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As published in the UConn Advance, April 2, 2007.

Neurologist Uses Acupuncture to Treat Variety of Pain Conditions

By Carolyn Pennington

Dr. Adam Simmons demonstrates acupuncture at the Health Center.

Dr. Adam Simmons demonstrates acupuncture at the Health Center.

Photo by Janine Gelineau

Although many medical doctors are open to complementary treatments like acupuncture, very few actually embrace it in their practice.

Dr. Adam Simmons, a neurologist at the UConn Health Center, is an exception, often using acupuncture on patients where other, more traditional treatments have failed.

Simmons’ interest in integrative medicine began when he was in high school and took a course at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

There he learned how alternative treatments such as meditation and yoga could help relieve stress.

His interest was piqued even more when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she used acupuncture to relieve some of the fatigue associated with her chemotherapy treatments.

But he became a true believer while doing his internship at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland.

He worked with a neurologist there who owned a horse that suffered from terrible back pain but gained obvious relief when the doctor used acupuncture to treat the pain.

“I couldn’t see a horse having a placebo effect from someone coming and sticking needles into it,” said Simmons.

“That convinced me that there was something above and beyond the placebo effect.”

During his training, Simmons completed a program at Harvard Medical School where he was specially trained in the use of Kiiko Matsumoto’s Japanese-style acupuncture, which is slightly different from the traditional Chinese technique. Matsumoto’s acupuncture relies far more on a physical exam.

During the examination of the “hara” (meaning “belly”), the practitioner presses down on the stomach, looking for reflections of the whole body’s health and seeing manifestations of that in the stomach.

After finding a tender point on the abdomen, he or she looks for a point on the patient’s neck, feet, legs, or back that will relieve that tenderness, and that’s where the needle goes.

Simmons says an important part of acupuncture is figuring out why the body isn’t healing itself.

So instead of just focusing on the problem the patient is complaining about, you first need to help the body get better at healing itself.

Specific treatments won’t work as well, because whatever has caused the pain in the first place will cause it again.

Simmons uses acupuncture to treat a variety of pain conditions, including pain in the back, neck, and head.

“Generally, the longer the pain has been there and the longer the aggravating factors have been at work, the longer it will take to unravel that,” he says, “whereas an acute muscle strain may only take a session or two.”

Deciding to treat a patient with acupuncture is typically not an either-or choice. It is mainly done as an adjunct treatment, along with medication.

But the hope is that patients can reduce their dose or even stop using pain medications altogether.

Simmons has expertise in neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, and is interested in researching how acupuncture may affect the non-motor symptoms that patients suffer from, such as depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

“Some preliminary studies have shown the positive effect of acupuncture on insomnia is statistically significant,” he says.

In the future, he would also like to work closely with cancer patients, to help them regain some of the energy lost during chemotherapy – similar to his mother’s experience.

Simmons thinks it’s very important to bring acupuncture to an academic medical center like UConn, so medical students and residents are exposed to it first hand.

“Describing acupuncture in a classroom doesn’t have the same impact as when you are actually treating a patient and watch the tension underneath your hand just go away,” he says.

“People don’t believe it until they see it.”