Walla Walla acupuncturist aims to head off medical woes

After a charity stint in Nepal, Lindsey Thompson opened a clinic in Walla Walla.

Lindsey Thompson works with a patient in Nepal during a recent visit to the country.

Lindsey Thompson works with a patient in Nepal during a recent visit to the country. Courtesy photo

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WALLA WALLA — People who downplay the healing power of acupuncture are missing the point, says Lindsey Thompson.

“You might think that to stick needles into someone to make them feel better might sound strange,” she said. But acupuncture, Chinese medicine and herbal medicine have been practiced for thousands of years, with great success.

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Lindsey Thompson palpates for the acupuncture point “zusanli” or “three leg mile” while preparing to place a needle there. This point is associated with, among other things, regulating the digestive system, strengthening the immune system and helping to build stamina, Thompson said.

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The clinics where Thompson’s group worked in Nepal were “high volume, group clinics, meaning as soon as you finished acupuncture with one patient, you moved onto the next person sitting right next to you,” she said. “In Nepal, there is little privacy in everyone’s daily life, so the patients responded well in this setting.”

Last month Thompson opened her acupuncture clinic, Thompson Family Acupuncture, at 120 E. Birch St., Suite 8. She loves the space and she’s getting referrals from area doctors.

According to Thompson, Chinese medicine is seen as a preventive medicine. The idea is to intervene before your body gets so badly out of balance that something goes seriously wrong.

But “here in the U.S., we don’t use health professionals to maintain at a healthy level to keep people fine-tuned so they don’t get a major illness,” she said.

Thompson recently returned from Nepal, where she participated in the Acupuncture Relief Project. “I was fresh out of school to provide service in hands-on clinical hours,” she said.

“I spent 10 weeks in Nepal and did clinical work for eight weeks. The number of patients varied from 12 to 28, I worked with about 500 patients, a year’s worth of patients in eight weeks. That was more than my clinical year. It was a great experience, really exciting.”

Thompson said it was the dry season, the winter wedding season in a very political new democracy with no constitution and 100 political parties, all wanting power. There were periodic road strikes, where roads were blocked with crowds and no vehicles could go through.

“Some days you couldn’t treat anybody,” she said.

Patients in Nepal are very motivated to get better. “They have to get better right away. Most are subsistence farmers who work really hard physical labor. If they need wood for a fire they have to get it. If they need food they have to grow it, no matter what pain level,” she said.

Because of the nature of their labor, she saw a lot of knee, neck, shoulder and back pain. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, and many suffering from injuries and pain don’t have access to any medical care.

While there, Thompson’s group was obliged to serve as primary care physicians. She said she has been trained to recognize the red flags to refer a patient to a primary care doctor.

“I love collaborating with medical doctors,” she said. “The goal is optimal health care for the patient. There are certain things about health care that are universal. People in chronic pain have good days and bad days that affect the quality of life; it affects your whole demeanor,” she said. “It’s hard to be graceful in pain.”

Thompson’s personal history with acupuncture and herbal medicine dates back to high school in Port Angeles, Wash., when she had a serious back injury that made it difficult for her to walk for more than five minutes.

“Every day I drove by this acupuncture clinic,” she said. In constant pain, she decided it was time to try it out. Thompson got great results and started seeing even more health improvements beyond her mending back. “Because of all the other health benefits, I kept on seeing her,” Thompson said.

Thompson went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in studio arts in 2007 from Whitman College, with an assortment of classes backing it in politics, environmental studies and geology. After taking a year off she enrolled in the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland where she got her master’s degree in 2012. The masters program at Oregon College includes courses in herbal medicine.

“I love herbal medicine. A few conditions respond better with that,” she said. “It’s something patients can do for themselves daily and increase the benefits.” Acupuncture might not be covered by insurance, so in some cases taking an herbal supplement might be simpler and less expensive, she said.

Patients come to acupuncture and herbal medicine for any number of complaints, from insomnia to women’s health issues to pain management. Some people are concerned about the long-term effects of over-the-counter medications, and seek alternatives.

Acupuncture can combat stress and fear, which can lead to illness, Thompson said.

“I took a great survey in psych class, a ranking of events causing stress. Even good events cause stress. Acupuncture can help with stress management,” she said. Over time, people can train themselves to be in a relaxed state more often.

One of the main ways acupuncture helps with stress management is that it helps your sympathetic nervous system, she said. It helps manage the fight-or-flight response.

Constantly being in a panic mode, at your desk for eight hours a day in a fight-or-flight emotional state, uses up resources you need to maintain healthfulness.

“It takes blood away from the digestive system and sends it to the muscles in case we have to flee. The body pumps out epinephrine and cortisol, and uses up resources,” she said.

“Some people are more naturally predisposed to that, and it creates a hardship on our bodies. It causes so many things, a domino effect,” she said. “So many things are cumulative.” Chronic fatigue, depression, irritable bowel syndrome — many of these illnesses have roots in constantly being stuck in the sympathetic system, she said.

Chinese medicine anthropomorphizes organs, giving them names and personalities. For example, the stomach is the sensitive organ. “If your boss is unhappy with you, you may have experienced that gut-clenching response to stress,” she said.

“The digestive system needs time to be restful,” she said. When you’re more relaxed, the digestion works properly, she said. The state of relaxation changes where blood flows and even how you sweat.

Although acupuncture and Chinese medicine are different from traditional Western medicine, the treatment is medical, not spiritual, Thompson said. It’s not a religion, so it shouldn’t conflict with anyone’s specific faith.

She gets referrals from area doctors and said she’s seen a lot of acceptance here. What matters is patient care, she said, and Eastern and Western medicines can work together.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at karleneponti@wwub.com or 509-526-8324.

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