One recent afternoon Rosanne Clementi pulled up to the Tampa Bay Acupuncture Clinic for a knee treatment.
Clementi had pursued traditional medicine a few years ago following arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus, the tough cartilage in the knee. She received injections to ease her pain, but the effect wore off within weeks and the pain returned.
At the recommendation of a massage therapist Clementi sought help from Xiao Zhang (pronounced "shaw jong"), licensed as both an acupuncturist and a family physician.
"I'm a believer," said Clementi, 55, of the acupuncture treatments. "Within the first three weeks the pain was gone."
The Tampa businesswoman now receives treatments for her knees every three weeks or so, but also occasional treatments for sinus congestion and an inflamed rotator cuff.
"I recommend her every chance I get to people with chronic pain," Clementi said of Zhang.
In recent decades more and more people have turned to acupuncture, an ancient therapy with roots dating back to China some 2,000 years ago. With the use of fine needles and supplementary herbs, acupuncturists have brought relief to those with a variety of ailments, including knee, back and neck pain; anxiety; migraine headaches; insomnia; fibromyalgia; irritable bowel syndrome; and even fertility problems.
Practitioners of acupuncture insert fine, sterile needles along a series of meridians, or channels, which run throughout the body. Through these meridians flows an energy, or life force, which the Chinese call "Qi,"( pronounced "chee").
"Acupuncture is always done by courses of treatment," said Zhang, originally a physician and acupuncturist in her native China. "The benefit is cumulative."
She said a typical treatment consists of four, six or eight sessions, each 20 minutes. Patients lie quietly on a table, face up or down depending on the area of discomfort.
"I believe about 90 percent of pain sufferers get positive results," said Zhang. "Only a small number of people don't respond to acupuncture."
The ancient healing art has proved to be especially effective for older patients who want to avoid more pharmaceuticals.
Zhang, who opened her clinic in 1994, said patients often come in already taking multiple pain medications, which can diminish their alertness and leave them vulnerable to falls. Acupuncture, she said, offers a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals.
Zhang sometimes provides herbs as well.
"Herbs are gentle on the system," she said.
In Palm Harbor, Ariane Jackson, a Swiss-born licensed acupuncturist who opened Palm Harbor Oriental Medicine in 2001, said she most frequently treats people for pain and stress.
"Acupuncture focuses on cause rather than symptom," she said. "It usually takes at least one course of treatment to get results."
Jackson added that unlike many pharmaceuticals, acupuncture does not provide a quick fix, especially for people already taking traditional medicines.
"Often drugs mask the pain," she said. "People on medications may not respond as quickly as those who take none."
Dee Hammond of Palm Harbor gets regular acupuncture treatments from Jackson, as do her son, husband and mother.
Hammond came to Jackson on the recommendation of a friend five years ago when conventional medicine failed to alleviate her migraines.
"I started feeling relief after the first few treatments," said Hammond, 40. "After eight sessions the pain was gone."
Hammond's 11-year-old son, Maxx, has been treated successfully for asthma, and her husband, Raymond, 45, sought help for neck pain resulting from a sports injury. Now, she said, Raymond just goes occasionally if the pain returns.
Fibromyalgia and pain management following knee surgery brought Hammond's mother, Louise Morea, all the way from Ocala for treatments.
"She had great results from acupuncture," Hammond said.
Morea, 65, had a series of treatments over a six-week period, after which both the knee pain and the fibromyalgia pain had diminished significantly.
At times, Jackson uses several other techniques, including electric stimulation, massage and cupping, a means of drawing toxins to the surface of the body.
Acupuncture may also have some bearing in aiding women with fertility problems, said Zhang.
Josie Mongoovi, 37, used in vitro fertilization for the birth of her first child and opted not to go that route the second time. Instead, she turned to Zhang for acupuncture.
"I went for five sessions and took some herbs she gave me," Mongoovi said. "I got pregnant after those five sessions after a year and a half of trying on my own."
Eastern and Western medicine have distinctive strengths. Zhang credits Western medicine with greater efficiency in treating acute medical problems, such as infections and traumas. Eastern therapies, she said, are more suitable for chronic conditions or for people who are allergic to medications.
"Eastern medicine also is more focused on prevention and overall well-being," she said. "If your immune system is up and running you may not get sick, even if exposed to strong germs."
Jackson, a former nurse in her native Geneva, echoed those sentiments.
"Acupuncture will boost your immune system and put the body back in good balance."
Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer living in Palm Harbor. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.