Ten years ago, I started integrating acupuncture into my obstetrical, gynecological, and general medical practice. Having seen the remarkable health improvements that Eastern medicine can create, I decided to treat patients with acupuncture and herbal medicines exclusively; but Eastern medicine is more than just acupuncture and herbs. Dietary therapy, breathing and meditative practices, vigorous exercise, and proper sleep hygiene are the ancient foundations of Eastern medicine. Indeed, all healing systems through the ages have laid this foundation. Because I have the luxury of spending between thirty to ninety minutes with each patient, I can fully address the core of a person’s health and lifestyle choices. I even have the time to teach simple techniques and breathing exercises for stress management.
Therefore, over the past two years, I have been functioning as a consultant to the family doctors and specialists who refer their patients for treatment of medical problems that need an integrative approach. While I could have continued wearing two hats, as both the primary care provider and the acupuncturist, I decided that I could help more people by concentrating entirely on Eastern medicine and leaving conventional care to the very talented physicians, midwives, and mid-level providers in my community.
In Hawaii, where I practice, integrative medicine is quite widely accepted and employed, but this is not the situation in all parts of the country. Wanting to share what I have discovered, it is my mission to elevate the awareness of the Western medical community and the public about the utility and wisdom of incorporating Eastern medicine into the treatment of many complicated conditions. There are many reasons why I believe that this East/West integration optimizes both health and healthcare.
Utilizing Eastern medicine modalities prior to prescribing medications or recommending procedures can avoid the side effects of medications and complications of surgery, as well as decrease healthcare costs. Organizations that promote incorporating acupuncture into conventional medical care, such as the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture and the ACUS Foundation, encourage physicians to remember the motto “Acupuncture First.” Instead of prescribing medications for arthritis, sciatica, or migraines, acupuncture can be tried as a first line treatment. Even if a patient is already on medication for one of these conditions, regular acupuncture can decrease the need for drugs. Many patients can lessen the amount of pain relievers that they take, both in terms of the amount and frequency of the dose. Relying on acupuncture with or without herbal preparations can help people avoid strong and potentially addicting painkillers. For those patients who have already started to use opioid analgesics like oxycodone, acupuncture can help many of them taper off these drugs completely. Many studies have shown that adding meditation, tai chi, or qigong training to a patient’s treatment plan decreases pain and improves well-being even further.
While chronic pain syndromes commonly come to mind when people think about Eastern medicine, specifically when they think about acupuncture, it can be used for so much more. As an obstetrician incorporating acupuncture into the management of pregnancy and childbirth, I used an “Acupuncture First” model of care. Before starting a woman on any medications, I would offer acupuncture for a variety of discomforts of pregnancy. These included morning sickness, migraine headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, low back pain, sciatica, heart palpitations, acid reflux, and insomnia. Even mild anxiety and depression can be treated with acupuncture along with stress management techniques and psychotherapy. This combination is very effective and can avoid the need for psychiatric medications. Such medications can have many serious side effects, including increased thoughts of suicide and potential birth defects in the baby. In my experience, the most pregnant women respond well to acupuncture and need no other medication for the condition in question.
I also use an “Acupuncture First” approach to prepare for and even start labor. In the final few weeks of pregnancy, regular acupuncture treatments generally lead to a smooth transition into spontaneous labor. Being able to use Eastern medicine to decrease the possibility of labor induction and cesarean section is better for the mother, the baby, and the healthcare system. A shorter, more efficient labor generated by acupuncture is less physically demanding for both mother and baby. T
The decreased risk of labor induction or cesarean section lowers the risk of complications during childbirth as well as minimizing the costs of hospitalization. Recovery from childbirth can also be facilitated by Eastern medicine by using acupuncture and herbal formulas to increase milk production, improve sleep, and mitigate the stresses of the post-partum period. At all stages of reproductive life, before, during, and after pregnancy, acupuncture, herbs, and meditative practices can enhance health and well-being of the whole family.
Because I am both a medical doctor and an acupuncturist, I have had the opportunity to use acupuncture in acute care settings. I have used acupuncture to treat patients on surgical wards to decrease post-operative nausea and vomiting that did not respond to the usual medications. Also, following surgeries, sometimes a person’s bowel and bladder does not function well. Acupuncture be used in these situations to restore the normal function of these organs.
Acupuncture and Cancer Care
In some situations, acupuncture and Eastern medical modalities may not be the first-line treatment of choice; but even in such cases Eastern therapies can be effectively woven into the fabric of conventional medicine. These days, physicians who specialize in cancer care quite commonly recommend acupuncture between chemotherapy infusions to decrease nausea and fatigue, as well as to minimize complications of these medications. Chemotherapeutic agents can cause nerve damage in fingers and toes (a condition called peripheral neuropathy), muscle pain, low blood counts, weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), and difficulty thinking and finding words. By receiving regular acupuncture treatments throughout the course of their cancer treatment, patients have been to minimize or reverse these complications. Acupuncture and meditative practices have also been shown to optimize the body’s immune system and support healing during cancer treatment.
Other instances in which acupuncture can be integrated in to regular medical care is in the first-aid treatment of burns and sprains, coughs and colds, stomach problems, and asthma. It is also very useful for treating chronic insomnia, sinus congestion, and nervous tics. I have employed this modality in a wide-ranging spectrum of conditions from the relatively minor through to end of life care.
As I read over this list, I realize it may seem incredible that acupuncture and Eastern medicine can improve all of these conditions with or without the integration of Western medicine. Ten years ago, before learning about Eastern medicine, I would have expressed the same doubts. But now, having given thousands of acupuncture treatments and witnessing the benefits that people experience from acupuncture, meditation, and qigong, I feel like I am on a mission of sorts. My goal is to expand my understanding of the science of Eastern medicine and share that knowledge with anyone who shows an interest.
My foray into the world of Eastern healing therapies was once considered by many to be a departure from medicine as a whole. Nothing could be further from the truth. This combined approach allows me to practice the art and science of medicine in the fullest sense. By bringing an understanding of both Western and Eastern healing modalities to every encounter I have within the healthcare community, I can help my colleagues and patients solve many challenging medical problems. Practicing medicine every day from this unique vantage point is exciting, deeply gratifying, and, as the wise man said, not at all like “work”.
The above is an original article by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc, who is co-author with Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT of the True Wellness book series, True Wellness How to Combine the Best of Western and Eastern Medicine for Optimal Health, Pub Date October 2018, ISBN: 978-1-59439-630-4 and True Wellness The Mind, Pub Date July 2019, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-664-9.