Pinpointing the Pain

When and why acupuncture can help

For Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal Julia Erickson, an unexplainable, nagging pain in her left foot compelled her to look for new treatment options. A colleague referred her to an acupuncturist, who identified alignment problems and suggested that the source of her foot pain was coming from her left knee—something doctors hadn't yet considered. A few years later, she had to have knee surgery. "I believe he correctly diagnosed it because he was looking holistically at my body, as opposed to an isolated point of injury," says Erickson, who is now a dedicated believer in the practice.

Acupuncture is a form of Chinese medicine that has been practiced for more than 2,000 years. It gained popularity in the United States following President Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Today it is used for the treatment of a myriad of issues such as indigestion, depression, stress, insomnia, infertility and drug addiction. Amy Xingzhi Chen, acupuncturist to the dancers at Miami City Ballet, says most dancers initially use acupuncture to relieve pain or speed the recovery of an injury, and they return for its other health benefits, like reducing anxiety before performances.


Treating the Pain

Traditional Chinese medicine divides the body into 14 channels called meridians, 12 of which correspond to internal organs. Running through each channel is energy called qi (pronounced "chee"). "If the channel is blocked the qi is stuck and can cause uncomfortable pain," says Chen. An acupuncturist will ask about your symptoms and overall health, and check your pulse and tongue to identify how the qi is moving and where it is blocked. Then, needles are placed on some of the 361 standard acupuncture points along different channels. By sticking fine needles just under the skin at specific points on the body, the acupuncturist is able to unblock the qi and improve blood circulation, helping you heal faster. These needles won't necessarily be on or around your injury or pain—placement is determined by the channels affecting your health. You will then lie still for 30 minutes with the needles in place. Chen will sometimes conduct a small amount of electricity through the needle to make the effect greater for dancers who are experiencing pain.

The idea of being stuck with needles puts a lot of people on edge. "When people picture a needle, they always think of a syringe, but in acupuncture it's a very thin, fine needle," says Chen. "When you stick the needle in, it feels like a quick mosquito bite. Then you will feel a little tingling and numbness, followed by a heavy sensation. This is the energy flowing through the body."


A Western View

"Dancers ask me all the time if acupuncture would be helpful, and my answer is, it won't hurt, but I can't promise it will help," says Shaw Bronner, PhD PT, director of physical therapy services at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Not enough clinical research has been done to determine acupuncture's healing capabilities, except for in the case of pain management. She says, "It's kind of like taking ibuprofen or another anti-inflammatory drug for pain relief." Further clinical studies need to be conducted to evaluate the influence of the placebo effect—an illusion of feeling better because your mind believes you should.

There is no indication that acupuncture is harmful. Since it is "all natural," there are no side effects, though a needle may pinch capillaries under the skin and leave a small bruise, which goes away in a day or two. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even deemed acupuncture safe for children when performed by trained practitioners. Erickson has had acupuncture and performed the lead in Swan Lake in the same day.

It's important to find an accredited practitioner if you or your students decide to seek acupuncture treatment. You can find one in your area on the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine's website ( Most insurance plans don't cover treatment, and the cost of a single visit can range from $60 to $120.

Fortunately for Erickson, workers' compensation provided by PBT covers her acupuncture. She finds it very effective in managing her chronic injuries and may visit as many as two times a week to control pain, relieve muscle spasms and maintain proper alignment. "There's this recognition that you're treating your body well," she says. "And I find that quite gratifying." DT 


Kathleen McGuire is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.


Photo: © Pitkin

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