As concerns about opioid dependency grow, the search for new, non-addictive ways to treat pain has led American medical doctors to take a fresh look at acupuncture. In the past decade, both the American Academy of Family Medicine and the Journal of American Medicine have acknowledged the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat pain.
Nikki Vanecek practices acupuncture at TCM Wellness Acupuncture Wellness Clinic. (The Southwest Metro area clinic also offers other therapies, like cupping and herbal medicine.) Vanecek has a bachelor’s degree in health sciences and a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine from Northwestern Health Science University in Bloomington. She also studied at a medical college in Tain Jin, China.
“Acupuncture is most effective in helping patients with unresolved pain,” Vanecek says. “Most of the people we see … 60 percent ... have tried other things. They are often the hard cases, who find themselves at their wits' end.” But that isn’t all Vanecek says acupuncture is adept in treating. “It’s also a very effective treatment for sleep issues and digestive problems,” she says.
Vanecek says that a common misconception is that the practice works on an energetic level, but she says that it actually works to resolve neurological symptoms that are impacted by the way your body processes pain, in addition to working with the natural function of your body. And, she acknowledges that it doesn’t work for everyone. “Everyone who works in the healthcare field went into it wanting to help people,” she says. “I refer [patients] to Western doctors when I think that’s appropriate. In fact, I recently told a patient that I thought he needed to see a surgeon.”
“I look at the whole patient and ask, ‘How is this pain impacting sleep and digestion?’ Understanding the whole person changes how I treat that person’s pain,” she says.
It is important that patients understand that acupuncture and opioids are very different treatments, Vanecek warns. “An opioid has an immediate impact,” she says. “Chinese holistic medicine can take time because we are balancing the entire body.” Vanecek explains that opioids work to dull pain, whereas acupuncture works to decrease and eventually eliminate pain.
A misconception Vanecek speaks to is something she says people say to her often: “I don’t believe in acupuncture.” She says, “You don’t have to believe in it. It’s not a religion. It’s a medical practice that either works for you, or it doesn’t.”
Acupuncture worked for Kay Balch, a patient of Vanecek’s who came to her with chronic back pain that wasn’t responding to other treatments. Balch says she was introduced to Vanecek during a special workshop at a yoga studio in Chaska and realized right away that acupuncture could be the answer to her problem. “After working with Nikki for several months, I am amazed at the pain relief I am now experiencing,” Balch says.
TCM offers acupuncture happy hours on the third Thursday of each month at the clinic. At the events, attendees are encouraged to ask questions, offered a treatment and provided herbal tea.