Cermak/Chinatown: Eastern Medicine Gives Chicagoans an Alternative

Cermak-Chinatown Stop IconBy Ally Clark, Katie Rosebrock and Luz Garcia Cubillos
The Red Line Project

Posted: June 3, 2010

William Wright has been coming to see Kent Young, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist who practices in Chicago’s Chinatown, off and on for nine years. Wright was originally referred to Young by his Tai-Chi instructor after suffering a knee injury.

Wright said he had been taking the prescription drug Celebrex for more than two years before coming to see Young for acupuncture. After one session with Young, Wright stopped taking the drug and hasn’t needed it since. He also has dislocated both shoulders, and the right one was treated with Western medicine and the left one with Eastern medicine.

Wright said his right shoulder still gives him trouble sometimes, but his left shoulder is “back to normal.” Wright is so pleased with the treatment he received here that he has brought all his family and many friends to see Young.

One of those friends was Elizabeth Rodriquez, who had severe back pains after giving birth to two babies back to back. When Wright asks her how she feels, Rodriquez doesn’t hesitate.

 “I feel, like, brand new,” she said.

Not everyone is as thrilled about acupuncture as Wright and Rodriquez. Carolyn Deming received acupuncture when she was a little once for an injured shoulder and once for sinus pressure.

“While I see the benefits and I appreciate it […] if it was free I would get it all the time, but I don’t think I necessary am willing pay for it. If my insurance covers it I would too. “

According to the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, acupuncture “has been used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness for over 2,000 years” and is proven to treat “acute and chronic ailments” and strengthen the immune system.

“We treat the whole body, not just the problem,” said Kent Young, at his practice, Kent Young Health Products Center & Co.

Young has been practicing acupuncture for 30 years, though he has only been practicing in the U.S. for 10 years. His current practice is located in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown. The practice itself is combined with a Chinese pharmacy. The smell of strong, bitter herbs wafts out the door as one enters, the smells of a traditional Chinese herbalist.

The scents are just a hint of the many different products offered here. Walking in the door patients see a drink cooler filled with a combination of Diet Cokes and a “supplement drink” called Joint Juice. Along the back wall, next to even more shelves of goods, is a floor to ceiling wall of drawers.

Each drawer is filled with a different fresh herb. In front of the casement is a tiny scale as well as a mortar and pestle for mashing up the herbs.

Patients walk past aisles overflowing with a variety of supplements, herbs, and teas to treat almost every ailment. Squeezed in amongst the various supplements is a shelf filled with cookies, candies and other treats. There are even a few packets of stickers for sale.

Kent Young Photo

Kent Young checks the patient's pulse during the
cupping treatment. (Photo by Katie Rosebrock)

There are so many different products they can’t all fit on the shelves and many are contained in cardboard boxes that line along the shelves. At the very end of the aisles patients almost stumble into the clinical side of the company. Four folding chairs, a desk and some certificates on the wall are the only thing suggesting this is not part of the store anymore.

 It could just as easily be the store’s back office as a medical clinic. The acupuncture procedure takes place in a small room partitioned off from the rest of the building by a small bamboo screen, which is decorated with anatomical posters depicting the different pressure centers used in acupuncture.

Behind the screen are two small beds, covered in sanitary paper, a shelf overflowing with needles, cotton swabs, containers for disposing of used needles, and other supplies. There are so many supplies back here that Young has to store things under the beds, and often places items on the bed next to the patients while prepping them.

After emerging from the treatment area Rodriquez stretches a bit and said, “It’s amazing. I didn’t expect to feel this good.”

Rodriquez received acupuncture and cupping on her back to help relieve the pressure.

 “I think acupuncture has its application in a lot of chronic pain issues, it‘s also been shown to be effective for treating some folks with like smoking and things like that,” said Dr. Matthew Stauffer, a recent graduate of Loyola University. “We are trained usually to deal with pain through medication and if there is a surgical procedure that can be done to help relieve pain.”

Said Doug Stoulsfuz, a retired family practitioner and supporter of acupuncture who receives acupuncture treatments himself: “Acupuncture can be very complementary, if you will, to a lot of what of what Western medicine has to offer. I don’t believe necessarily any one form of treatment is the answer to everything.”

When Stoulsfuz was a practicing physician, he “would still caution my patients if they were approaching some of these things, be careful in keeping both an opening mind but a questioning mind as well."

“We tend to focus on a disease process in Western medicine, whereas a lot of Eastern medicine focuses on symptom complexes as opposed to a disease. They look at symptoms as representing an imbalance in one form or another of your body’s chi, your vital energy.”

Stoulsfuz started receiving acupuncture in 2000, after developing central vertigo, when Western medicine was unable to adequately treat his symptoms. Since his original visit Stoulsfuz has repeatedly received treatments for a variety of other ailments, including recovering from a mental trauma and releasing pressure on a sore shoulder.

Like Rodriquez, Stoulsfuz received acupuncture and cupping treatments to help relieve the pain on his shoulder. Cupping (Watch Slideshow on Cupping) is a technique used to stimulate blood flow and draw toxins out of the body. Cupping involves using a glass or plastic cup to create suction on the skin and first layer of muscle. There are many different techniques involved with cupping, one such technique involves puncturing the skin to help increase blood flow. To create suction the practitioner will either suck the air out of the cup, or placing a heated cup on the skin.

“Cupping was one of the things he used to relive some of the tension in my muscles both the acupuncture and the cupping is very useful for getting rid of tension,” said Stoulsfuz.

Herbal supplements are another popular form of alternative treatment. Stauffer cautions patients to be careful when taking supplements.

“For some of the vitamins and herbal supplements there is no one actually regulating what actually is that pill or capsule,” Stauffer said. “So you can put anything you want in there. You can have more of the herb, lets say, ginkgo biloba, it can be five times what it says in the package; and there is no one regulating them. And that’s when I think some herbal supplements can be dangerous for patients because they are thinking they are taking certain amount and they are actually taking five times they thought they were taking.”

Stoulsfuz said, “I think that herbs can have a role, but are they the answer to everything, as a physician I would have to say no." He also cautioned that “you want to make sure your supplier of herbs is a reputable one that’s not going to have contaminated supplies.”

Patients buying their supplies from Young’s pharmacy needn’t worry about contaminated products Young frequently replaces his herbs, and when they are expired he throws them out. When asked about his herbs Young said patients need to be sure to measure the right amount when boiling tea. Americans may not have the scales or traditional knowledge many Chinese families have, when it comes to creating home brews.

While many people swear by the benefits of Eastern medicine, it will be a while until American health insurance companies recognize, and pay for alternative treatments. Some insurance will cover a portion of acupuncture treatments, but that is few and far between, and only with select PPOs.

On its website, the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine said that many insurance companies do cover acupuncture but they are also working to educate the insurance companies. For now though, it is probably best to look at Eastern and Western medicine not so much competing with each other as complementing each other.

To use an Eastern image, think of Eastern and Western medicine as the Yin and the Yang, two seemingly contrary forces combining together to form a complete whole. Western medicine may have stronger and more precise treatments for complicated diseases such as cancer, but Eastern medicine focuses on the whole person.

“There is a whole focus on balance, I think we’re missing in Western medicine,“ Stoulsfuz said.

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