood pressure• Anemia• Acne• Nicotine addiction• Male and female infertility• Shingles• Asthma• Insomnia• Kidney stones• Menopausal hot flashes• Heavy periods• Impotence• Chemotherapy side effects

Acupuncture isn't just for pain anymore. In fact, it's not even just for humans anymore.

Introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s by Chinese immigrants, it now can be found nationwide and -- in what's probably the biggest indication that it has been accepted as legitimate -- most insurance companies cover it in some fashion.

Yes, it's still used to treat pain, but it's also for stress relief, to quit smoking, to reduce allergy symptoms and to help people sleep. In the Chattanooga area, you can find acupuncturists that treat all those and more.


Gus the River Dog met his veterinarian when he was floating in his inflatable kayak down the Ocoee River.

photo Chocolate lab Willow undergoes acupuncture treatment at Chattanooga Holistic Animal Institute.

Dr. Colleen Smith of the Chattanooga Holistic Animal Institute was on the river that day in her kayak. When she spotted the golden retriever, she just had to chat with Gus' human owner, Leila Thomason.

Now poor Gus is flopped across a rug in an examination room at CHAI, his back aching from arthritis in his spine. CHAI actually smells like chai -- a rich, soothing perfume laced with incense -- and soft chiming music wafts through the sound system. The ambiance is designed to soothe owners as well as pets.

Smith examines good-natured Gus, who sports a green bandana around his neck. Then Smith plucks needles from a silver box and inserts them into his back. Gus lifts his head, a bit startled, but does not make a sound.

"There's a slight tingling when the needle goes in, but it does not feel like a shot," Smith explains. "It probably does feel weird to him and he's wondering what I am doing."

As she lifts the next tiny sliver of a needle toward his back in her right hand, Gus put his paw on her left so they can shake hands. He does the same thing the next three times she reaches for a needle, as if trying to distract her with his adorable trick. Finally, though, he relaxes and rests his head on his paws.

photo Acupuncture needles are prepared for use.

Smith flicks a switch and a low-frequency electrical impulse moves through wires attached to the needles in Gus' furry back. He enjoys the electro massage so much, he lolls on his side and nuzzles Smith until she gives him a tummy rub.

In the next room, a chocolate lab puppy named Willow snoozes on a table, a collar of acupuncture needles glittering in her neck.

"I embraced Chinese medicine when I saw a retired racehorse suffering from ring bone (a severe form of arthritis attacking the horse's ankles) get an acupuncture treatment," Smith says. "After the treatment, the horse was running around happily. It was astonishing."

She earned her certification from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society and founded an equine practice in 2008. She still makes house calls to farms and a riding school to treat horses with acupuncture.

While the shelves in CHAI's main treatment room contain some pharmaceuticals, most of the space is occupied by jars full of herbal mixes made according to traditional Chinese medicine.

"All these herbal treatments were made in America, so we know they are clean," Smith says. "I would love to see more doctors try herbal medicine for human patients, but Big Pharma would probably fight that trend."

The herbal medicine has poetic names like Settle the Yang, Sublime Joint Formula, Deep Heat Derma Relief and Subdue the Internal Wind.

Yes, the last one is used when your pet gets gassy.


photo Hurdler Lolo Jones is shown during the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. in 2011.

Track star Lolo Jones was at the epicenter of "Mean Girls" stress at the London Summer Olympics as teammates sniped at her assertion that she was a 30-year old virgin and her nude cover for ESPN magazine.

Jones didn't win any Olympic medals, but her athletic prowess made her a winner in subsequent international competitions. She remains one of the few Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, hurdles in summer and as U.S. bobsled team brakewoman in winter. On Monday, she was in the pop-culture spotlight as the first celebrity this season voted off TV's behemoth hit, "Dancing with the Stars."

Chattanooga acupuncturist Bret Moldenhauer was ready to catch a redeye to Los Angeles if Jones pulled a muscle while dancing. He was treating her in London during the Olympics, decreasing her stress with acupuncture. And he has treated her during many of her other competitions, relieving her stress, reducing muscle inflammation and helping prevent joint or muscle pain by studying her gait and stride.

"Acupuncture is becoming so widely accepted in sports medicine that most professional teams have an acupuncturist who can treat players' injuries or help prevent them," says Moldenhauer, who treats several Olympic athletes as well as college players. "I was with Lolo when she was in London and will be treating her in future competitions. (Olympic track star and University of Tennessee alum) Deedee Trotter and (record-breaking sprinter) Tyson Gay are also my patients."

A large body of medical research over the past 20 years details how effective acupuncture is in treating sprains, anxiety, tendonitis and back pain -- conditions that frequently plague athletes. The website for Moldenhauer's Institute for Acupuncture & Wellness also lists the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team and the Tampa Bay Buccaneer NFL players as patients.

"But my practice goes beyond sports medicine," adds Moldenhauer, who has hospital privileges at Erlanger Medical Center to treat patients. "Acupuncture is gaining more acceptance in the Western medical community.

"It's important that acupuncturists explain to patients what they can and cannot expect from acupuncture. For example, acupuncture cannot cure diabetes. But acupuncture can ease internal inflammation and many digestive issues that afflict a diabetic patient and make it easier for them to live a healthier life."


When Yong Oh meets a patient who is sick with stress, he goes right for the ears.

There are points on the outside of the ears (not the ear canal) where acupuncture needles are placed to reduce stress dramatically. The needles are almost hair thin, ending in rounded points similar to a pine needles; they make tiny punctures painless.

It should go without saying: Do not try this at home.

Instead, go to someone with Oh's impressive credentials, including a Virginia Tech University degree in biology, a master's from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York and board-certification in Georgia and Tennessee for acupuncture.

He also passed the challenging written and hands-on exam administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine to win certification that is recognized by all 50 states.

Like most acupuncturists, he does not accept insurance -- although most insurance companies now cover acupuncture treatments in certain cases. But his big heart prompts him to offer sliding fee scales to low-income clients. And he tackles what he views as an urgent American health problem -- stress -- with meditation classes and acupuncture treatments ranging from $8 to $20 at Chattanooga's Center for Mindful Living.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a 2013 report declaring a stress crisis in America. Stress worsens illnesses from cancer to heart disease by increasing inflammation, raising blood pressure, adding wear to the heart and delaying the body's healing processes.

The problem is especially acute for emergency personnel who may be tending those injured by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other disasters, work that often means 18-hour days with little sleep. Volunteers from Acupuncturists without Borders rush to disaster areas and offer free care to everyone from smoke jumpers and firefighters to ambulance drivers and emergency room doctors.

"These volunteers are an inspiration and they go to disaster areas like the Gulf Coast after Katrina, California during the wildfires and Haiti after the earthquake," Oh says. "The acupuncture treatments help keep the emergency personnel healthy and focused and able to think clearly."

Remote Area Medical, the Tennessee charity that offers free medical, dental and vision care to the impoverished, also welcomes volunteer acupuncturists among its health care professionals donating their time and service. And, while the charity is limited in the dental care it can provide, focusing on extractions, "an acupuncturist can relieve the pain that patient feels after the tooth is pulled," Oh says.

The Remote Area Medical website includes thank-yous from low-income manual laborers who say acupuncturists on duty relieved their back pain, bruised shoulders and strained muscles quickly and more thoroughly than pain medication they could no longer afford.


Many states do not require certification for acupuncturists, but Bret Moldenhauer, who is certified in all 50 states, emphasizes that, just because it's legal to do acupuncture without certification, it's not a good idea.

Tennessee and Georgia require acupuncturists to be certified; Alabama does not.

Here is his checklist for what to look for in an acupuncturist:

• Do not go to a day spa or cosmetic surgeon to get acupuncture.

• State certification.

• A clean office and clean examination room.

• Don't trust claims that acupuncture can cure such serious diseases as cancer.

"My thinking is," he says, "acupuncture is most helpful to patients with an ailment where results can be measured and documented. For example, acupuncture has been shown to alleviate the nausea and vomiting that are chemotherapy side effects. But cancer itself is too complex, involves too many types of concurrent treatments, for us to know how acupuncture can specifically help a cancer patient. More studies would need to be done, more research, before we can know that."