When Gailon Wixson Pursley came to Seattle Children’s, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk. At 19 years old, Gailon was diagnosed with sarcoma, an aggressive cancerous tumor in her hip flexor muscle.
Gailon’s treatment plan included surgery to remove the large tumor, radiation and chemotherapy, along with a long list of medications to help manage the side effects of her diagnosis and treatments.
Gailon’s mom, Yvette Wixson, asked whether another treatment was available for her daughter: acupuncture. To Yvette’s delight, the answer was yes.
Seattle Children’s inpatient acupuncture program began as a six-month pilot in January 2014. During the pilot, acupuncturists were available four hours a day, five days a week. Before the pilot, acupuncture was available to outpatients, but only on a sporadic, ad-hoc basis for inpatients.
The pilot was so successful that the Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine Department turned it into a fully funded program that offers acupuncture to inpatients eight hours a day, five days a week. Seattle Children’s is one of just a few top pediatric hospitals in the U.S. with an inpatient acupuncture program.
A complementary treatment
Acupuncture at Seattle Children’s involves applying needles, magnets and/or manual pressure (called acupressure) to specific points throughout the body to stimulate those areas. The treatment can help with a number of problems hospitalized patients experience, including pain, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, depression and more.
Yvette knows first-hand how beneficial acupuncture can be for cancer patients. While undergoing breast cancer treatment two years ago, she received acupuncture to manage the side effects. “It helped a great deal,” says Yvette. “Not just with pain, but also with fatigue.”
Gailon first used acupuncture at Seattle Children’s to relieve the discomfort caused by her tumor. “Acupuncture and acupressure helped manage the pain in addition to some of the other ways to manage pain,” says Gailon.
Dr. Ane Lynn, who has been a Seattle Children’s anesthesiologist since 1981 and more recently became certified as a medical acupuncturist, is the supervising physician of the inpatient acupuncture program. “I don’t look at acupuncture as a substitute for other treatments,” says Lynn. “I look at it as complementary.”
All surgical and pharmacological treatments come with side effects or risks. That’s true of acupuncture, too, says Lynn, but the risks are very small, and the interaction with drugs is nil.
“Once I started chemo, I would get really nauseous,” says Gailon. During chemotherapy treatments, acupuncturists Elizabeth (Liz) Artola and Jaime Ralston-Wilson applied pressure to certain points on Gailon’s body to help alleviate her nausea. “Once I knew where the pressure points were for nausea, I could apply pressure myself to help with nausea if we were out,” says Gailon.
Show and tell
Zachary Wildin was 18 when he came to Seattle Children’s showing signs of brainstem encephalitis. “I wasn’t in good shape,” says Zachary. “I couldn’t walk, couldn’t see straight, couldn’t breathe… it was a long list of symptoms.”
In the hospital, Zachary had trouble sleeping. His mom, Lisa, says he was on three or four medications just for sleep. Zachary’s care team mentioned acupuncture as another treatment option, and though he had no experience with it, Zachary was willing to try.
“After acupuncture, I remember instantly being able to sleep a lot better,” he says. Zachary went from sleeping three hours a night to six. “Getting more sleep definitely seemed to help with everything else,” he says.
Ralston-Wilson and Artola say a lot of the patients they see are unfamiliar with acupuncture.
“Sometimes patients just want to ask questions or see the needles in person, because in their mind, they imagine a really big needle,” says Artola.
The acupuncturist’s first visit often involves explaining the treatment, answering questions, showing the instruments they use and even demonstrating techniques on themselves.
“In inpatient settings, patients are so often at the mercy of what needs to be done, but with acupuncture, patients and families can be in control of their care,” says Ralston-Wilson. “If they want to think about it and try one needle, they can try one needle. If they want us to place a needle in our own arms, we’re happy to do that so they can see what it looks like.”
Next up: Research
Lynn, Ralston-Wilson and Artola see the benefits of acupuncture every day, but very little research exists to support using it for different complaints in kids and teens. They want to change that.
- The three acupuncturists are collaborating with other teams at Seattle Children’s to investigate how acupuncture can complement and integrate with other treatments to benefit patients. One research project is already in the works and at least one other proposal is planned: The team is collaborating with Audiology to investigate whether acupuncture can be used to sedate patients (versus anesthesia) for the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) audiology exam.
- In 2015, the team hopes to submit a proposal investigating acupuncture as a non-pharmacologic therapy for post-operative pain and comfort in infants.
“These are incredible opportunities and we really appreciate the openness of teams in investigating complementary treatments like acupuncture that might be helpful for their patients,” says Ralston-Wilson.