Sara Hewitt Kupelian is not your typical medical-surgical nurse. What makes her stand out is that she is also a licensed acupuncturist.
“Learning Chinese medicine and acupuncture takes real dedication and devotion,” says Kupelian, a registered nurse for 23 years. She estimates that she logged about 10,000 hours in class and studied for more than four years to prepare for the national certification exam.
Kupelian, who practices in Atlanta, started her training in Georgia, but later moved to Colorado to complete her master’s degree from the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Denver.
She decided to study acupuncture after her mother, who later died from complications of cancer, found relief from pain and nausea through acupuncture.
“In my mother’s case,” Kupelian says, “she was able to tolerate the side effects of medications better with acupuncture. It enabled her to reduce the amount of medications needed and to offset side effects with far more relief than anticipated.”
Kupelian comes from a family of RNs, including her mother.
What’s old is new
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines acupuncture as “a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body — most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.”
According to experts in Chinese medicine, acupuncture can be traced back about 2,500 years. It has been practiced in the United States for perhaps 200 years. But not until the 1970s — when U.S. interest in China increased and Asian immigration surged — did acupuncture become widely known to the average American.
In 1996, the FDA approved the acupuncture needle as a medical device.
Outcomes of acupuncture vary, but the aim is decreased pain, as well as improved control of chronic pain.
In Georgia, the General Assembly has made acupuncture the subject of regulation and control under the Georgia Composite Medical Board. There are more than 200 licensed acupuncturists in the state.
Relief of sensory loss
“My [acupuncture] experience was a great one,” says Margretta Milburn of Sandy Springs, a recent client.
In her 80s, she says she was looking for something to help her with certain types of sensory loss that seemed to come with aging. She turned to Kupelian for guidance.
“I’m open to trying new things,” Milburn says. She explains that for her treatments, the small needles were placed on her head and around her ears.
It was not painful, she adds.
Milburn was able to regain some of the senses that had slowly disappeared. Kupelian says in some cases, a loss of the senses of taste and smell can be restored using acupuncture.
Is it economical?
Some insurance companies may cover the costs of acupuncture, while others may not.
Medicare does not cover acupuncture treatments for older Americans. Some Medicare Advantage plans may offer coverage for varying types of alternative treatments, but only if they are considered medically necessary and provided by a health care professional who participates within the plan.
According to Atlanta licensed acupuncturist Mark Lewinter, initial consultations, which are typically about 90 minutes long, can cost approximately $100 to $200, and follow-up visits can cost from $75 to $150 and typically last about an hour.
“At Metro Acupuncture, we focus on symptoms, of course, but also preventive care and lifestyle choices, especially nutrition,” says Lewinter, who works with Dr. Anna Kelly, also a licensed acupuncturist.
Lewinter’s interest in studying Oriental Medicine started at age 13, when he was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, he also received alternative medicine to facilitate his recovery.
A 2007 survey found that U.S. adults in the previous 12 months spent an estimated $33.9 billion out of pocket on complementary health approaches, which can include massage therapy and yoga.
Ann Gill Taylor, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing, says she finds that “practitioners who use acupuncture view the human body as an ecosystem.”
“An estimated 137 plus randomized clinical trials on 10 painful conditions have been reported, which provide evidence, although not statistically conclusive, of the efficacy of acupuncture in painful conditions,” says Taylor.
Acupuncturists and other experts suggest not seeking acupuncture help without first consulting a health care professional for any pain problems.
In addition, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) reminds all patients seeking help for pain that most states, including Georgia, require a license to practice acupuncture.
NCCAOM adds that certification, or a license, doesn’t [always] guarantee quality of care, but it does indicate the practitioner “meets certain standards regarding the knowledge and use of acupuncture.”
Kupelian says she has seen health benefits of acupuncture, including relieving acute and chronic pain among patients. She has practiced acupuncture for eight years.
“Acupuncture practice has been professionally and personally rewarding,” she says.
TIPS FOR CONSUMERS
** If you decide to visit an acupuncturist, check his or her credentials. Most states require a license, certification, or registration to practice acupuncture; however, education and training standards and requirements for obtaining these vary from state to state. Although a license does not ensure quality of care, it does indicate that the practitioner meets certain standards regarding the knowledge and use of acupuncture. Most states require a diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for licensing.
** Some conventional medical practitioners — including physicians and dentists — practice acupuncture. In addition, national acupuncture organizations (which can be found through libraries or by searching the Internet) may provide referrals to acupuncturists.
** When considering practitioners, ask about their training and experience. Ask the practitioner about the estimated number of treatments needed and how much each treatment will cost.
** For information about insurance coverage for acupuncture, see NCCIH’s fact sheet Paying for Complementary Health Approaches.
Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.