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'Back to where I was'

Rosalyn Rhinehart treasures her independence, so she dreaded the idea of leaving her home and moving into an assisted-living center.

She couldn't see any other option. Arthritis made the simplest tasks of daily living almost unbearable. Brushing her teeth was an ordeal, and she couldn't put on any clothing that required her to raise her arms above her shoulders.

"I was to the point where I could not change my earrings or put on a necklace," she recalls.

She'd been seeing doctors for decades without much to show for it. Rheumatologists and pain specialists tried everything they knew, and she enrolled in clinical trials for experimental treatments. Finally, one of her physicians asked whether she had considered acupuncture.

"I said, 'I will try anything,' " she remembers.

Eight years after her first acupuncture treatment, she's still living on her own in the same east Medford house where she's been for 46 years. At the age of 82, her arthritis still flares up, but she says acupuncture has allowed her to live a life "beyond what I ever dreamed or anticipated.

"I still drive my car," she says. "I still live alone. I can change my earrings. I can put a sweater on over my head. I just never expected I would get back to where I was."

Acupuncture originated in China some 2,000 years ago as a way to restore health by stimulating points on the body with ultra-fine needles.

It's a major component of what's known as Traditional Chinese Medicine, which also uses herbs, massage and diet to treat illness. Acupuncture gained adherents in North America in the late 20th century as interest rose in alternative medical treatments that fell outside the mainstream health care system.

The ancient Chinese approach to health attracted people such as David Tara, who was working as a biologist at Oregon Health & Science University when the new millennium began.

"It became pretty clear to me that Western medicine had lots of amazing, beautiful things to offer," he says, "but there were lots of holes in the system."

For Tara, Chinese medicine, with its notion of life energy, or "chi," promised to fill some of the voids he saw in modern medicine.

"Chi is a really obscure concept for Westerners," he says. "It's that vital life force energy you have to have to be alive."

He recalls visiting the College of Oriental Medicine in Portland and thumbing through the catalog of courses.

"None of it should have made sense to me as a scientist, but it did," he says. "Here was something I had to pay attention to."

He quit his job and enrolled in the College of Oriental Medicine in Portland to study acupuncture. Looking for a sunnier place to live, Tara and his wife moved to Southern Oregon, and he set up his practice in Medford in 2002. Rhinehart still remembers the day of her first appointment with him — March 24, 2004.

"To begin with, I went almost every day for a month," she says. "It was a year or more before I went every other week."

Gradually, her pain diminished, and she eventually returned to the activities she loved, like tending the roses in her garden. These days she visits Tara faithfully once every two weeks. He inserts anywhere from 18 to 40 needles at various points in her body, based on what she tells him about how she's feeling and where she hurts.

"Occasionally the needles sting when he sticks them in," she says. "If there's a needle that's uncomfortable, he'll adjust it. If they hurt, they're not doing what he wants them to do."

The needles are nothing like those used by physicians to draw blood or inject medicines. They're solid, not hollow like a hypodermic needle, and most are barely thicker than a human hair.

"The sensations people experience are completely different from what they'd experience with a hypodermic needle," Tara explains.

"People will feel their chi move," he says. "It's something they can't understand or explain."

He says acupuncture can provide pain relief, but it can't address the cause of the pain when there are "structural" issues, such as a herniated disc.

"Acupuncture doesn't change that fact," he says. "It can help with pain, but it can't change why you have the pain."

Acupuncture has gained broader acceptance as Rhinehart and others share their success stories with friends, and there are now some two dozen acupuncturists practicing in Jackson County alone. As many as 3.1 million Americans had used acupuncture during the year previous to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey. That study included a specific question about "complementary and alternative medicine," which encompasses everything from dietary supplements and hypnotherapy to chiropractic and acupuncture.

Researchers have tried to study acupuncture's ability to control pain with mixed results. Some studies indicate acupuncture clearly provides pain relief, while others seem to show it's no more helpful than a placebo. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the federal Centers for Disease Control, says there is evidence that people's attitudes about acupuncture can affect their outcomes.

"In a 2007 study," NCCAM writes on its Web page, "researchers analyzed data from four clinical trials of acupuncture for various types of chronic pain. Participants had been asked whether they expected acupuncture to help their pain. In all four trials, those with positive expectations reported significantly greater pain relief."

Tara says his patients' attitude changes when they start to feel their chi move, a process he likens to opening a door.

"New possibilities step into the room," he says. "It's hard to describe in words on paper."

Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at bdkettler@gmail.com.

Rosalyn Rhinehart of Medford once expected to be in a wheelchair and living in assisted living because of severe arthritis, but acupuncture has turned her life around, she says. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch