April 06, 2013 at 11:03 AM

In the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting and Hurricane Sandy, help began arriving in communities affected by the tragedies. Some people came bearing supplies, others gifts for children and still others arrived onsite with needles.

 Acupuncturists Without Borders is a nonprofit formed in 2005 to treat people suffering from stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Since then, AWB has launched an acupuncture movement for communities in crisis treating refugees of natural disasters, those affected by tragedies and returning military servicemen and women.

“PTSD is an extreme reaction to a previously stressful situation. Ultimately all emotional disturbances — whether it’s depression, anxiety or PTSD — all these things rely on this cycle that reinforces itself. So you kind of relive these moments,” said Dr. Mark Foley, a family physician and licensed acupuncturist at his practice The Wellness Point in Annville. He said the goal of treatment is to interrupt the cycle so the body no longer relies on the stimulus that keeps the anxiety going.

The results of this ancient Chinese practice for treating PTSD and anxiety disorders have put the western medical community on its ear, and not just figuratively.

“Over time, we’re seeing a lot more people whose doctors are recommending us,” said acupuncturist Mark Foley

NADA Protocol

The National Acupuncture Detox Association is a nonprofit that promotes the NADA protocol, a standard aurical, or ear, practice designed for behavioral health and trauma recovery.

“The protocol that we’re using right now only requires 10 needles, five in each ear. So it’s often done in a group setting, specifically at disaster sites or for the military. They can treat a lot of people at one time because you’re sitting up on a chair. They’ve had fabulous results with it,” said Jill Levine, a licensed acupuncturist, who owns and operates Acupuncture Wellness Center in Hershey.

Many patients treated with the NADA protocol report feelings of relaxation, peace and a relief from chronic pain, sometimes even within the first visit, although no one is sure exactly how it works.

“In the Chinese model, we’re stimulating prescribed points and allowing energy to move through them in a smooth fashion,” Foley said. “Looking at various Western research, there’s a release of endorphins and it promotes the release of serotonin, dopamine and various other neurotransmitters. There’s quite a few things happening on a molecular level. Western research … doesn’t explain everything, but it starts to paint a picture.”

Treating the untreatable

Dee, 47, of Londonderry Township, suffers from a painful degenerative jaw joint condition and has battled a severe depressive disorder since childhood. The pain and the depression feed off of each other, sometimes making it almost impossible for her to get out of bed in the mornings.

“Inevitably, once someone finds out that I struggle with depression, stress and anxiety, I notice a distinct difference in the way they treat me,” said Dee, who asked not to have her full name used because of what she said is the stigma associated with mental illness and stress.

Dee was a teacher for many years until her jaw pain and depression took their toll.

“I would have anxiety so bad, that during my free period, I would lock my door and curl up under my desk just so people would leave me alone,” she said. “It was the only way I could cope.”

With little relief found through psychotherapy, stress management classes and a host of treatments for her jaw, she stumbled across a Shop Bid Buy deal in The Patriot-News for acupuncture treatments at Levine’s Acupuncture Wellness Center.

“My psychiatrist had recommended it and so did my general practitioner. But I waited for like a year and I could just kick myself,” she said.

Dee said she felt a change immediately after her first appointment with Levine. And that change was consistent.

“I don’t have the suicidal ideations. I feel like I have more energy. I feel more at peace. I don’t feel as anxious,” she said. “I’m not telling you that I’m cured, but I left there with such a feeling of calm and peace and serenity and I’ve been able to sleep.”

In March, she felt good enough to cancel a jaw surgery.

“This is a noninvasive way to change my life. And that’s huge,” she said. She plans to continue her weekly treatments with Levine and has hopes of weaning down her medications. “I would love to become a productive citizen again. I want to do something. I want to get back to work.

East meets west

Most insurance companies in Pennsylvania do not cover acupuncture treatments, which can range in cost from $65 to more than $100 per appointment.

“I feel that acupuncturists right now are where chiropractors were 20 to 30 years ago. When people thought what they did was pretty weird and a little kooky,” Levine said.

But Levine and Foley report seeing an increase in physicians recommending acupuncture to their patients.

“In the beginning it was mostly patients seeking us out,” Foley said. “But over time we’re seeing a lot more people whose doctors are recommending us as an alternative or sometimes as a first-line treatment.”

Some midstate hospitals, such as Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, even have licensed acupuncturists on staff.

Long-term results

“Acupuncture is something that has a beginning, middle and end. It’s not something that you need to do for the rest of your life,” Levine said.

“My biggest goal is to help them improve their quality of life. I want them to feel that they’re living life to the fullest,” Foley said. “The goal is to make sure they wake up each morning ready for the day and go to bed feeling that they’ve done something today that they can be proud of.”

Success depends on the patient and acupuncturist assessing the results together and modifying treatments or returning for a follow-up treatment as soon as it’s needed. After treatment, acupuncturists warn patients — especially those being treated for an anxiety or depressive disorders — to watch for triggers that might bring their symptoms back.

Thrilled with the results, Dee stopped her initial treatment last year, but when her symptoms returned in March, she began regular appointments with Levine again.

“I think anyone with a depressive disorder should at least try it. What’s the harm in trying it, there’s no side effects like meds,’’ she said. “It’s not trial and error where you have to wait six to eight weeks to see if it’s working. I definitely think it’s worth a try.”

Orginally posted on PennLive