Pins & Needles

The thought of letting someone stick hundreds of tiny needles into your body might sound horrifying, but for some ASU students, acupuncture is the solution when traditional medicine fails By Mani O'Brien

 by Mani O'Brien
 published on Thursday, November 17, 2005

On the cover
At her Scottsdale office, Jo Condra gives her office administrator an acupuncture treatment. The needles stay in for 20-30 minutes and are ready to come out when they start to tilt.
Jennifer Disharoom recieves treatment for her migrane headaches using acupuncture.

When psychology senior Jaclyn Trecokas was a freshman in college, drinking a glass of milk was enough to leave her body writhing in pain. But today she says she can eat or drink whatever she wants thanks to acupuncture, an ancient healing method. And she's not alone.

According to a 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acupuncture has become one of the leading forms of alternative healing in the United States, helping to solve ailments ranging from bone injuries to drug addiction. While needling patients for treatment is a far cry from conventional Western medical practice, a growing interest by the American public in alternative healing has led them to discover a different path to better health.

Trecokas, for one, is a believer. Acupuncture pretty much saved my life," she says.

Piercing Discovery

Trecokas was diagnosed with lactose intolerance in her sophomore year of high school, a condition that kept her from eating certain foods without suffering symptoms including severe stomach cramps, muscle spasms and hives, she says.

After eating any dairy-based foods as well as whey products like bread, margarine, cereal and even candy, Trecokas says she would suffer the consequences. Her body was so sensitive that she couldn't use utensils that had come in contact with the foods she was allergic to, says her mother, Laurel Trecokas.

"Her body was slowly declining," says Laurel.

There seemed to be no solution to her disorder. Her doctors prescribed medication to treat her symptoms, but could not find a reason why she was suffering. As Trecokas switched from medication to medication, her condition seemed to worsen, she says.

"It just seemed like they wanted to give me more pills," she says.

Trecokas's condition reached its peak during her freshman year at Miami University, she says. The hives made her entire body swell.

"I would wake up in the morning and my arms would be covered in blood from scratching all night," she says.

Trecokas was hospitalized three times during that school year. At one point, she was suffering from loss of muscle control, making it difficult for her to unscrew bottle caps or hold a pen, she says. By the time she medically withdrew from school in February 2003, Trecokas had collapsed once in class and was also suffering from memory loss, says Laurel.

Willing to try anything, Trecokas and her family turned to acupuncture, an alternative medical practice that involves sticking patients with needles for treatment. Much to their surprise, acupuncture helped Trecokas recover completely. After more than 30 treatments, Trecokas says that today she can eat anything, even a whole pint of ice cream if she wants.

Medicated Public

Trecokas is one of thousands of Americans who have sought treatment through complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, in recent years, according to a report published in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

CAM includes treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage and meditation.

Acupuncture was the leading form of alternative medical systems during the 1990s, according to the 2002 CDC survey. Out of more than 149,000 participants, 4 percent of those surveyed said they had used acupuncture at least once in their life. Other alternative medical systems included ayurveda, homeopathic treatment and naturopathy.

In the 2004 U.S. Health report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one of the proposed explanations for growth in CAM use is the dissatisfaction with conventional medical practice, such as over medication. According to the report, the percentage of non-institutionalized Americans of all ages who reported using any prescribed medication during the past month increased from 39 to 44 percent.

This was Trecokas' chief concern. She was given steroids to reduce inflammation and antispasmodic medication, among others, but was never told what was causing her problems.

"Conventional medicine was just treating my symptoms, and we needed to stop doing that because it wasn't helping," Trecokas says.

Trecokas and her family thought of acupuncture after Laurel heard about a friend who was successful in treating rheumatoid arthritis with the method.

"As a parent, it's very difficult to see your child suffering," Laurel says. "We were willing to try anything."

While conventional medicine had not put an end to Trecokas's suffering in three years, acupuncture led to immediate relief. After her very first visit, she was told that she could drink milk, she says.

"It's because they found the root of my problem," she says.

Pinpointing the Problem

Finding the root of his patient's problems is Sig Hauer's goal. Hauer is a nationally certified licensed acupuncturist and owns Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine in Sedona with his wife Sarah.

Hauer likes to show his first-time patients what the Chinese needles look like -- that they're no thicker than three strands of hair.

"People tend to be nervous about the needles, but they are very thin," he says.

In addition to listening to his patients' symptoms, Hauer asks whether his patients suffer from hot or cold spells and asks questions about their sleeping habits and diet. He also asks about his patients' emotions, how much stress they are under and if they feel particularly sad or angry or happy at times.

Hauer asks about the emotional aspects of his patients' personalities because acupuncturists take a holistic approach to treating patients. This means that an acupuncturist will take into account not only physical symptoms, but also mental, emotional, spiritual and even cultural elements of a person's life to determine the best treatment, says Carol Baldwin, a board certified advanced practice holistic nurse and associate professor in the ASU College of Nursing.

"If someone is treated for high blood pressure, an acupuncturist is not only going to take their high blood pressure history into consideration, but will find out if this person has excessive joy or excessive anger," she says.

This excessive emotion could indicate a depletion of energy in one part of the patient's system and excess in another, she says.

Acupuncture is more than 3,000 years old, she says, and is based on an energy systems model rather than a biomedical model of healing.

Acupuncture is based on the concept that our bodies contain energy, a vital life force that gives us our ability to move, think and feel, according to "Chinese Medicine: How it Works," a pamphlet published in 1991 by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.

This life force, known as qi (pronounced "chee") runs through pathways in the body called meridians, which have been determined after centuries of observation, says Hauer.

Meridians form a network of energy pathways that are connected to different organs in the body. Along these meridians are points that can be accessed, Hauer says. There are hundreds such points on the body, he says.

"The needles help the energy flow better; it's like reprogramming the body's computer," Hauer says.

When the needles enter the point of access, they move the energy, helping to increase circulation throughout the meridian, which leads to an overall balance of one's qi throughout the whole body. Ultimately, a balanced qi leads to improved physical, mental and emotional health, says Hauer.

Inner Qi Balanced

Hauer slides the needles into the flesh of his patients swiftly. He dims the lights and leaves music humming. The pins feel like pressure, he says, and people tend to fall asleep during the 20 minutes they are left alone. And at the end, he expects his patients to feel relaxed and immediately relieved if they were treated for pain.

Trecokas says she had eight to 10 needles placed in her body on her first visit. "I didn't even feel it," she says.

Still, her parents remained skeptical.

"My parents were hesitant, but I was like, 'Let's go home and get some ice cream,'" she says.

Laurel says she was nervous about letting her daughter have milk right away.

"It was hard to believe because she had been in so much pain, we had a hard time accepting that she was completely better," she says. Trecokas didn't drink her first cup of milk until after her third treatment.

She says that being able to eat the foods that caused her pain was a mental shock.

"I can eat everything again," she says excitedly. "I always ask myself, 'What should I eat?'"

At first Trecokas wanted to gorge herself in all of the foods she had been deprived of for three years, Laurel says.

"She was afraid [the lactose intolerance] was going to come back," she says. "She wanted to overindulge because she thought it would all go away, as if it was some sort of dream."

Today, Laurel says she has lost all doubts in alternative healing and has gotten acupuncture treatments for herself.

"We are very much believers in alternative medicine," she says. "We were not before all of this."

As for her daughter, Laurel says the impact of acupuncture has been tremendous. "Her whole life path changed with this sickness," she says.

After she graduates from ASU, Trecokas plans to get a master's degree in acupuncture at the Santa Barbara College of Oriental Medicine.

"I want to get into working with energy, something along the lines of healing that doesn't involve masking symptoms," she says. "They masked my symptoms for three years and it didn't get us anywhere."

Trecokas has not lost all faith in conventional care, however.

"I believe [conventional medicine] is necessary, but it's not for everything," she says. "And I believe that both can work together."

Trecokas wants to help others find the balance between conventional and alternative healing, as well as the balance of their own inner qi.

"I believe that we're too complex to be treated by pills alone," she says.

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