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Community Acupuncture Gives New Meaning to Healthcare Reform

Acupuncture corrects imbalances in the body.

Acupuncture needles are the width of two human hairs.

Pin & Tonic uses more than a 100 different Chinese herbs.

Pin & Tonic offers community-style acupuncture.

Lisa Bullis, owner of Pin & Tonic.

Pin & Tonic owner Lisa Bullis performs acupuncture on a client.

You won't find community-style acupuncture anywhere in the lengthy Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), but this "working class acupuncture" is transforming the Denver healthcare scene one patient at a time. 
It isn't often you hear a medical practitioner say they'd like to make less money so they can treat more patients. But that's exactly what Lisa Bullis, Owner of Pin & Tonic, and her colleagues are doing. A handful of dedicated local acupuncturists are lowering prices in order to deliver their services to anyone prepared to be needled. 
Community-style acupuncture, called Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, Oregon, the city where the movement for affordable acupuncture commenced, resonates with Bullis. Like most private acupuncturists in the U.S., Bullis was charging $75 per treatment when she opened shop in 2003. Acupuncture is a cumulative medicine; the more treatments you receive, the longer positive effects of a treatment will last. Steep prices meant many of Bullis's patients couldn't afford to come with regularity. 
When Bullis got wind of a community-style acupuncture conference happening in Portland, she gladly hopped a plane. A year later, in 2007, Bullis co-founded the first community acupuncture center in Denver, Meeting Point Acupuncture, with fellow licensed acupuncturist Jessica Hardy.   
 With individual community-style sessions slated at a third of the price of a typical private treatment, Bullis's and Hardy's patients could afford recurrent acupuncture. The community-style room, the team soon discovered, also has its benefits: It's a powerful healing environment.

"When you get acupuncture with multiple people, it is kind of like doing yoga or meditation or prayer with others," says Brandee Goedecke-Shilling, Owner of Unity Acupuncture and a licensed acupuncturist.
Despite these benefits, there's a dichotomy between private and public acupuncturists. Jessica Goodman, Owner of Denver Community Acupuncture, didn't take a community acupuncture class at Southwest Acupuncture College -- that's because no such class existed in 2009. Acupuncture schools, which started popping up in the 1970s, are relatively new to the U.S.

"Most of our teachers come from private practice," explains Goodman, a licensed acupuncturist. "They teach what they know." 
East Meets West Acupuncture needles are the width of two human hairs.
Put a picture of Pin & Tonic's tranquil community room in Merriam-Webster -- this space is the visual definition of relaxation. Soft instrumental music plays as I sit down to be pinned. The last thing I notice before closing my eyes is the minimalist Eastern décor: a framed picture of the Chinese countryside, sheer purple and turquoise sheets hanging delicately from the door frames, and a decorative, if not authentic, gong.       
The pleasing ambiance is one of the few ways acupuncture -- practiced for over 2,500 years in Asia -- has been Americanized. "They don't actually call it community-style acupuncture in China," says Bullis, who fine-tuned her practice at the Cheng Du University Hospital in Sichuan. "Over there, it's simply called medicine, and it's prescribed in conjunction with herbs, teas, a healthy diet, meditation, and exercise." 
According to Bullis, however, it's not the picture of relaxation. The acupuncture clinics in China are dirty, crowded, and noisy. "People are smoking and spitting on the floors while they wait in line," she says. 
My forty-five minute session in the big easy chair was relaxing, true, but does acupuncture really work? Despite our State's progressive views on many issues, there's no shortage of Denverites who'll tell you acupuncture is hocus pocus and only works for those who believe in it. "Acupuncture isn't a belief system or a religion," reminds Goodman. 
When I ask Bullis how acupuncture works, she offers the Eastern explanation first. According to ancient healers, Qi (pronounced "chee"), an energy carried through the body in channels called meridians, can be accessed with thin needles. The premise is that the body wants to heal itself. Sometimes, the argument goes, energy pathways are deficient or out of balance. Acupuncture corrects imbalances, re-teaching the body how to function. 
Bullis, who grew up tinkering with herbs in her grandmother's garden, talks about "grandma medicine" too. Chicken noodle soup isn't laced with prescription drugs, but it sure does wonders for a cold. Modern science has been able to explain the healing effects of some of these grandma-style remedies. With chicken soup, for example, Dr. Stephen Rennard took blood samples while conducting laboratory tests (he used his wife's grandmother's recipe on his subjects). He found the soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, the most common type of white blood cell that defends against infection, thus reducing upper respiratory symptoms.
Similarly, modern science has been able to corroborate acupuncture's healing properties by documenting biomedical effects during clinical studies. "Acupuncture regulates the nervous system," explains Bullis. "Evidence shows that it releases feel-good endorphins which, in turn, strengthen the immune system." Scientists measured electrical charges at healing points used in acupuncture, confirming the locations of medians discovered by ancient healers. 
Acupuncture corrects imbalances in the body. Functioning without pain

Hardy's initial academic endeavors had a Western bias. "The more I learned about symptomatology, the more disenchanted I became with Western medicine," recalls Hardy before explaining, "We all have bodies that should function without pain." 
Speaking of pain, you won't experience any of it if you visit a licensed, experienced practitioner. The needles themselves are the width of two human hairs. Most practitioners use 34 or 36 gauge pins that are only about an inch long. When it comes to gauge: the smaller the number, the bigger the needle. Needles used for immunizations are typically 21 or 23 gauge and 1.5 inches long, which is why shots hurt and acupuncture doesn't.  
Acupuncture is one branch of a system of holistic healing known as Traditional Oriental Medicine. "In America," Goedecke-Shilling explains, "we want a pill that will fix everything."

While Western medicine certainly has benefits, this mentality isn't very empowering. Many of Goedecke-Shilling's patients are eager to take control of their lives with maintenance and prevention. And, that's good news because, when it comes to Traditional Oriental Medicine, the patient is an essential part of the treatment.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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