Have you ever wondered about adding acupuncture to your chronic pain toolkit? I did too! Unfortunately, I’d had a bad experience when I had a few sessions with a chiropractor. I didn’t try it again for many years. One of my Pain Camper friends encouraged me to try it again, but instead this time with someone who knew what they were doing. I have had some amazing results, and it is now a staple in my toolkit! I wanted to pass along some nuggets, so I sought out an expert to interview. Noah Frohlich, a Licensed Acupuncturist and a Diplomate of Oriental Medicine, explains the training required to become an acupuncturist, and how acupuncture can be a helpful tool for managing chronic pain.
1. How long have you been a Licensed Acupuncturist? What kind of training was required? What do you enjoy most about your profession?
I graduated from Northwestern Health Sciences University in 2009. I was licensed as a Licensed Acupuncturist by the State of Minnesota in the same year. I have a Master’s Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. I had to pass 4 different national board exams in order to practice acupuncture. The acupuncture program requires a certain amount of credits before you can be accepted into the program. Prior to starting my Master’s program, I had completed 4 years of college, with additional training in a nursing program, before deciding to switch to acupuncture. The acupuncture program at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) takes 3 years, and is a year round program.
What I enjoy most about my profession is how we are able to treat a wide variety of diseases without the use of western pharmaceuticals. Plus helping people heal naturally is a rewarding experience, and I couldn’t think of a better job than making people feel better.
2. Can you explain the different types of settings where acupuncturists work? How is community or group acupuncture different than acupuncture in a private or individual setting?
Unless they’re working for a hospital based system, acupuncturists are usually self-employed. They either have their own private practice with a few rooms, or a community practice treating multiple people at one time. During a private treatment, you would have acupuncture along with: cupping, moxabustion, gua sha, and tui na. In a community acupuncture setting, you would only get acupuncture. Both private and community have their advantages and disadvantages. The community approach is usually more affordable and sustainable. Most patients chose what type would suit them best.
3. How is a Licensed Acupuncturist different than a Chiropractor who may do acupuncture? Are there national standards and requirements that must be met before one can practice acupuncture?
The Master’s Degree in Acupuncture program generally teaches: traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, Tui Na, Qi Development, Nutrition, ethics, biomedical clinical services, observation/assistantship, supervised clinical practice, and additional supportive classes. My program required 117 trimester credits and 2,300 contact hours, of which 525 hours must be supervised clinical practice). I had to take 4 different national board exams in order to practice. California is the only state that has separate board exams, and they are stricter on who can practice acupuncture in their state.
Chiropractors can take an acupuncture training course that teaches the basic points with some general knowledge on how acupuncture works. However they are only allowed to use acupuncture on patients as an adjunct to an adjustment. Any advertising of acupuncture services to help patients with internal medical problems is against the law. Minnesota is one of the few states that still allows chiropractors to do acupuncture, as other states have made that illegal.
4. Many people with chronic pain have several diagnoses and pain related disorders. What types of pain related conditions do you see frequently in your practice?
I see neck and back pain everyday, as well as anxiety, and depression. I commonly see syndromes associated with chronic pain, cancer related pain, neuropathy, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and acute injuries.
5. Can acupuncture help with relieving symptoms of pain disorders? How does this actually work? Does it help improve some conditions more than others?
Acupuncture is one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world, and people have been using it to help pain for thousands of years. Acupuncture works on many different levels. It’s mechanisms of action for healing potentials are still unknown, but many have their own opinion.
I believe that stimulating the Central Nervous System can take a person out of the sympathetic “fight or flight” mode and put them into a parasympathetic “rest/recuperate” mode. Acupuncture is good for every condition, but the length of treatment varies depending on the condition. Chronic issues that have been going on for years tend to take longer, and acute issues are much quicker to help heal.
The Connecticut Pain and Wellness Center has a great explanation of how acupuncture works:
Acupuncture points are areas of designated electrical sensitivity. Inserting needles at these points stimulates various sensory receptors that, in turn, stimulate nerves that transmit impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary system at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus-pituitary glands are responsible for releasing neurotransmitters and endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killing hormones. It is estimated that endorphins are 200 times more potent than morphine. Endorphins also play a big role in the functioning of the hormonal system. This is why acupuncture works well for back pain and arthritis and also for P.M.S. and infertility. The substances released as a result of acupuncture not only relax the whole body, they regulate serotonin in the brain which plays a role in human and animal disposition. This is why depression is often treated with acupuncture. Some of the physiological effects observed throughout the body include increased circulation, decreased inflammation, relief from pain, relief of muscle spasms and increased T-cell count which stimulates the immune system.
6. How long does it take to see results? What are the typical orders and frequency for treatment for pain related conditions?
Most people can feel a change after one treatment, but it will typically fade within a few days. After a few treatments the pain will stay away longer, and your body will begin to realize the change. Everyone heals at a different rate, and some may respond more quickly than others. It’s hard to quantify a set number of treatments that would guarantee results. An average number of treatments for pain would be 8-12 treatments.
7. Can you share an example of a situation where someone’s chronic pain was greatly improved by receiving acupuncture treatment?
I have treated many people that say acupuncture has changed their lives. One person that I have treated more recently has severe back, and hip pain. She has been receiving acupuncture treatments for 2-3x/week for a few months, and has since been able to decrease her pain medication, as well as anti-depressants. Another example is a patient that I have been treating who had a stroke. I have been treating her over the last 3 years, and she is now able to walk with a normal gait. She can also move her fingers again, when western medicine told her she would not.
8. How much does acupuncture treatment generally cost? Does the cost vary by setting and geographic location?
The prices in a community acupuncture setting are usually on a sliding fee scale and can range from $15 to $40 per treatment. The cost for a treatment within a private practice setting can vary from $50 to $120 per treatment. If money is a concern, then community would be the best model, since you can pay $15 a treatment. Then, you can have the treatment more often. This would increase the effectiveness of the treatment, and in turn would allow the patient to heal at a faster rate. You can find a local community clinic by checking out the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA).
9. Many people hate needles. What do you say to first time patients that are freaked out by the needle aspect?
I usually tell them that they will barely feel anything, and that we will only start off with using a couple of needles. If they don’t like the treatment at any time, or it becomes uncomfortable, we can stop. The needle is the size of a human hair, and is very small. Another benefit of visiting a community acupuncture clinic is that new patients can watch other people get acupuncture. I think that helps those that are hesitant about needles to feel calmer when it is their turn.
10. Do you have any advice for people with chronic pain that are thinking about trying acupuncture as a treatment tool for their pain?
Acupuncture is now being used in hospitals around the country. In China, it is the main treatment that is used in hospitals, and it is blended with Western Medicine. If you were on the fence about trying acupuncture, you no longer should have to wonder if acupuncture really works. Acupuncture will open new doors for those suffering from chronic pain. Acupuncture will give those who try it, a new insight into their own bodies.
If you’re interested in reading the research on acupuncture, here are some great places to start:
Chou R, Qaseem A, Snow V, et al. (2007). Diagnosis and Treatment of Low Back Pain: A Joint Clinical Practice Guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. Annals of Internal Medicine. 147 (7), 478-491.
Department of Veterans Affairs, Quality Enhancement Research Initiative, Health Services Research & Development Service. (2014). Evidence Map of Acupuncture. *This article has 249 references to other medical journal articles related to acupuncture.
Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Mascino AC, et al. (2012, September 10). Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1-10.
Noah currently works full-time for a hospital based system in Minnesota. He also owns and manages NE Community Acupuncture, where he employs several acupuncturists.
Pain Camp is a safe place to share your thoughts, experience, strength and hope. Have you ever tried acupuncture as a tool to manage chronic pain? Share some of your experiences!