Dr. Brett Kueber recalls his first experience with acupuncture. It was before the Purdue University aeronautical engineering grad went to medical school.
“My golden retriever had severe arthritis. I had to help her to even stand up,” Kueber said. The dog's quality of life was so diminished Kueber decided putting the dog to sleep was the most humane thing. But the veterinarian offered a different option.
“He told me he had just taken a course on using acupuncture in dogs. He asked if I would be willing to let him try it.” Kueber agreed. The next day at home, after the first treatment, “She ran up to me with her ball and wanted to play. She was running around like nothing was wrong.”
For Brett Kueber, it was an epiphany: “There's no placebo effect in dogs,” he said.
Seven years of medical school and residency later, plus a 300-hour course in acupuncture at UCLA's Helms Medical Institute, Kueber now incorporates acupuncture into his practice at DeKalb Medical Services in Garrett, which is affiliated with DeKalb Memorial Hospital in Auburn.
Twelve years ago, the National Institutes of Health issued a consensus statement on acupuncture: “There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture's value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.” Yet a medical doctor doing acupuncture in northeast Indiana is a rarity.
“Acupuncture is an energy-moving treatment,” Kueber said. When he inserts thin needles at strategic points of the skin, turns them or applies mild electrical stimulation, the premise is the blocked energy pathway is opened. Sometimes multiple treatments are needed, other times the response is immediate, as with soft-tissue injuries.
“That's where acupuncture shines,” he said. If it's done soon after a sprained ankle, the signals from the brain that elicit a cascade of responses such as swelling and spasms are interrupted.
Studies are also looking at whether acupuncture activates natural pain-reducing chemicals in the brain. Using functional MRIs – real-time scans of the brain – changes in the pain centers during acupuncture are visible.
‘A firm believer'
Justin O'Rourke, 51, of Auburn, tried numerous things, including muscle relaxants and chiropractic, to ease the pain of a pulled hamstring. Nothing helped. A carpenter by trade, O'Rourke plays with the Indiana Dragons, a lacrosse travel team. He decided to try acupuncture.
“I was hesitant to have a bunch of needles stuck in me.” But the needles didn't hurt, he said. After four treatments, the pain was gone for good. His daughter Mollie, 19, also has found relief from headaches with acupuncture.
When he pictured trying acupuncture, O'Rourke said, “I thought you'd go in there and there'd be incense burning, beads hanging in the doorway. Dr. Kueber's office looks like any other regular doctor's office. I was skeptical … but wow, for me, I'm a firm believer.”
Military hospitals are using acupuncture to treat amputees who feel phantom pain in the missing limb. The thinking is that the treatment interferes with the brain's processing centers. In March, a pilot program was begun to train 44 U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army doctors to use acupuncture as part of emergency care in combat hospitals.
Slow to catch on
While the military health system is more aggressively embracing acupuncture, the public sector has been slow to do so. Insurance rarely covers treatments for Indiana patients. But a growing number of consumers are paying out of pocket.
In 2002, Fort Wayne internal medicine specialist Dr. Rebecca Minser moved from a large traditional medical group to an acupuncture-based practice. Like Kueber, she is a graduate of UCLA's Helms Medical Institute, which exclusively trains physicians in acupuncture.
“Medicine has become so complicated. I got really frustrated with the only tool in my toolbox being a prescription pad. So many things I saw that some effort on individuals' parts and some alternative (therapies) could do just as well as medication,” Minser said. But she does not cast aside traditional medicine. “The problem with the word alternative is it implies ‘either-or.' The whole goal is to have people realize there is a middle ground, and it can all work together.”
More time with people
About 60 percent to 70 percent of Minser's patients come for pain relief. She also does specialized allergy-focused work in a system called Nambudripan's Allergy Elimination Techniques.
“Part of what is an advantage to this kind of practice is I have more time with people,” Minser said. “I see things physicians haven't had time to see or the people haven't had time to discuss with their doctor.” People may need lab tests or X-rays. If the problem is outside her acupuncture practice, patients are referred elsewhere. She recalls one patient who had fallen off a roof and wanted acupuncture for the pain. “I told him, ‘You go get an MRI.'
“Acupuncture isn't cookie-cutter,” but neither is traditional medicine, Minser said. Prescription medicines are known not to work in 100 percent of patients. “Traditional medicine doesn't know why. Acupuncture is the same way. …
“We don't really know by stimulating those points what we're doing, but I see things I can't explain except in its own context…we're working with an energy. After that is where the art of medicine comes in.”