Physician combats chronic pain with acupuncture
Every Tuesday at the Clark K. Sleeth Family Medicine Center, 16-20 patients are treated with medical acupuncture by family medicine physician Kendra Unger, MD. “I think people like that the university is offering something different that they can’t really get anywhere else. There are other acupuncturists in the area, but none of them are medical acupuncturists,” Dr. Unger said.
Unlike most acupuncturists, Unger is a medical doctor as well as a certified acupuncturist. Acupuncture involves very thin needles being placed into the skin to ease pain and to help with a variety of physical and mental conditions.
“I am first and foremost a family physician. That’s my passion, but I also love having something else in my toolbox that is very safe and effective,” she said.
During her residency at the WVU School of Medicine, Unger was surprised by the number of patients who struggled with chronic pain. Unger says she became frustrated with the cycle of wanting to help patients get better and not really seeing any success. “That’s what inspired me to look for something different. I really wanted an avenue to add to their therapy,” she said.
Unger met Martin Gallagher, MD, a 2007 graduate of the WVU School of Medicine and a medical acupuncturist, at a lecture he was giving at WVU on the alternative therapy. She was excited about the possibilities of medical acupuncture at WVU and approached him after the lecture.
“The WVU Department of Family Medicine has begun to follow a model of a patient-centered medical home, where the patient is the captain, and we give them what they need,” she said. “To be able to offer another modality for pain treatment in a state that struggles with prescription drug abuse — acupuncture meets West Virginia’s specific needs.”
Dr. Gallagher felt that Unger was the right person to anchor a medical acupuncture program at WVU, and she followed in his path by enrolling for an intensive one-year course at the Helms Institute through the University of California, Los Angeles’ Continuing Medical Education.
“Incorporating acupuncture into family medical training helps provide a much broader set of tools — one that spans all specialties and is safe for use in patients of all ages from children to elderly,” Gallagher said. Gallagher created the Martin P. Gallagher Acupuncture Fund at the WVU Foundation to provide support for the existing program at WVU that he founded and to offer scholarships for residents and faculty to receive training in acupuncture. He envisions a future in which all family medicine residents will receive acupuncture training during their residencies. “Marty deserves a lot of credit, and he’s the one who started the program here,” Unger said. “It was a groundbreaking moment when that happened."
“WVU is one of the first universities to activate a medical acupuncture residency program,” Gallagher said. “Medical school provides a tremendous education and is made stronger when combined with Eastern medicine. Both forms should be used in an integral way.”
Unger has had four residents complete medical acupuncture training so far. “They have to be in good academic standing because this program is very demanding. It’s the equivalent of 300 continuing medical education hours, so we look for someone who’s smart, motivated, and thinks in terms of wellness,” she said.
Family medicine resident Rex Paulino, MD, works with Unger in the clinic and completed training at Helms Institute after hearing about how several other seniors loved the acupuncture course.
At first, Dr. Paulino says he was skeptical about acupuncture. “After seeing how patients react to the treatment, it just surprised me. It actually works,” he said. “I hope the practice that Dr. Unger started grows exponentially. We need more patients who are getting symptom relief and less who are addicted to benzodiazepines and narcotics.”
“Practicing acupuncture has really changed how I look at patients and their lives,” Unger said. “It’s sad when people can’t play with their grandkids, go to the grocery store, or do their laundry because their back hurts or they have too many migraines. That’s what inspires me to do this — patients.”
One particular patient of Unger’s underwent chemotherapy and a double mastectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis, and the patient came to Unger early in her chemotherapy treatment to give acupuncture a try. The chemo left her with pain and numbness in her feet and legs, which caused her to fall often.
“She was kind of in a bad place because she had a lot of pain, and now her pain is very well controlled. She doesn’t require any medication, and she is functioning very well. I think she is a testament to someone who this type of therapy is good for. She had a chronic, debilitating problem which medication does not help or reaches its limits, and we were successfully able to get her off of those medicines with acupuncture and get her back to her life.”