Julie Brand awoke in the middle of the night with severe pain shooting down her right leg. The 3D-year-old software developer thought she had strained a muscle during a weekend hike. She took aspirin, but it didn't help. So after a few days, she went to see her doctor, Leslie Vensel, M.D., at the Spence Center for Women's Health, a primary-care clinic near her home in Boston.
Dr. Vensel diagnosed sciatica-a pinched or compressed sciatic nerve, which causes lower-back and leg pain. She prescribed stronger pain relievers and a week of bed rest. They didn't help either. So Dr. Vensel referred Brand to Tammy Martin, M.D., the Spence Center's staff orthopedist. A magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) ordered by Dr. Martin showed a herniated disk, which was putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. Dr. Martin prescribed additional anti inflammatory and pain medication plus physical therapy.
"The treatments helped somewhat. I became more mobile," Brand recalls. "But after 5 months, I was still hurting. I hated it. One day I was a healthy person, and the next I was looking at a lifetime of chronic pain and disability. It was very depressing."
Then Brand's cousin, a nurse, suggested that she try acupuncture. "I was never into alternative medicine, but some of my friends had gotten good results from acupuncture," Brand says. "So I figured, why not? I had nothing to lose."
But how could she find someone qualified to administer the ancient Chinese needle therapy? She decided to consult Dr. Vensel. "When I told her about my interest in acupuncture, she said, 'Funny, I was just about to suggest it to you;" Brand says. "Then she blew my mind by referring me to the Spence Center's own staff acupuncturist-Yao Zhang, D.O.M., a doctor of oriental medicine from China. I couldn't believe they had an acupuncturist right there."
In the Spence Center's acupuncture treatment room, Brand lay on her left side as Dr. Zhang inserted a dozen slim, sterile needles into her feet, thighs, buttocks, and back. "It was like getting a vaccination," Brand says. "The needles smarted, but only for a second." And any momentary discomfort was far outweighed by the results: She felt less pain the morning after her first treatment.
Brand received acupuncture treatments twice a week for a month. Her pain subsided, and she cut back on her medication. After the sciatica seemed gone for good, she continued getting treatments once a week for a few months to prevent a recurrence. After that, she went in for an acupuncture "tune-up" once every few months. Today, she sees Dr. Zhang only on those rare occasions when twinges of pain resurface.
What first attracted Brand to the Spence Center was its convenient location and its inclusion on her HMO's list of approved providers. But until her referral to Dr. Zhang, she had no idea that the clinic offered alternative therapies-acupuncture, chiropractic, nutrition counseling, massage therapy, and Chinese herbal medicine-in addition to a broad range of mainstream therapies.
Now Brand is sold on acupuncture for sciatic pain-and on the Spence Center's blending of mainstream and alternative medicine. "All of the practitioners work closely together. They talk to each other all the time. That means better-coordinated care," she says. "And all of my records are right there. Everything is under one roof. I think everyone should have access to this kind of medical care."
Spence Center founder Rilla Spence would likely agree. The former president and chief executive officer of Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, Spence says she opened her clinic because she believes that the best medical care comes from blending mainstream medicine and alternative therapies.