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Acupuncture and HIV: The "New" Weapon in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS
By: Eleanor Webber for Acufinder Magazine
How can an ancient medical tradition help patients afflicted with a current pandemic? Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old, yet it's uniquely well suited to aid in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. TCM can help patients by boosting their immune systems, relieving the symptoms of the disease, and reducing the side effects of their medications.

People who receive a positive diagnosis are often advised to start drug therapy as soon as possible. But the drugs' side effects are significant, and some patients don't develop symptoms of HIV right away. In fact, several years sometimes pass before symptoms appear and T-cell counts begin to plummet. For these reasons, some patients hesitate to start taking medicine right away, preferring to look for an alternate way of treating the disease and slowing its progression to fully developed AIDS.

Charles and Andre are HIV-positive individuals who recently talked to Acufinder the Magazine to share their insights into the benefits of acupuncture and herbs for people living with the virus.


Treating the Condition and the Body

Charles started acupuncture treatments as soon as he learned he was HIV positive. He had previous experience with acupuncture for allergies and tendonitis, so Charles was comfortable seeing an acupuncturist. He believed it offered him a way to fight the disease that was less harsh than the AZT his Western doctor offered.

Choosing to delay Western drug therapy until his T-cell count (a critical measure of a key type of white blood cell) went below 300, Charles has been using acupuncture and herbs exclusively since his diagnosis in 2005.

"For a long time the advice has been to start treatment as early as possible. That's now being questioned because of the side effects of the drugs used," says Charles. Weekly appointments with an acupuncturist at Chicken Soup Chinese Medicine, a TCM clinic in San Francisco, have helped him with symptoms stemming from HIV, including fatigue, chest tightness, digestion issues, flu-like symptoms, and viral rash. His treatment consists of acupuncture and a regular herbal regimen, with supplemental herbs sometimes added. He also receives diet advice and sometimes receives acupuncture treatments that keep other health issues in check.

How has it worked for him? His T-cell count (the amount of a type of white blood cell) is still high and his viral load (the way that doctors measure the amount of virus in someone's body) is now one-third lower than it was when he was originally diagnosed. In addition, Charles reports a higher energy level and more peace of mind about living with the illness.


A Gentler Approach

Andre was diagnosed in 1992 and immediately started routine acupuncture visits and an herbal formula. "I didn' have any proof [of acupuncture's effectiveness], but I wanted to start a more gentle treatment," Andre explains. He used TCM exclusively until 1996, when his T-cell count dropped to the low 200s and he started highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), better known as the triple-drug cocktail.

Since then he has used a combination of Western medicine, acupuncture, and herbs. The pharmaceutical medications that Andre takes keep his T-cell count high and bring down the viral load in his body. The herbs strengthen his blood and build his immune system, helping to keep his body resilient and capable of fighting infection. His acupuncture treatments have addressed various health problems caused by the virus, recently tackling the shortness of breath brought on by pulmonary lung hypertension. Overall, Andre feels that his regular visits to the acupuncturist have improved his quality of life and eased his symptoms.


Treating the Whole Person

Charles and Andre aren' alone in turning to acupuncture. When AIDS was first discovered in the eighties but before the advent of antiretroviral medications like AZT, the medical establishment had little to offer patients besides medicines that treated some of the opportunistic infections that AIDS so often left the body exposed to. Patients had to look elsewhere for treatment, and many of them turned to TCM.

As the Western medical establishment developed drugs to fight the virus, the role of TCM changed to complement to the medications while mitigating their side effects. Working with an acupuncturist also empowers the patient to overcome the anxiety and stress of living with a positive diagnosis–something Western medicine can't address.

For most people who learn they have HIV, the news is overwhelming. "Getting an HIV positive diagnosis is like a big punch in the face," says Andre.

TCM' emphasis on the whole person–with body, mind, and spirit intricately connected–recognizes the effect emotions can have on the health of the body and can address them in a way that blends with the overall treatment. For example, while treating Charles for his digestive issues, his acupuncturist needled Yin Tong, an acupuncture point that can relax and soothe the patient.

Acupuncturists and MDs agree that a patient in the right state of mind will fare better than one struggling to cope. Stress, anxiety, and depression can adversely affect the health of a patient.

Charles and Andre both feel relaxed and calm at the end of their treatments. Andre describes his time as "quiet and comforting." Charles speaks of a similar experience. "It's one thing that I'm always doing for myself. I see my face in the mirror before I go and its pale and drawn. After the treatment it's glowing."

More than the needles and herbal prescriptions, acupuncturists have a different style and approach to their practice that can deeply affect the patient experience. Andre mentions that his relationship with his acupuncturist is professional, but also one of friendship. Charles mentioned how much he values sharing "what's going on" with his heath to his acupuncturist. "I have so many questions life adjustments, dating issues, fear. I see my Western doctor for a short time. I have more questions and worries than he can actually address. Going weekly (to the acupuncturist) really helps. I can continue to ask questions."


How TCM Works for the HIV Patient

So it works great. But how does it work? Chinese medicine can appear to be mystery. Behind the needles, smoking moxa sticks, and funky-smelling herbs that comprise the typical TCM experience is a complex philosophy that explains relationships between organs, blood, and Qi flow. All theories and diagnoses in this medical tradition, however, follow a very simple premise: that health is a balance or harmony of forces and properties in the body, and ill health a disharmony.

Disharmony can be caused by outside forces, such as cold or wind, and inside forces, such as emotions. But ancient texts also describe the existence of pestilences, called li qi or yi qi. These are diseases from the outside world, but they different from the usual suspects; they're the external "evils" of wind, cold, heat, dampness, and dryness.

A pestilence is highly infectious and can bring about an epidemic. Since TCM understands epidemics, that knowledge and protocol can be brought to bear on one of the most devastating pandemics of our time, AIDS.


TCM vs. HIV

A small number of acupuncturists have been studying the AIDS virus and developing a TCM diagnosis for the disease since the health crisis first began. Misha Cohen, O.M.D., L.Ac, describes the specific diagnosis of HIV/AIDS as invasion by toxic heat pestilence, which eventually causes spleen/stomach deficiency inside the body. Once the body is depleted by the disease's attack on the spleen and stomach, the disease can progress to cause additional disharmonies, such as liver Qi stagnation and blood deficiency.

Each individual will have a unique response to the AIDS virus, and different disharmonies will develop in each person. One AIDS patient might develop Kaposi's sarcoma, for instance, while another might experience anemia or peripheral neuropathy. The versatility built into treatments – there are hundreds of acupuncture points to choose from and endless point combinations possible – ensures a targeted treatment that is tailored to each patient's health needs.

How do Western HIV/AIDS doctors view the role of acupuncturists in treating AIDS patients? Charles describes his Western doctor as being very open to acupuncture – in fact, his doctor was the one that referred him to an acupuncturist. Andre's doctor doesn' comment when Andre describes his TCM involvement, and Andre senses that his doctor might not value TCM. However, both men find it easy to work both East and West into their lives. They regularly check in with their Western doctors to monitor the virus, and their acupuncturists are well versed in Western medicines and protocol for HIV/AIDS. In the view of many in the forefront of the fight against HIV and AIDS, Western and TCM doctors working in collaboration provide the best care to patients battling one of the most devastating health problems in recent history.

It is thought that more than 1 million people are living with HIV in the United States. Acupuncture has the potential to enrich the health and quality of life of their lives.


Eleanor Webber is a freelance writer and a student of TCM in San Francisco