Occasionally, a medical treatment that once was considered alternative or fringe not only gains popularity but also scientific clout and slowly begins to enter the mainstream. Such is the case with acupuncture. As an increasing number of studies suggest that this centuries-old technique is an effective treatment for a variety of diseases and chronic conditions, the practice is gaining public attention and earning a place in the traditional medical pantheon.

Statistics back this up: The 2002 National Health Interview Survey found that 8.2 million adults in the U.S. had tried acupuncture. And a 2003 study in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine noted that some academic medical centers were offering acupuncture services. More than 500 practitioners and clinics in the St. Louis area now offer acupuncture treatments.

Linda Smith, D.C., a chiropractic physician in St. Louis, has been a certified acupuncturist since 1993. She incorporated acupuncture into her practice after her own experience made her a believer. Acupuncture treatments for a shoulder injury eased her pain and piqued her interest. Chiropractic physicians who complete a year of post-graduate study in acupuncture, followed by required continuing education in the field, can earn certification. “I did my continuing education at Harvard last year, and it was fascinating to learn how acupuncture is being used for things like stroke rehabilitation,” she says.

Although acupuncture has a wide range of uses, Smith focuses on its use in treating musculoskeletal injuries and conditions. In order to reach deep muscle tissue, she often uses a technique known as percutaneous electrical stimulation, which utilizes acupuncture needles to deliver electric current and activate specific nerves in the body. “I’m very practical in my approach,” Smith says. “My goal is to ease pain and improve range of motion, so I tend to address patients’ problems with a medical diagnostic point of view and then use acupuncture as a treatment tool.” In many cases, Smith combines acupuncture treatments with deep-tissue massage to gain maximum benefit.

The use of acupuncture in modern medical settings is increasing, but many practitioners remain true to acupuncture’s roots in Oriental medicine. Eric Saitta, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist and licensed Chinese herbologist at Upper Star Traditional Chinese Medicine Clinic in Clayton. To gain state licensure, acupuncturists must be certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, which requires completion of a formal educational program and/or apprenticeship along with a passing grade on a standardized exam.

Saitta sees acupuncture and herbal medicine as complementary treatments that, done together, are effective in treating a variety of ills, including arthritis, back pain, migraines, fibromyalgia and carpal tunnel syndrome. “Many of my patients are senior citizens who have been on pain medication for a long time or were told they need a joint replacement, and they want to avoid more drugs and surgery,” he says. “This offers a different, but still effective, approach.”

Also combining acupuncture with herbal medicine is Christine Kleinschmidt, LAc, a licensed acupuncturist who has practiced in St. Louis for four years. She also first discovered acupuncture as a patient. “I was amazed at the results I experienced with just one treatment,” she says. “Acupuncture really treats the body as a whole, and herbs enhance the effect or supplement what you can do with just the needles.”

Kleinschmidt specializes in women’s health issues, including infertility, premenstrual syndrome, menstrual irregularity and headaches. “I think the most important thing about finding the right practitioner is to make sure he or she is well versed regarding your specific health concerns,” she says. Kleinschmidt often receives referrals from women’s health physicians and believes that combining Western medical treatments with acupuncture can be extremely beneficial. “Western medicine is very powerful, but sometimes acupuncture and herbs work so well that a patient doesn’t need other types of treatment,” she says. “And some people do best with a combination of modalities.”

Costs for acupuncture treatments range from $45 to $200 and are not usually covered by insurance. Yet many people believe the out-of-pocket cost is well worth the results. “Acupuncture is deeply relaxing, and it really isn’t painful,” Kleinschmidt says. “Everyone can benefit from it, and I love to use it to help people realize their true health potential.”