Like many Americans, Phillis Murray suffered from back pain. With a mild form of scoliosis, the 81-year-old had been receiving treatment for her pain for 20 years. Then, in April 2012, she had a flare-up while on a cruise.
"I had spasms every five seconds all day and all night," said Murray. The cruise ship had an acupuncturist aboard, so Murray decided to try it.
"In two days of treatments I could get up and go around and enjoy myself," she recounted.
After that experience, Murray began coming to see Jeannie O. Lee, doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine at the Oriental Medical Clinic of Florida in Sebring. She now receives weekly acupuncture treatments for her condition. "It's wonderful. I am pain-free," said Murray.
While pain is a common malady treated by acupuncture, Lee said she sees patients with all kinds of chronic illnesses and complaints, including stress, addictions, digestive problems and infertility. She has also had a lot of success treating Bell's Palsy, a partial paralysis of the face, Lee said. Ninety-nine percent of her patients are Westerners, she said.
Lee practices several different types of Chinese medicine, but said that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are the most common.
How exactly does acupuncture work? The Chinese have mapped out a flow of energy, or life force, called qi (pronounced "chee") within the body. This energy flows through pathways in the body called meridians. Tiny sterile needles are inserted into specific areas of the skin. It is believed that these needles help to open blockages in the meridians, allowing the qi to balance and create wellness.
Acupuncture has yet to receive a definitive stamp of approval from Western medicine. Some argue that studies of its effects are inconclusive or that positive conclusions are the result of the placebo effect. But a recent review of 29 well-designed studies by researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for treating back and neck pain, chronic headache, shoulder pain and osteoarthritis.
It is also becoming more and more accepted as a safe, complementary therapy. A recent study shows that 42 percent of hospitals now offer alternative therapies, acupuncture being one of the most common.
While much of acupuncture's popularity is due to patient demand, Lee also stated that Western researchers are working to better understand Chinese medicine by attempting to map acupuncture points to the nervous system.
During an acupuncture session, patients lie on a table on their back, stomach or side, or sit in a chair, depending on the area requiring treatment. Very thin, flexible needles are inserted into specific areas in the body. Patients will then relax for about 30 minutes with the needles in place before they are removed.
The needles are so thin they rarely cause discomfort and are often not noticeable at all.
Lee, who has the highest level of training and education in Chinese medicine, including advanced training in Chinese herbology, takes a holistic approach to her patients.
"I ask a lot of questions," she said. While Western medicine often focuses on treating symptoms, Chinese medicine looks more toward diminishing the cause of the malady, said Lee. "Five different people might come here complaining of a headache, and I would give them five different treatments," she said.
Alma Walz brought her husband to see Lee back in 2010. He was suffering from Alzheimer's. After meeting the couple and seeing Walz's elevated stress level, Lee said she could not help the husband, but she could help Walz.
Walz began undergoing herbal and acupuncture treatment for stress and digestive issues as well as high blood pressure. Between her blood pressure medications and acupuncture, Walz said her hypertension is now under control, her digestive problems are gone and she is now able to cope with the stress of her husband's worsening illness.
"I'm not so hyper," said Walz, adding, "I [am] able to sleep most of the time now."
Another practitioner of Eastern energy-based techniques is Anthony Lopez.
At the Good Shepherd Hospice sun room every Wednesday at 1 p.m., Lopez kicks off the Balance Heartland Peer to Peer Support Group with a session of qi-gong, a Chinese mind-body technique that combines breath, posture and intention.
"The movement in itself releases dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain, which is a way to relax the body," said Lopez.
Lopez said he has seen the practice help participants with anxiety, insomnia and depression.
You don't have to be sick to benefit from these alternative therapies, either.
Forty-one-year-old Sofia Orozco came to Lee looking to improve her well-being in a natural way.
Orozco said Lee made recommendations for her diet, and that her skin tone has improved since she began seeing her.
The biggest change, however, said Orozco, is that she has found more joy in her life.
"I find myself laughing more when I kind of lost that to a certain degree," explained Orozco. "I feel way better than when I first started."