Can Acupunture and Massage Ease Chronic Pain?

Lauren Elsen, an American medical student from Tufts University, recently traveled to Beijing to study Chinese medicine.

"It's been around for thousands of years," she said, "so something about it must help."

For several weeks, Elsen has been immersed in a world of acupuncture, herbal remedies, therapeutic massage and therapeutic movement, such as Tai Chi. She is among a growing number of Western doctors who are looking eastward for new ways -- or, more accurately, old ways -- to treat patients who suffer from chronic pain.

Dr. Scott Fishman, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said doctors in the United States can truly benefit from looking at the Chinese approach.

"There is a saying that Western doctors have relationships with diseases rather than with patients," Fishman said. "I think that's a flaw in our system, and we can learn from the Eastern healing arts."

Looking at Mind, Body and Spirit

At the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for East-West Medicine, Dr. Ka-Hit Hui takes a holistic approach to patient pain. He is a leading advocate of combining Western and Eastern methods, and his clinic regularly receives referrals from physicians whose patients cannot be helped by medication alone.

"You need a new model of health care that looks at the body, mind, spirit and its interaction with the natural sort of environment," Hui said.

Hui approaches his diagnostic work like a detective. Patients are asked about their eating and sleeping habits, their family relationships, their stresses at work, their social and psychic health. That inter-connected approach often surprises patients.

Diana Tonsich came to the clinic for treatment for her crippling migraine headaches.

"The physicians here are the only physicians who asked me what form of spirituality I practice," she said. "I stared at them. That had never occurred to me."

Tonsich had spent $15,000 on specialists and medications, but nothing worked.

"I'd either been in pain or had impaired memory or concentration," she said.

The pain was so severe that she had trouble carrying on a conversation with friends. She was forced to quit her job, which helped trigger depression.

After being referred to the center, Tonsich started a combination of therapies, including acupuncture and massage. She took up yoga and meditation.

"Now I'm out having fun seeing friends, back to the life I had led," she said.

Tonsich took a job on the staff of the clinic, so she could share what she has learned with others.

As its title implies, the center also employs some Western methods, including something called trigger-point injections. By inserting a long, thin needle into a knotted muscle, spasms cease and so does the pain.

Linda Brown travels 400 miles every two weeks just to receive that treatment for a painful condition known as fibromyalgia. The condition hasn't gone away, but the trigger-point injections are helping, she said.

But the patients at this clinic are in the minority when it comes to attitudes toward Eastern medicine. A recent ABC News poll found more than 80 percent of Americans prefer to treat pain with over-the-counter drugs. Only 15 percent have tried herbal remedies, yoga or meditation, while 28 percent have tried massage. And just 5 percent have tried acupuncture.

At the same time, U.S. researchers have started conducting clinical studies on the effectiveness of massage, movement therapy, herbal remedies and acupuncture. Elsen, the American medical student, said she is already convinced that the Eastern approach should be woven into her future practice.

"One thing I've noticed in the States is that, very often, if someone comes in with pain, it's looked at as 'another one of those pain patients,' " she said. "Whereas here [in China], it's more respected as an actual problem."