Acupuncture: Pinpointing the Problems


As medical costs rise, many Americans are turning to less expensive alternatives. A new report by Deloitte and Oxford Economics finds that consumers spent $363 billion more for health-care goods and services in 2009 than official government statistics can account for because these services are not covered by insurance. These out-of-pocket medical costs include “purchases that are outside of conventional therapies and treatments,” as well as other products and services not covered by insurance programs. The finding joins a growing body of evidence that more Americans are exploring often less expensive alternatives to traditional Western medicine.

A 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which polled Americans about their use of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), estimated that 3.1 million U.S. adults and 150,000 children had used acupuncture during the previous year. And in the five years leading up to the survey, the use of acupuncture—the traditional Asian medical technique that involves the insertion of thin needles at skin-level into key areas of the body—had increased among U.S. adults by 0.3%, or about 1 million people.

As more insurance companies begin covering alternative medicines such as acupuncture, the number of Americans seeking alternative treatments continues to rise. According to Nancy Vitalis Garrity, a practicing psychologist and acupuncturist, the practice is an ancient system that originated about 2000 years ago. “They don’t really know where the joke began that someone was speared by an arrow and it was like ‘man, my headache went away,’ or something silly like that,” she jokes.

With the various kinds of acupuncture available (Korean, Modern Chinese, Traditional Chinese, American, French, etc.), patients truly have their pick of the crop. Garrity, who practices Traditional Chinese, discusses the energy systems present within the body, termed “meridians.”

“There are energy fields in the body that come to the surface at different points and those are called acupuncture points. You can access them with different things. You can access them with heat (with an herb called moxa, which you light) or a needle,” she says. “The energy fields are like rivers to me, and so when you put a needle in, there is like a roadblock, a dam, that the needle unblocks.”

Chinese medicine is quite complex and can be difficult for some people to comprehend. This is because it is based, at least in part, on the Daoist belief that we live in a universe in which everything is interconnected. What happens to one part of the body affects every other part of the body. The mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic system. Similarly, organs and organ systems are viewed as interconnected structures that work together to keep the body functioning.

Acupuncture, once considered exotic in the U.S., has been around long enough to become federally regulated. Practitioners must use needles produced and manufactured according to FDA standards, which require needles to “be sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.” Only people who are certified in the state are allowed to practice acupuncture.

Garrity, who has national certification as well as state certification, is also a practicing psychologist who often finds that work coming out in her acupuncture sessions. “What I try to do when I work with you is like dominoes: instead of pushing over the last one, if we can get them all to go down it’s much easier,” she says. “What I’m looking at is the basic core balance of the body. We want to look at the core energy system and if that is in fairly good shape then you don’t have as many symptoms. If it isn’t then what happens is you get an array of symptoms. I’m looking at the symptoms you have, but I also really want to check out the core because if I can get the core and take care of that, then the symptoms take care of themselves.”

According to Garrity, acupuncture can treat anything—any kind of imbalance in the core system—and the number of treatments will be specific to the individual, depending how many years the illness or infliction has been in the body. She says, “The way they talk about it is it’s about a month for every year you’ve been sick. It depends how you define sick. Some acupuncturists define fatigue as a sickness (you know, severe fatigue that’s recurring), so generally I will give a first treatment and then we wait and find out what happens.”

That first treatment lasts about an hour as Garrity will first sit down with the individual to discuss their history before proceeding with the needles. She will spend time learning about the main complaint, family, medical history, schooling, work, diet, supplements and medications being taken, etc. Garrity may also ask questions regarding favorite colors, seasons, and foods. She says a person’s language is important as she develops the history together with them before she elicits the best treatment (or combination of treatments) for each individual to heal their system. Any additional treatments will range more in the half hour time-frame with each session tailored to the person’s progress and balance.

As someone who received an acupuncture treatment without a specific malady, it was reassuring to hear confirmation that my core was pretty well-balanced and my pulse reflected my generally happy nature. Personally, Garrity noticed that my Fire meridian needed to be balanced. After learning that Fire has to do with anxiety, relationships, and love, it came as no shock to me (as a chronic single person) that this would be out of balance.

Once the actual acupuncture treatment begins, anxieties melt away as fears are calmed. For my specific treatment, Garrity began by running incense over distinct areas of the body related to what was out of balance. How long it took for me to feel the heat signified how out of balance that particular point was, which then clued Garrity in as to where to place a needle. As she had predicted before any acupuncture began, my Fire meridian needed attention, with six of the twelve locations out of balance.

The needles used are hair thin and hurt much less than a tattoo (I should know, I’ve got two). After each needle goes in, Garrity retests the sites on the body with the incense to ensure that they are more balanced before proceeding, even finding a previously hidden imbalance. Following the treatment, Garrity takes the time to explain what happened, and what could be treated in the process. Treating the Fire meridian, for example, can also clear up acne.

As with any treatment plan, certain populations should take caution. Pregnant women and children, for example, may require alternate methods. “There are some points that are forbidden,” Garrity says. “I always double check every point I’m doing with a pregnant person.” Garrity goes on to joke that with children, the rule of thumb is to treat the mother. “That’s not always true, but a lot of times it is. You know, if the mother is upset, the kid will start crying. So, I do children, but I don’t treat them with needles, generally. I’ll use some herbs or some homeopathics or something like that.”

This, again, reflects the individualistic nature with which Garrity approaches each new person that comes through her door. Taking appointments by phone and email, Garrity promises to respond to all appointment requests within 24-48 hours. For more information, be sure to visit

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