Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of our “Try Town” series, in which Colchester Sun, Essex Reporter and Milton Independent reporters try activities available in our communities.
A warm sensation descended over me as Kiki Colgan gently tapped a needle in my upper ear.
That feeling, according to my research, was my “qi” – the ancient Chinese term for vital energy that constantly circulates the body.
“Take a deep breath in, and I think that’s good,” Colgan said, dimming the lights. “You can just relax, and the needles will start to release endorphins in your body.”
It was a Wednesday morning at Green Mountain Acupuncture, Colgan’s business on the second floor of an office complex on Colchester’s Route 7.
A licensed acupuncturist, Colgan works in Chinese medicine, an ancient discipline rooted in beliefs antipodean to the modern, western practices of the neighboring medical suites that populate the building.
Chinese medicine takes a more holistic approach to healing, and Colgan is trained to identify and relieve blockages in the body – what she calls “traffic jams” for that qi – by puncturing the skin with thin, metal needles the width of a human hair.
This limits discomfort significantly, it should be noted, and the very fine needles employed here are not comparable to the hypodermic sort used to inject medicine into tissues.
Colgan calls acupuncture needles “pain free,” and the Vermont Acupuncture Association reports most people find it relaxing. Still, “needle fear” prevents many from trying the treatment.
I found myself strangely tranquil as Colgan manipulated her needles on points known as meridians. Instructing me to breathe deeply, she stuck the first pin in the ridge of my upper ear, the “shen men” point – Chinese for “heavenly gate” – the anatomical equivalent to overall wellness.
“We can access your whole body through your ear,” Colgan explained of auricular acupuncture, a more modern technique developed by a French practitioner.
The system connects points in the ear with locations on the rest of the body, allowing acupuncturists to target everything from wrist pain to indigestion. Nothing particularly bothered me, so Colgan told me to stick out my tongue.
“The tongue can give me a lot of information,” she said somewhat cryptically, applying pressure to a spot further down my ear. “Is that sore at all?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
She stuck a needle in it, which again offered me a weighty, warm feeling. That point corresponded with my liver, she explained, which my tongue apparently indicated was out of balance.
I flashbacked to the weekend, when a bottle of Chardonnay got the best of me. Maybe there was something to this, after all.
Colgan explained her job is essentially gathering information from the body and reversing negative patterns.
“Then people’s normal qi starts to flow again,” she said. “It’s really a fun job.”
It’s one she never envisioned she’d have, though.
Colgan initially wanted to be a therapist. A native Vermonter, she studied at Burlington’s Trinity College before venturing west with a caravan of friends intrigued by the low in-state tuition rates of California.
Studying psychology in San Francisco, she “fell in love” with Chinatown, fascinated by its many shops full of “bugs and herbs and very exotic things I’d never been exposed to,” she said.
Acupuncture was a natural extension. Colgan recalled visiting one practitioner with friends seeking relief from cramps, laughing at the absurdity of their bellies turned to pin cushions.
Beyond eventually assuming a minor in alternative medicine, though, Colgan didn’t think much of it.
She switched gears entirely and worked as a professional chef for the next decade, but her thoughts returned to eastern medicine when, wracked with severe back pain, she contemplated a career change.
She recalled when, at age 20, she successfully avoided surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized cyst – a feat she attributed to a course of acupuncture. She brushed it off initially but eventually realized “there was something there,” she said.
She traded knives for needles, eventually earning a master’s degree in oriental medicine in San Diego.
Finding SoCal “inundated” with acupuncturists, Colgan moved home for good in 2003. For the last 14 years, she’s treated a steady stream of clients afflicted with everything from chronic pain to infertility.
The World Health Organization has identified 28 conditions for which acupuncture is a proven effective treatment based on controlled trials. These include pain, depression, allergies, nausea and stroke, among others.
Sixty-three other conditions require further testing but show a therapeutic effect from acupuncture. Those range from insomnia to obesity to addiction.
It’s the latter that holds the most promise, Colgan thinks, especially in Vermont. While the opioid epidemic rages on here, lawmakers are increasingly receptive to potential solutions, including alternative medicine.
Research continues, but anecdotal evidence is plentiful, fueling acupuncturists’ mission to lobby Montpelier for inclusion in opioid and pain management bills.
“The needles do such a good job treating addiction, treating pain,” Colgan said. “The more research we can put in front of [legislators, the more] they perk up and listen and say, ‘OK, we are desperate here.’ They know it’s a good solution.”
The opiate bill signed into law by former Gov. Peter Shumlin last summer appropriated $200,000 for a pilot program to test acupuncture as a long-term alternative to opiates for Medicaid patients with chronic pain.
Acupuncture is also used in some hospitals, rehabilitation centers and even prisons around the world to treat opiate withdrawal symptoms. A major barrier to that here, though, is insurance.
If advocates have their way, Vermont could become one of a small handful of states to mandate insurance cover acupuncture treatment for certain conditions. People for Acupuncture, a statewide nonprofit, introduced a bill to do just that last year, sponsored by then-Rep. Chris Pearson.
“We must do everything we can to curb the opiate crisis,” Pearson said then. “Offering Vermonters choices for alternative treatments is a good idea and should help us prevent people from getting addicted in the first place.”
Colgan is hopeful Vermont’s tight-knit community of fewer than 100 licensed acupuncturists can make real strides.
“We’re not giving up on it at all,” she said, predicting an influx of integrative pain clinics in the next five to 10 years. “I don’t think we have a choice not to do it – it’s just, who’s gonna pay for it?”
Colgan admits some frustration. Misconceptions abound, poorly trained practitioners feed negative stereotypes and patients are still generally more apt to visit a chiropractor or physical therapist before an acupuncturist.
Still, that’s progress compared to the widespread skepticism she encountered when she first opened shop here. Today, she regularly gets referrals from traditional medical doctors.
“Do you sort of feel like people are finally realizing something you’ve been onto for a long time?” I asked her, only vaguely aware now of the spikes in my right ear.
“Absolutely, and from those first days of going to San Francisco and seeing this whole world that, in Vermont, we just do not see,” she said. “I just feel so grateful that I was able to bring part of that culture back here.”
Today, Colgan averages about 30 patients a week, the majority suffering from neck pain. Treatments – and not just in the ear – generally last around an hour, occur biweekly and can continue for weeks, months or years, depending on the ailment.
While she’s quick to tout the benefits of her practice for acute conditions, Colgan believes acupuncture can help just about anyone.
“People come here because they’re off their path … they need to reconnect with their initial goals in life,” she said. “If they feel out of balance in any way – before things lead to the surgery table, before things lead to pharmaceutical meds, give acupuncture a shot.”