As a standalone treatment or a complement to conventional medicine, acupuncture can help with hundreds of health issues.

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a means of balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as chi or qi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. By placing needles into specific points along these pathways, acupuncture practitioners believe that a person’s energy flow will re-balance.

Asthma, menstrual cramps, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, smoking and arthritis are just some of the hundreds of conditions acupuncture can help with. But, there are some concerns acupuncture cannot treat — or may be able to later in the disease process — said Jeff Rippey, who owns and operates Jeff Rippey Acupuncture in St. Joseph.

Those include:

• Severe acute trauma — “I’m not much help if you’ve been shot, stabbed or hit by a bus,” Rippey said. “Come see me after you’ve been to the ER.”

• Cancer — Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are not cures for cancer. However, acupuncture can help with the pain, fatigue and nausea that can accompany chemotherapy. Rippey noted that he only sees cancer patients if they’re under the care of an oncologist and if the provider has approved acupuncture treatments.

• Severe acute infection (bacterial/viral/fungal) — “You need antibiotics or other treatments for these kinds of issues,” Rippey said.

• Joint pain due to severe structural degradation — “This is kind of a gray area. Sometimes a patient experiences joint pain because of severe structural changes,” he said. “In the low back, it could be a herniated disk or there might be bone on bone due to osteoarthritis in one or both knees.”

Rippey can help manage these pains, but the real correction is often surgical.

“Basically, if you’ve been to a couple of ortho consults and multiple physicians are telling you that you need joint replacement, you probably need joint replacement,” he said.

Of the four concerns listed above, acupuncture can usually be integrated at some level (as in the case of cancer) to achieve a better overall outcome, Rippey said. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has dozens of articles on its site addressing additional health conditions and how acupuncture can help.

What should a person do to prepare or expect during an acupuncture appointment?

In addition to the main concern, Rippey suggests taking a full inventory of all issues or symptoms you’re experiencing.

“Chinese medicine uses a very different diagnostic model, and just because you or your physician don’t think a symptom is related to your main problem doesn’t mean I won’t think that symptom isn’t related to your main problem,” Rippey said. “I have had lots of cases where a seemingly odd symptom, mentioned two or three treatments in, changed my entire approach and led to a much better outcome for the patient.”

In short, tell your acupuncturist everything so he or she can put the pieces together to develop an effective treatment plan. Labs or imaging (X-ray, MRI, CT) and your complete medication list also can be useful to bring to your appointment.

In addition, it’s important to know that acupuncture treatments have a cumulative effect, Rippey said.

“It’s unusual for a person to experience complete resolution of their problem after an initial treatment — it can and has happened, but it’s not the norm,” he said.

For most patients, it takes several treatments to get things under control. Statistically, a normal course of therapy is 8 to 10 treatments, Rippey said.

“Trying acupuncture once and deciding it didn’t work isn’t really trying acupuncture,” he explained. “I tell most patients to give me three treatments before making any decisions one way or the other.”

Plan on wearing loose clothes so your acupuncturist can get to certain body sites easily, such as knees and elbows. And don’t expect the needles to be placed exactly at the site where you’re experiencing pain.

Also, know that the one-time use, disposable, thin needles themselves rarely cause discomfort, according to the Mayo Clinic. They stay in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you lie or sit still. After the treatment, some patients feel relaxed, while others have increased energy.

Another little-known fact is the amount of training an acupuncturist receives.

“Most seem to think acupuncturists are ‘technicians’ of some sort and that the schooling is along the lines of massage therapy (not to denigrate massage therapists),” Rippey explained.

The minimum education requirement to receive a state practice license for acupuncture is a master’s degree. In most cases, a student will need an undergraduate degree, ideally in a science-related field.

Somewhere between one quarter and one-third of most programs consist of western science and medicine, with a lot of training in anatomy, physiology, physical examination and pharmacology, said Rippey, who also has a doctorate degree in Chinese medicine.

Most acupuncturists can read and interpret lab work as well as X-rays.

In Missouri and most other states, acupuncturists are stand-alone providers, which means they can practice without a physician’s supervision and they do not have to have a doctor’s referral to accept new patients.

When looking for an acupuncturist, Rippey suggests finding a practitioner who is board certified with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. This means the person has attended and graduated from an accredited school of Chinese medicine, obtained a clean needle technique certification, taken and passed a series of board certification exams and maintained credentials through continuing education, Rippey said.

Patients also need to make sure their potential provider has either an L.Ac. or an R.Ac. credential issued by the state they’re practicing in (Missouri uses L.Ac.). Prospective patients can look up providers at nccaom.org, and most state boards of medicine host a provider lookup where licensing can be verified also.

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