Once a week, Nyack’s Keith Bird, 49, steps into the offices of acupuncturist Alan Handelsman on North Broadway and allows the doctor to stick him with about a dozen, hair-thin, inch-long needles. With needles protruding from his forehead, thighs and stomach, he lies back on a leather-bound examining table for about half an hour looking like a human pincushion. Bird is dying of cancer, and he says the half-hour he spends with Handelsman each week helps overcome the often debilitating effects of his chemotherapy. Long the subject of everything from mild skepticism to downright derision, the Food and Drug Administration last month paved the way for acupuncture to enter the medical mainstream by upgrading the status of the needles from experimental devices to medical tools. By reclassifying the needles, the FDA removed an obstacle to insurance coverage for acupuncture treatments. “Most people are taking acupuncture more seriously today,” says Handelsman, who began his years ago while living in Japan. Used for 2,000 years to treat a wide variety of conditions including chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, asthma and even stroke, Bird says it is the only treatment he’s tried that has helped him feel better after chemotherapy. “Everything about fighting cancer is a quality-of-life issue and sometimes you don’t want anything more than just to feel normal. When I leave Alan’s office, I feel a little more normal,” says Bird, a head nurse with the Westchester County Medical Center’s trauma unit. Acupuncture is thought to have begun with the discovery that the stimulation of specific areas on the skin affects the functioning of organs of the body. It has evolved into a system of medicine designed to maintain health by inserting needles into specific acupuncture points just beneath the body surface. Therese points lie on what traditional Chinese medicine calls “channels of energy.” For some, like Dr. Victor Herbert, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, testimonials like Bird’s are more attributable to the power of acupuncture treatments. “Quackupunture,” he calls it. Herbert does not believe the modern scientific theory that acupuncture points stimulate the body to release chemicals such as endorphins, which are natural painkillers. “Pain itself can have the same effect,” he says. Still, just this year, the New York Medical College in Valhalla instituted a program to train physicians in acupuncture. The 300-hour program-the only such program sponsored by a medical school in the state- is approved as appropriate for certifying doctors to perform acupuncture. There are, according to the latest statistics, some 578 licensed acupuncturists in New York. Rockland County has seven. Laura and William Zinser of Nyack regularly go to an acupuncturist for treatments-even though neither has any specific illness. “We just decided that even though we weren’t really sick, we had a couple of mild maladies that we wanted to take care of before they got worse,” Laura Zinser says.
“I’m a true believer and I never would have been if it hadn’t happened to me,” says Barbara Robins, a Forsyth County resident. “I injured my back twisting to pick up my daughter, who was 2-1/2. I’m a registered nurse and knew I had herniated my disk. As an RN, I didn’t have very many opinions, because the medical doctors drug you,” she says, unapologetically. “They would’ve put me on pain killers and, frankly, to be driving around Forsyth County drugged up would not be cool. Other options were to do expensive injections right into the spine, such as cortisone or an anesthesia-type thing, which is $3,000 per injection, or surgery.” In her quest for relief, Robins says she contacted a chiropractor and hoped the adjustment would ease her discomfort, even temporarily. “But, he couldn’t touch me, because I was too injured and swollen, at the time,” she recalls. “He was either gonna suggest bed rest and have muscle relaxers prescribed by someone else until the swelling went down, or, he said there was a good chance he could have me better in three days flat through his acupuncturist.” Despite her skepticism, Robins was desperate to feel better. “I really needed quick relief, because my husband travels and I was alone with two kids,” she says. “At that point, I was desperate. My husband was leaving the next day and I literally could not walk. I had to lift my leg by tugging on my pants. The pain was severe. So I figured I had nothing to lose.” Her pursuit was timely. Prior to July of last year, acupuncture was unregulated in Georgia. However, now the state has approved licensure and the practice is increasingly embraced in medical circles. “Traditional Chinese medicine theorizes that more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with 12 main and 8 secondary pathways, called meridians,” say materials released by the National Institute of Health. “Chinese medicine practitioners believe these meridians conduct energy, or qi, between the surface of the body and internal organs. Acupuncture is believed to balance yin and yang, keep the normal flow of energy unblocked and restore health to the body and mind. Some researchers believe that meridians are located throughout the body’s connective tissues; others do not believe that qi exists at all. Such differences in opinion have made acupuncture a source of scientific controversy.” Dr. Yuxian Liu, the acupuncturist Robins turned to, is one of the very first licensed practitioners in Georgia, receiving License No. 4. Despite 25 years in China as an anesthesiologist and acupuncturist, she has only recently been able to perform the ancient healing practice locally. “No one argues that it works,” says Dr. Joe Alderdice, the local chiropractor who invited Liu to join his practice. “What they’re not sure about is how it works.” Indeed, the process is daunting for those who aren’t wild about the thought of cactus-thin needles being wedged into their flesh. Pressing a tiny plastic tube against a point alongside the patient’s body, the acupuncturist thumps the encapsulated needle’s end, darting it into the patient’s skin. Most say the thump diverts any sensation of pain. When the patient indicates a sensation of pressure, the needle is slowly tweaked until a warm, heavy sensation envelops the body. Removing the needles, generally within 20 minutes, is equally pain-free. “I don’t know if I was scared, but I was really praying it would really work,” recalls Robins of the technique. “I was scared more of the fact that I had this horrible injury and so how was I going to take care of my kids? Dr. Liu proceeded to put a few needles down my back and kept asking, ‘Anything? Anything? Anything?’ and I kept saying, ‘no, no, no,'” she says. “Then she put two needles in my right hand and two needles in my left hand. When she wiggled that last needle around, it was like instant relief,” says Robins. “My hand went numb, but the pain in my hip and down my leg was instantaneously relieved. I would have never believed it, unless it had happened to me. They say the Chinese have been doing this for thousands of years, so there has to be something to Eastern medicine. It has been going on longer than we’ve been here.” According to Robins, she has been pain-free since the conclusion of five acupuncture treatments. While healing is not always so immediate or dramatic, other skeptics say they, too, have found comfort through acupuncture’s results. “I didn’t know what to expect,” recalls John Salyer of Dawsonville. “I had broke my back and so I was willing to try anything. It seemed to help. Exercise was the only other remedy recommended and I swim a lot. “I’m not fully recovered, yet,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it was dramatic, but I did receive gradual relief. Even that was more than I’d hoped for.”