Dave: Rarely do I meet someone who embraces total well-being in the ways that our next guest does. This guest was a popular choice for PETA’s sexiest vegetarian contest a couple of years ago, became a registered dietitian, and then dove into the world of qi on his path to becoming a licensed acupuncturist. Our guest is Craig Kelly, a respected friend since early college days and a full-time licensed acupuncturist who treats patients at Dynamic Balance Wellness, LLC. Craig has been working in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for close to 10 years, and is willing to share his experiences for the benefit of our readers.
Hi Craig! Thank you for taking the time to share some information about your journey into the healing practice of acupuncture. Ever since I’ve known you (since 1994), you’ve always continued to demonstrate an incredible zest for learning with an open mind, helping others, and making a positive difference in their lives. And today, I am happy to see your practice is going well as you continue to raise awareness of an Eastern art in the Western world.
Shifting gears…At one point in your career, you were a registered dietitian. But, today, you’re a well established acupuncturist. What was the inner motivation or driving force behind such a change?
Craig: Thanks for having me! While I was interning in hospitals as a dietitian, I was required to do many dietary consults with patients, especially diabetic ones (diabetic patients make up a large percentage of routine hospital admissions, and in my experience, 10-20% of the patients in any hospital I worked in were there for complications due to diabetes). I would spend as much time as I could with these patients, and then write up a diet plan in their charts. Later I would watch the attending doctor pick up the chart, and without even reading a word that I wrote, run a red pen through the recommendations and put in their own ‘cookie-cutter’ dietary recommendation.
This would occur far too often, and in most cases the doctor never discussed dietary specifics with the patient at all. I know most hospitals are doing a better job of educating patients now, but considering how prevalent diabetes complications continue to be, there is still a long way to go.
The ‘final straw’ for me was when I did a dietary consult with a very kind woman in her late 40s. She was in the hospital for progressively worsening vision loss/blurred vision secondary to diabetic retinopathy (damage to the retina cause by diabetes).
We had a discussion concerning diet, and I told her that her problem was reversible at that point if she was very strict on her diet. I also told her that if she did nothing and continued to progress, her retinas would soon be permanently damaged, and therefore have permanent vision loss.
She then looked directly at me and said very sweetly,
“But I can’t live without cake!”
I was floored. But it was at that moment that I realized I obviously wasn’t a good enough motivator to rely on dietary advice only as a means of treatment. I knew I wanted to pursue something that would allow me to affect a person more directly, and then if needed I could always include dietary advice alongside whatever other modality I chose.
Dave: Why do most people come for acupuncture treatment? And, what is the most challenging part about working with patients?
Craig: In the U.S., and especially in this part of the country, most people only know that acupuncture works for pain. So I estimate at least 60% of the people I see are for some type of pain. But I also regularly treat digestive problems, stress, fertility/gynecological issues, and most other health complaints. I also work with cancer patients to help them tolerate their conventional treatments, and I have worked in a methadone clinic treating heroin addicts. So acupuncture is actually used for far more problems than most people realize.
The most challenging part of working with patients is really just getting people to give acupuncture a chance to work! Some people are very needle-phobic, but the main problem is that often acupuncture is a last-resort for people; they’ve had a problem, often for years and have usually “been through the wringer” with doctors, tests, etc. Acupuncture is quite strong, but it is still a therapy, and usually requires several treatments to reach full-effectiveness. Just like physical therapy, antibiotics, or any other “therapy”, more than one “dose” is usually needed.
Dave: How does acupuncture actually work?
Craig: Most sources say that acupuncture works on the “qi” or bio-energy of the body. What is mostly taught in schools is that the body’s “qi” runs in currents throughout the body called “meridians”, (“mai” in Mandarin), and that most physical dysfunction, pain, etc, is due to blockages in meridians. By inserting needles in acupuncture points along these meridians, normal flow/function is restored.
This particular understanding is the sticking point between Eastern and Western thinking. Modern medicine has yet to identify any physical basis for meridians, and therefore will not accept acupuncture as a viable medical therapy. However after much researching, and spending time with many peers and TCM Masters, I do not believe the “qi” theory is accurate.
Without going into great detail, I can say with certainty that there has been a mistranslation from ancient Chinese texts. The work “mai” was mistranslated as “meridian“, when the correct translation is “vessel” (as in “blood vessel”). While bio-energy is a scientific fact, and every living organism has various levels of it, the word “qi” as the ancient Chinese referred to it was also mistranslated.
The character for “qi” is composed of two Chinese characters: One means “air” and the other means “grain” or “energy” (since we get energy from the food we eat). Therefore the correct, literal translation of “qi” is “nutritive air”, or more accurately “oxygen”. Obviously the ancient Chinese didn’t have the technology to know what oxygen is, but they knew from observation that blood contained components vital to life. When the ancient texts refer to “qi” running through “meridians” they are actually referring to blood, and therefore oxygen (as well as the other components of blood necessary for survival), flowing through the vessels. Therefore, it becomes more clear that “lack of flow” to any area of the body would result in that area’s dysfunction, whether it be a muscle, nerve, or an entire organ.
Pain serves several purposes in the body, but it’s main purpose is to signal to the brain that something is wrong with a particular area. In this way the pain acts like a ‘beacon’ to help tell the brain where to divert extra resources.
Let’s use the example of a cut on your arm, since it is easy to visualize. It hurts, which tells the brain there is a problem. The brain responds by diverting more blood flow to that area, and as it heals, the pain goes away, because it’s purpose has been served. But if pain becomes chronic, it is usually no longer serving a purpose, because for some reason the area is not healing.
So the pain signal keeps firing, but the problem isn’t resolved. There are many theories on why this happens, but according to the Chinese, it’s usually because there is lack of blood flow to that area. Just think of how crucial oxygen and nutrients are for normal functioning, and it becomes clear how restoring normal blood flow to an area using acupuncture can result in pain relief/healing.
Everything the body needs to heal is contained in the blood, so if the blood flow is adequate the problem in most cases should resolve. I could write a book about his concept, but I’ll stop here for the sake of this blog. So we use needles to help re-establish blood flow to an area, which allows it to heal.
Dave: Some people who go to acupuncture have “reactions” after the treatment – such as an excessively runny nose, coughing, etc., which is said to be “good.” How can feeling so yucky (from a Western perspective) be so beneficial (from an Eastern perspective) in the process of treatment?
Craig: That’s a funny difference between a natural-based medicine and modern medicine; for instance, when a person has a cold, they can often have a fever. Most people will reach for cold medicine to suppress the fever, but how often do people actually think about what purpose the fever serves? Nature is quite ingenious, and has been around much longer than any of us. The human body knows that viruses and bacteria can only exist in very specific environments. If the environment becomes even slightly too hot, cold, dry, salty, etc the ‘germs’ cease to live, and obviously therefore stop reproducing. So in the case of a fever, the body raises its temperature to create an environment that will kill the germs. Brilliant!
So the fever itself is part of how the immune system handles the problem. When the fever is suppressed, we may ‘feel better’ for a period of time because we don’t feel feverish, but the reality is we are making it much harder for the immune system to do its job. Ever wonder why many cultures use saunas/hot environments on a regular basis? It creates a fever-like environment in the body short-term, and allows the immune system to help kill off any ‘bad guys.’
That’s just one example, but I wanted to show that certain reactions after acupuncture treatments are almost always due to a heightened response by the body as it shifts back towards health. So if a patient came in with a cold, and immediately after treatment felt more feverish, it is because the immune system has been stimulated by the treatment to work harder. The symptoms may become more intense short-term, but it will almost always decrease the amount of time the person is dealing the problem.
Dave: Does the patient’s state of mind affect the treatment in acupuncture or will the treatment work regardless?
Craig: Generally speaking it really doesn’t matter, and in fact skeptical patients are my favorite, because I love to help open minds. I am very upfront with people, and I tell them nothing is 100% effective. If acupuncture is going to help I expect some improvement within 2-3 treatments at most. So I just ask that they are upfront with me about how they are progressing, and I find skeptical people to be some of the most honest people out there!
We also use acupuncture on babies and animals with great success, so obviously ‘believing in’ acupuncture doesn’t make much of a difference. I have been asked many times if there is a placebo effect in acupuncture, and my answer surprises many people! I always say ‘Yes, there can be. But it is no higher than the placebo effect found with medication use, surgery, or any other modality out there.’ There have been plenty of studies on this, and there is a great book called Biology of Belief (Dr. Bruce Lipton) that goes into much greater detail if anyone is interested. So yes, a small percentage of people will have a placebo reaction, but to me it is a moot point since it exists across the board in the health field, and is by far the minority of people.
I do have to say that I have had a handful of people over the years that came in determined to prove acupuncture wouldn’t help them, and never really gave it a chance. They usually had long-term problems, and had no patience left for anything, which is unfortunate because I really think they all could have been helped. So it’s not that their belief negatively affected the treatment, but rather their beliefs affected their behavior, and they usually would come in once and give up. It’s too bad, really. As my acupuncture Master would say “We are not Dr. Jesus! Acupuncture is wonderful, but we can’t fix most problems in one treatment.”
Dave: If any of our readers have further questions, how can they reach you?
Thanks again for having me!