The summer before sixth grade, Tori Maurer’s back started to throb. She’d wake up stiff and sore, unable to move her neck. Every part of her body just plain hurt. Diagnosed with a large S curve in her back and fibromyalgia—a chronic condition marked by widespread pain and tender points in joints, muscles and tendons all over her body, Tori’s pain worsened when she hit puberty.
Soon, even the weight of her schoolbag on her back was unbearable. Strong drugs like Oxycontin and amitriptyline helped blunt the pain but they also altered her typically cheerful personality. “I felt like I was stuck in a fog, two steps away from myself,” she says. Her schoolwork suffered as she struggled to recall details from class and focus long enough to write an essay. Even with the medications, she still felt pain on most days. With severe limitations on what Tori could physically accomplish, and suffering from side effects of the drugs, it didn’t take long before she fell into a deep depression.
Her mom, Donna, was at a loss. When a nurse in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Chronic Pain Management Clinic suggested Tori try acupuncture to relieve her pain, she jumped at the idea. But her daughter was skeptical at first and—like many children—frightened that the needles would hurt. “I didn’t understand how it could possibly work,” she says. Nonetheless, desperate for relief, she gave acupuncture—one of the oldest medical procedures in the world—a shot. Now, four years later, Tori gets regular acupuncture treatments, and credits her high quality of life to her frequent sessions with Yuan-Chi Lin, MD, MPH, director of Children’s Medical Acupuncture Service.
Lin founded the program—the first pediatric acupuncture clinic in a major medical center in North America—in 2000. While alternative health care treatments like acupuncture might seem unusual in the pediatric sphere, a study released last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics reveals that its use is actually quite widespread. It found that 20 to 40 percent of children use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM); among chronically ill children, the number is more than 50 percent. Despite the fact that acupuncture is widely practiced in the United States and more than one-third of pain treatment centers provide acupuncture as a therapy, it’s used rarely in the treatment of children.
As a pediatrician, anesthesiologist, pain specialist and medical acupuncturist, Lin is in a unique position to combine pediatric acupuncture with mainstream Western medicine. Although it can be hard to explain to families how acupuncture works, witnessing results can turn any naysayer into a believer. “Kids like to call it a magic stick,” he says, holding up a tiny needle. “There’s no medicine on the tip of this little device.” According to traditional Chinese medicine, vital energy (Qi) flows along specific pathways within the body. By inserting special needles through the skin at strategic points known as acupuncture points, you can rebalance energy and unblock obstructions. Modern scientific research suggests that needling acupuncture points stimulates the body to release chemicals into the nervous system and into the bloodstream. These chemicals change the experience of pain and trigger the release of other chemicals, which influence the body's internal regulatory systems. For some conditions, one treatment may provide rapid relief. In other situations, such as chronic pain management, a series of treatments may be required before positive effects are noted.
As a migraine sufferer, clinic manager Margaret Lyons had plenty of firsthand experience with acupuncture before joining the Medical Acupuncture Service in 2002. “The treatment had been of great benefit to me personally for many years,” she says. Armed with her own personal knowledge, Lyons is well equipped to explain to patients what type of relief they may expect from the treatments. Patients and families often have varying attitudes about acupuncture, she says. “Some already have an interest in complementary medicine, most have been referred by other Western medicine specialists and are open, and some are skeptical but willing to try anything to help with their condition.” Over the seven years she’s been with the clinic, she’s noticed changes in the public’s perception of acupuncture. “It’s far more commonly sought out and accepted than it was when I started,” she says.
During a recent acupuncture session, Tori lies on her back while Lin inserts small needles in her arms and legs. The needles don’t hurt at all, says Tori, and after each session she can move easier and with less pain. Some days she goes in and can’t move her head at all; within a few minutes, her neck is completely relaxed. She’s been able to drastically reduce the amount of pain medication she needs—a prime example of the complementary nature of acupuncture. According to her mom, Tori has gone from living a life where she was lucky if she made it from the bed to the couch, to an essentially normal teen existence.
Nowadays, Tori plays on the varsity ice hockey team, which requires her to get up at 4 a.m. a few mornings a week for practice. It’s early, but hardly a sacrifice for the girl who considers being able to perform with her peers a colossal accomplishment. “She always says, she’d give up her meds but wouldn’t ever give up Dr. Lin and the acupuncture,” says her mom. “It’s really given her life back.”