Acupuncture: It’s all in the family

When Dr. Charles Lo tried acupuncture for his neck pain in the 1980s, scientists couldn’t fully explain how or why the slender, silvery needles actually worked.
Lo (left with wife Alison), a budding young internist who had graduated from Northwestern University’s medical school, didn’t care. He’d tried the conventional answer to most ailments — prescription drugs — but he still couldn’t sleep or function at work.

After just three treatments from his father, a doctor and acupuncturist, Lo’s disabling pain vanished. And so did his desire to pursue a career in Western medicine.
Today Lo is a conventionally trained doctor who turned to the way of his ancestors; he practices traditional Chinese medicine, which includes the use of acupuncture, herbs and dietary and lifestyle modifications. Like most integrative physicians, he focuses on treating the person, rather than a disease. And he draws on the best of both Western and Eastern healing practices.

“It takes a spiritual change in life to make a career change,” says the 57-year-old Lo, who practices in both Chicago and Oak Park. “And that’s what it takes for a physician to change to complementary and alternative medicine.”

Lo’s affinity for acupuncture, which involves piercing the skin with hair-thin needles, didn’t surprise his parents, the late Dr. James and Dr. Mary Lo. Both were Chinese-born, Western-trained pathologists who returned to their roots in the 1980s by learning acupuncture.

It also made sense to Lo’s wife, Alison, 55. A nurse by training, she returned to school to learn acupuncture at Chicago’s Midwest College of Oriental Medicine. Like her husband, she honed her skills by spending time studying acupuncture in China in 1996 and 1998.

“People don’t trust their body’s own wisdom,” says Alison, who works alongside her husband. “It still surprises me when an educated person doesn’t believe in acupuncture.”

But, in fact, many doctors still don’t. Some dismiss its successes as a placebo effect; others insist on more scientific data confirming that it actually works.
Lo says the modern clinical trial format used for pharmaceutical drugs can’t adequately test what is one of the oldest healing techniques in the world. In any case, acupuncture has been used at the Mayo Clinic since the 1970s and it’s gaining popularity among American adults, according to a recent National Institutes of Health survey on complementary and alternative medicine.

Research has shown that acupuncture is effective in treating a number of medical problems, including chronic neck, back and joint pain; nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy; and nicotine addiction. It’s increasingly being prescribed for many disorders, including allergies, infertility, immunity problems, inflammatory bowel disease and migraines.

“I see a lot of people with symptoms that can’t be explained by Western medicine,” Lo says. “Their doctors say it’s not real or it’s psychological.” What disappoints him most about Western medicine is “the way drugs are pushed and how Western doctors are so closed to other, safer options. There’s so little emphasis on prevention or lifestyle changes. You don’t get to the root of many of the problems.”
“Dr. Lo is very holistic in his approach,” says Gwynn Friend, 55, a patient since 1996 who first used acupuncture to help treat her bronchitis. “If I have a pain, he doesn’t just ask if it hurts. He asks how I’ve been sleeping, how my diet is and whether I’m stressed.”

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the idea that a life energy called qi (chee) flows along pathways, or meridians, in the body. Practitioners believe stress, lack of sleep and poor diet create imbalances that block these energy channels and cause illness.

Acupuncturists insert the fine needles into precise points to rebalance the energy flow, allowing the body’s natural healing process to take over. Western researchers think acupuncture works by stimulating nerves in the spinal cord to release pain-suppressing neurotransmitters. Or it may release endorphins, which are part of the body’s natural pain control system. Regardless of the mechanism, some people are energized; others feel relaxed.

Still, warns Lo, “no amount of acupuncture, herbal medicine or Western medicine makes up for an unbalanced lifestyle.” So if you won’t change your habits, don’t bother with the treatments.

“Chinese medicine is ultimately about taking responsibility for health, both from an acute and chronic, long-term viewpoint,” he says. “It’s safe, effective and gives us a structure to help patients learn about diet, exercise and stress reduction. It empowers patients to balance themselves. To me, that’s a better relationship.”
Posted at 12:00:00 AM in Acupuncture, Mind/body medicine

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Kudos to Dr Lo. As a physician who has done something similar in my practice, I know what the transition from conventional to alternative or energy medicine is like. We need more physicians to speak up and share their experiences. It is no surprise to me that it often takes a physician to have personal experience with a modality like acupuncture before they can understand or have at least an open mind about it. Things have certainly changed in the last 10 years or so, but there still needs to be a lot more done if we are going to revamp our medical system in this country and include all available modalities and techniques that can help our patients and make them accessible.

Posted by: Peter Hanfileti, MD | January 30, 2009 at 02:20 PM

I would like to address some common alternative medicine misconceptions about convention medicine.

Conventional medicine does in fact look at the whole person where it is appropriate. Doctors routinely get family histories for genetic traits (cholesterol levels, blood pressure, heart history) and ask lifestyle questions (amount of exercise, smoking, levels of stress). Does Traditional Chinese medicine have a concept of cholesterol? Can you lower your cholesterol by rebalancing your Chi?

Also as to herbs being preferred over prescription drugs remember that herbs are by definition drugs. The deference being that one is reduce to its active ingredients, clinically tested and regulated for safety and efficacy. The other is not and doses can have a wide range strength and concentration of its active ingredients.
As to the previous comment; having an open mind is not simply going against ‘conventional’ thinking but basing your opinions on solid evidence and altering even long held and deep (ancient wisdom anyone?) beliefs when the evidence warrants it. It is not holding on to ancient beliefs simply because they are ancient.
It is the willingness to change as our collective knowledge grows.

Posted by: Bob | February 03, 2009 at 09:22 PM

I am a patient of Dr. Lo’s and can definitely attest to the value of acupuncture. With regular treatments and special herbal remedies he makes for me, he has helped me tremendously in overcoming a few different ailments, including anxiety, insomnia, and pre-menstrual symptoms. In fact, with his help, I have gotten off one prescription medication for insomnia, and am working on the next one for asthma. I love my Western medical doctor too, but I have to say I would always turn to Dr. Lo first to find a natural, more safe solution.

Links to articles on Acupuncture

Study: Acupuncture May Ease Arthritis Pain
New York Newsday – Dec 21 2004

Study: Acupuncture works for back pain – Sep 25 2007

Study: Acupuncture may boost pregnancy
San Jose Mercury News – Feb 8 2008

Air Force to train combat docs to use acupuncture
Seattle Times – Jan 30 2009

Acupuncture helps aching back
News24 – May 12 2009