Community Acupuncture Expands Service Reach

The new twist on an old treatment adds La-Z-Boys, a sliding scale, and a group setting.


Oakland Acupuncture Project’s Laurel Office

Photo by Kala Minko

Reclining in a La-Z-Boy chair in a quiet room with tiny needles on your wrists, face, and legs next to others similarly reclined and pricked may not fit your traditional notion of what acupuncture should look like. But this is community acupuncture, an affordable and relaxing way to get care for ailments such as depression, insomnia, or chronic teeth grinding, and it appears to be growing in popularity and acceptance.

“We have 18 chairs to choose from. Some are zero gravity, which is good for lumbar pain and back pain. Some are squishy chairs. There’s a grandma-style La-Z-Boy recliner. We have all different kinds of bodies coming in,” said Julia Carpenter, L.Ac., the clinic manager for Berkeley Acupuncture Project. Opened in 2009, it is the city’s biggest clinic and treats 500 patients per week.

“The chairs are chaise-lounge style. I pick whichever pillows and blankets I want, and it feels cozy and nice there. They ask if I should leave by a particular time—you can stay in the chair indefinitely, and there’s no rush. It’s an incredible, restful experience, and I usually stay for an hour or an hour and a half. I don’t fall asleep but do sack out,” said Susan Emme, a patient at the Oakland Acupuncture Project’s Laurel location. She uses community acupuncture to treat her bodily woes, including very bad hip pain, compounded from sitting daily at her “desk jockey” job.

Acupuncture, rooted in ancient Chinese culture, has gained mainstream traction, and now community acupuncture, common throughout Asia, has been winning converts, too. It appears to have arrived on the West Coast in 2002 with Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, Ore. Berkeley Community Acupuncture was the first local community acupuncture practitioner, opening in 2007, with Albany’s Sarana Community Acupuncture following in March 2008 and others opening soon thereafter.

For all acupuncture, patients lie down or sit for treatment administered by a trained acupuncturist who inserts thin, hair-sized needles at various pressure points on the body as a way of facilitating healing. After the sterile, single-use needles are inserted, the patient stays still and quiet for at least 30 minutes, generally in a private room. Community acupuncture occurs in an open space instead of a private room, with patients receiving treatment next to other patients. In these settings, acupuncturists treat easily accessible pressure points like on the head, hands, and feet. Such clinics often use recliners, which allow each patient to customize an experience with as little or as much reclining as desired. In a private room, patients may need to disrobe to provide access to other pressure points and recline on a bed or cushioned table. Some clinics do operate as a hybrid, offering both options.

The community acupuncture business model aims to treat as many community members as possible while removing barriers to treatment. For example, some patients might be uncomfortable removing clothing in a private setting; in community acupuncture, they don’t need to take off anything, except socks and shoes.

“We treat from the elbows down and knees down with community acupuncture,” said Jeff Levin of Oakland Acupuncture Project. “That means taking off socks and shoes and rolling up pants and sleeves. There’s no need to disrobe, since the elbow-down and knee-down style gives access to all the points we need.” Levin said he likes seeing people building little nests as they get comfortable in their chairs, using as many of the house pillows and blankets as they desire.

Another barrier to acupuncture may be cost. Community acupuncture clinics offer treatment on a sliding scale ($15-$40), saving patients about $20 or more per round. Some community clinics use an honor system, letting the patient deposit a payment at a front desk or a box before leaving. The People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture, a professional cooperative of community acupuncture clinics in the United States and Canada, ensures its acupuncturist clinic members are paid a living wage and offer affordable treatment to patients without asking for income verification.

Acupuncture is used to treat everyday pain, depression, anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, skin and joint issues, as well as neuropathy (numbness and tingling) and other side effects of chemotherapy.

Emme first tried regular acupuncture 20 years ago and decided to experience community acupuncture at the behest of a close friend. She came to appreciate how easy it was to get an appointment in a group setting as well as how much cheaper it was for each session. Additionally, the community acupuncture emphasis on building and helping the patient community resonated with Emme’s personal ethos.

Carpenter said she strives to create an “urban oasis” atmosphere or ambience different from the everyday hustle and bustle taking place outside the clinic. The clinic’s operating business goal, she said, is for patients to “get out of your life and get healing.”

When Berkeley resident Jeanine Nicholson was 48 (she is now 53), she visited Albany’s Sarana Community Acupuncture to help with the devastating effects of chemotherapy after receiving a diagnosis of rare and aggressive breast cancer.

“I would go there and pick out a chair. Every time, I zonked out for an hour and slept—it was so restful. Aside from the fact that I was going through chemo, the time spent there instead felt like I was in a safe and comforting place.” Nicholson was bald then from her cancer treatments and appreciated the level of respect the staff gave her.

“People could figure out that I had cancer, and it was nice to not have to tell my story 75 times,” she said, noting the efficient initial intake session and paperwork documenting her symptoms meant she could begin each treatment without the usual re-hashing of symptoms associated with other cancer medical outings. She works as a firefighter battalion chief in San Francisco and holds good memories of the weekly community acupuncture visits.

 “The women there were so helpful to me at a rough time in my life. I am so grateful. It was a great source of comfort when most of my doctor appointments were for me to go and get cut or get poisoned … these appointments were not like that,” she said.

“The number of needles varies based on the answers we get to our questions about someone’s symptoms,” Carpenter said. “We work with the points that include the head, face, and ears, and points below elbows and knees.”

For a common anxiety such as not sleeping, Carpenter said she would look at eight body points and place several needles in the head region. If she included all the head and ear points, she’d use 10 to 20 needles. However, if a patient was terrified of needles, Carpenter said she would use only one or two instead.

Emme had some fear of needles, saying she “tries not to think of it” for the first five to 10 minutes of treatment when she’ll get “racing” thoughts, followed by the aforementioned pleasurable zonking out.

It could be that getting treated in the community room helped soothe Emme’s fears. Levin said the set-up is well thought out and specifically geared toward newbies and those who may have some fear or hesitation.

 “In the open group room, family members can sit together and give each other meaningful glances, like, ‘Oh, that looks pretty easy,’” he said.

The being together points to the “community” element of community acupuncture. Levin’s group has treated patients from age 3 to 102 years old, and he emphasized keeping acupuncture and medicine accessible to all kinds of people.

In the end, it seems like a modern take on an ancient healing method that works for many.

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