SF Examiner Interview Nov 2011

Acupuncture MD: Blending East and West for Full Person Wellness

By Rheba Estante
SF Women’s Health Examiner
San Francisco Examiner

Dr. Sparrow combines ancient Chinese medicine with the latest Western scientific research to provide relief of pain, mood imbalances, immune disorders and stress.

What can acupuncture do and what can it not do?

Acupuncture can work wonders. Acupuncture refers to the placement of very fine needles in specific places on the body to achieve a therapeutic effect. It is an ancient traditional medical practice still in use today in many parts of the world and increasingly popular in the U.S. The most dramatic results I’ve seen are with migraine, tension headaches, peripheral neuropathy, low back pain, neck pain, allergies, anxiety, panic attacks, and gastrointestinal disorders. As with most aspects of medicine, it doesn’t always work, or may work partially. My own area of research is in trying to identify what happens during effective treatment on a physiological level. In China they use acupuncture for many ailments such as stroke, paralysis and seizures that I don’t advocate.

How can it help with chronic conditions like thyroid and allergies?

Allergies and some types of thyroid issues, can be related in that they can be affected by the immune system. Acupuncture has been shown in numerous studies to decrease the body’s stress response. When you decrease the stress response, you can improve mood, the immune system, sleep quality, pain tolerance, and cellular degeneration.  So I happen to think this is one key component to the effectiveness of acupuncture on the immune system. Acupuncture invokes some specific beneficial effects on the immune system that can be measured on the cellular level. How do you devise a treatment plan for a patient? Usually acupuncture requires more than one session, typically 4 to 8 sessions will be necessary to get optimal results. With some chronic conditions patients will return every month for a “booster” treatment. There are certain acupuncture point combinations that are effective for different conditions. Over my years in practice, I’ve discovered certain key points that are effective for different problems I am treating.  I also follow acupuncture research very carefully to learn new treatments discovered by other practitioners. I have a blog on my web site where I post interesting new acupuncture research along with other health matters. (http://ksparrowmd.blogspot.com) I was recently at a conference at UC Irvine for the scientific study of acupuncture. Researchers there have completed a study showing the effectiveness of acupuncture for high blood pressure, so I will certainly include those points for patients I’m treating for high blood pressure.

You are an MD, what prompted you to also learn acupuncture?

I had to take a break from my career as an Anesthesiologist at Kaiser in San Francisco due to a severe respiratory allergy to latex which is found in surgical gloves. During that time, I decided to learn some Acupuncture techniques to use in conjunction with pain management an area of interest to me as an Anesthesiologist. (Anesthesiologists are often pain management providers). During my 3 year course of study, I was treated for my allergies with Acupuncture and the allergies disappeared!  I was impressed that acupuncture addressed some conditions that are not always well treated by traditional medicine. Chronic conditions such as migraine, allergy, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain are often treated with medications with considerable side effects. Over the past 15 years, I’ve noticed the American public becoming more skeptical of all the pharmaceuticals that are prescribed for them. I think a healthy skepticism is warranted and alternatives are often justified.

Do you have any success stories that arose from acupuncture that was not responsive to traditional medicine?

I have had many successes over the years. Some patients I call “profound responders.” These are patients with conditions that were considered intractable who respond dramatically after 1 or 2 treatments. Recently I treated a patient in her late 60’s with horrible peripheral neuropathy causing her pain in her legs and feet and sky high blood pressure. After 1 treatment, she was able to leave her cane at home and had an almost normal blood pressure when I saw her again. She was just one recent example, and even though she is an extreme case in how quickly and decisively she responded, how can we not be fascinated by that response? Most people need a series of treatments to really get the full benefit of acupuncture. I am very interested in what makes some people respond and others fail to respond to acupuncture. In my office, I use a monitor that detects very subtle changes in the nervous system during acupuncture treatment.  My hope is that with further study, we will be able to determine what happens physiologically during treatment so that we can improve outcomes. If we can increase the probability of profound or even partial responses, it would be of great value clinically and scientifically.

Describe how you have blended your MD training with your acupuncture training in your practice?

My practice is devoted to acupuncture and alternative medicine. I don’t prescribe medications, but I do recommend more testing or evaluation if I think it appropriate to the condition. I can help patients make sense of their lab test results and imaging studies. Because of my medical training (I’m board certified in both Pediatrics and Anesthesiology), I can’t help but think about the patients’ conditions from a Western medical perspective as well as from an alternative perspective. My research is focused on the neurological underpinnings of acupuncture, which is a very scientific lens. On the other hand, I think that as medical practitioners, we need to keep an open mind; there is so much we don’t know and can’t explain in health, healing, and longevity. The words of the Hippocratic oath repeated by all physicians on entering into practice are to “first do no harm.” I think acupuncture fits that principle exceedingly well.

Do you still practice traditional medicine when need be with a patient?

I think acupuncture has gained credibility because of a number of factors. Acupuncture can be explained physiologically in a way that makes sense to Western practitioners.  Good quality research has been done in the US and internationally, particularly in Germany, showing the effectiveness of acupuncture for conditions such as knee arthritis, back pain, and migraine headaches. There have been good quality studies on the physiologic responses of the brain to Acupuncture with functional MRI’s (studies that visualize actual brain function). Increasingly patients are telling their doctors that they have tried acupuncture and it has worked for them. And finally, I think that doctors have had to realize that the newest “miracle cures” are sometimes accompanied by nasty side effects and that there has been bias and even fraud in some of the high profile studies funded by the pharmaceutical companies so that they are willing to entertain alternatives. Acupuncture is a particularly attractive alternative because it is so safe. In the UK, the national health system now pays for acupuncture as a primary treatment for back pain because, after exhaustive studies, it is a cost effective therapy.

Why has acupuncture gradually gained acceptance in Western medicine?

There have been some very interesting and well done preliminary studies looking at acupuncture in polycystic ovary syndrome (a health condition that can reduce fertility) that show a definite improvement in the hormone profiles of women treated with acupuncture with ensuing regulation in their menstrual cycle and thus enhanced fertility prospects.  There will be an enormous study done in China over the next two years to see if those results hold.

Do you think acupuncture can help with female hormone balance?

I feel I have to address the claim that acupuncture is all “placebo effect”, a criticism that has been leveled at acupuncture for years. There have been carefully designed, large, controlled studies (the requirement for evaluating effectiveness by western scientific methods) that show that “real” acupuncture is superior to sham or fake acupuncture.  We also have some nice imaging studies looking at functional MRI’s of the brain that show a distinct difference between acupuncture and needles placed randomly as a placebo. All of medicine is subject to the placebo effect, but as I tell my patients, acupuncture works on animals and young children, so no placebo there.  Also, many acupuncture studies now are performed on mice and small animals, so there is no placebo involved there.  As I say to my patients, you don’t have to believe in acupuncture for it to work for you, but you do have to show up for your appointments!

I’ve heard people have been tapered off thyroid and high blood pressure medication through acupuncture. What are your thoughts on this?

I’ve come to the conclusion over many years of practice that acupuncture helps to optimize the individual.  My own metaphor is that it tends to make the person more “sturdy.”  A person with headaches may always have that weakness, but if acupuncture can make them more resilient, stronger, and less likely to be buffeted by all of their triggers, they heal themselves and their condition becomes less debilitating. The same can be said for panic attacks, gastrointestinal problems, allergies, vertebral disc problems and the like. There have been recent studies that if you can keep a headache sufferer off of all headache medications, even over-the-counter varieties, for 3 months, their incidence of headaches plummets. Three months is a long time for a person with severe headaches!!  But if you can help them achieve that, they’re on their way to a better, healthier, happier life.For more information about acupuncture and my practice, you can go to my website www.ksparrowmd.com.

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