The World Health Organization sanctions the treatment for many conditions, including asthma, allergies, depression, infertility, insomnia, anxiety, hypertension and headaches
Jeremiah McCarthy never knew much about acupuncture, but when his doctor told him he needed a knee cap replacement last year, he decided it was worth trying.
Acupuncture had given his wife great relief from her rheumatoid arthritis in the months before her death so he knew he knew first hand that the modality was successful.
“I wasn’t letting them put me on the table at my age,” said McCarthy, 83, who lives in Eltingville. “I had nothing to lose.”
McCarthy, who had success with his treatments (the swelling on his knee deflated to half its ballooned size), is among a growing group of frustrated patients throughout the country and on Staten Island turning to acupuncture and other forms of Chinese medicine for relief they cannot get through traditional Western medicine.
Many think of acupuncture as a last resort for chronic pain, but it is cited by the World Health Organization to treat more than 40 conditions, including asthma, allergies, depression, insomnia, anxiety, hypertension and headaches.
On Staten Island, acupuncturists say their practices are steadily growing. Some are treating police officers and firefighters who were involved in the rescue effort at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center attacks.
“People only think acupuncture can help reduce the pain, but that is only a small area,” said Wei-Na Yu, who treats McCarthy in her Concord office. “They don’t know that acupuncture can help the body with everything.”
Michael Gaeta, president of the Acupuncture Society of New York, says the field is the fastest growing sect of health care. He concedes that Western medicine is superior for trauma care and advanced, technology-based treatment, but says a combination of the two are necessary to achieve good overall health.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Gaeta said. “I broke my shoulder a few years ago and I was thankful for an emergency room and Percocet. But 99 percent of what people deal with are chronic health problems that can be effectively treated by” acupuncture and Eastern medicine.
The treatment involves inserting needles into the surface of skin along specific pathways or meridians. Those needles vary in length depending on the patient and the part of the body being treated. Proponents say it is an ideal tool to keep the immune system strong and to preempt problems before they set in.
“In ancient China, you paid your physician a salary and he didn’t get paid if you were not well,” Gaeta said.
According to the state Department of Education, the agency that licenses acupuncturists, there are 2,221 registered acupuncturists statewide and 46 on Staten Island.
The state started licensing acupuncturists in 1993 and has since seen a jump in the concentration of practitioners and the number of training schools.
“We continue to have 200 to 400 acupuncturists licensed each year,” said Rhone Hauteur, executive secretary for the state board for acupuncturists at the department of education. “We have schools in New York that didn’t exist before. We have schools all over the country that didn’t exist before. I think the public has embraced it. It is far more accepted now than it was here in the past.”
Despite a growing body of evidence that backs the benefits of acupuncture, there are those doctors who believe Western strategies like surgery and medication are far more effective. The American Medical Association does not recognize acupuncture, saying that its benefits have never been proven.
But there is also an increasing contingent of doctors administering acupuncture themselves. The American Academy of Medical Acupuncturists estimates that about 8,000 of them exist nationwide.
“This is no longer the ‘Gee Whiz’ phenomenon it was a decade or two ago,” said James Dowden, executive administrator of the academy. “People are having success with it. And the beautiful thing is, that if it doesn’t work, you haven’t made the problem any worse.”
The academy touts the fact that physicians are opting to practice the 2,500-year-old treatment, but many, including those at the Acupuncture Society of New York say licensed acupuncturists are far more experienced.
Their training requirements include three years of master’s level training and 2,700 hours education.
Though acupuncture does have a proven track record and there is a growing body of research revealing its benefits — many insurance companies still do not cover the cost of treatment. Some insurers cover it for acute conditions, but not as a preventative medical tool.
And, there are still clinical trials being done to determine just how effective it is for specific conditions. Michael Migliore, a licensed acupuncturist who practices in Grasmere, said treatments are tailored to each patient.
He said as it continues to get more attention, more people are recognizing it as an option and seeking treatment.
Others agreed. Michael Beyes, who practices in Dongan Hills, treats roughly 50 people a week with acupuncture and a combination of Chinese medicine techniques and herbs — a common practice among acupuncturists.
Though acupuncture began gaining popularity here after New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about his experience with it in China after an appendicitis operation in 1971, the consensus is that it is still gaining momentum.
“When you have an aging population, where people are living longer and experiencing chronic pain, Western medicine is not always the answer,” Dowden said. “I think many people are beginning to realize that.”