Eastern medicine meets the Old West

Ancient healing method offers alternative to traditional medicine


Rita Petersen smiled serenely as the acupuncturist placed a needle right between her eyes. She said she felt completely relaxed.

Petersen, a chiropractor at Naturally Fine Herbs in downtown Craig, didn't have any morning clients, so she happily accepted Barbara Fix's offer for an acupuncture treatment, partly as a demonstration, but mostly because she loves the feeling of it.

Fix, a state certified practitioner of holistic Eastern medicine, opened shop at Naturally Fine Herbs the week of Christmas, becoming Craig's only acupuncturist.

Acupuncture first appeared in China 5,000 years ago. The ancient Chinese mapped the meridians, or pathways, that channel the body's energy, called Qi, (pronounced chee), and identified 365 access points to these pathways. The goal of acupuncture is to move or gather energy to eliminate energy blockages, or improve areas where someone is weak or deficient. One method is to access these points with the use of needles.

"Acupuncture treats the root of a problem," Fix said. Patients are sometimes surprised when they complain of foot pain and Fix places needles in their stomach and by their left eye. But because energy flows throughout the body, a block in one place can cause a problem in another. Fix treated a sore throat by placing needles at the base of a patient's thumbs.

Since August, Fix has been practicing holistic medicine at the East West Center in Steamboat Springs. But there are already six acupuncturists working there, so Dr. Russ Fasolino, director of the center, suggested she try to open a market in Craig.

"Even though it's a real conservative town, I think people will take to it," Fasolino said. In his seven years experience as a practitioner of Chinese medicine, Fasolino has come to believe Eastern medicine works better than Western medicine.

Fix works in Craig on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and spends the rest of her week at the East West Center.

She begins an acupuncture session by thoroughly interviewing the patient, inquiring about their body temperature, diet, sweating, exercise and sleep habits, energy patterns, urination, bowel movements, menstrual cycles and emotional states.

But because she knows Petersen, Fix abbreviated the interview session and skipped to the observation process. As she does for all her patients, she observed Petersen's facial color, tone of voice, posture and the coating on her tongue, and checked the quality of her pulse.

"I feel kind of hairy. My energy is out here," Petersen said, gesturing to the area about a foot away from her head, "instead of in here." She put her hands to her chest.

Placing three fingers on each of Petersen's wrists, Fix sensed that Petersen's left pulse was slightly stronger than her right. The veins under Petersen's tongue appeared to be pale and slightly swollen, a sign of blood stagnation.

Fix, who earned her master's degree at the Southwest Acupuncture College in Boulder, diagnosed Peterson with a spleen imbalance and chose to give her a balancing treatment.

Acupuncturists diagnose their patients with imbalances of body organs, but the diagnosis reflects more on the essence of the organ, rather than the organ itself. Through years of diagnosis, Fix said, the Chinese discovered groups of effects that represent a given organ.

For example, symptoms of an unbalanced liver include digestive problems, irritability, stress, difficulty sleeping, and bad PMS. The liver directs the flow of energy in the body, and when it is in balance, stress levels are maintained and patients sleep through the night and wake feeling refreshed.

Fix diagnosed Petersen as spleen because of her tongue symptoms, pale skin, and nurturing, mothering personality, both qualities of the spleen.

Fix started the treatment by leveling Petersen's pulse. She placed two of her smallest needles in Petersen's oscillation points, the small flap-like pieces of cartilage that protect the ear canal. She removed the needle from its tube with two quick taps that also got the needle through Petersen's skin. With a couple slight turns, Fix secured the needle in place.

She next freed up Petersen's Qi by accessing 'the four gates', points on the hands and feet that channel Qi.

When the needle first breaks the skin, the patient feels a small stinging sensation. When it goes in a little deeper, the needle produces a heavy, leaden feeling that's not entirely unpleasant.

"I'm aware of the needles, but they don't hurt in any way," Petersen said. "I feel heavier but more relaxed. The stress is coming out of my head and shoulders."

Fix placed eight needles in a ring around Petersen's belly button, a technique called the Bagua (pronounced baw-gwaw), which is used to center a patient's energy. The belly button is your core, Fix said. It's where a baby's umbilical cord is connected, and accessing those points can bring a patient back to the time when they were in the womb.

Fix placed two needles in hot spots on her ankles to balance out her spleen, and Petersen said she could feel her energy flowing directly to those points. The last needle went right between her eyes, accessing a calming point.

Fix left Petersen alone to relax for the next 20 minutes. While lying on the chiropractic table with the needles at the various access points, patients can feel energy circulating through the body. This can continue for the rest of the day after a treatment. For a minute, there might be a rushing sensation down the legs. Then there could be a surge in the heels, and an easing of the shoulder muscles.

Once the needles are removed, the heavy sensation leaves the body, replaced by a light looseness of limb and a bounce in the step. There's a desire to smile.

Usually, Fix's patients have several organs out of balance, so diagnoses can sometimes be complicated. She prefers to treat patients with a variety of techniques. If all her patients were open to it, she'd treat them with herbs, which are mixed with water to form a drink.

Many patients come to Fix for help with back pain, PMS, digestive complaints and emotional difficulties. Fix said acupuncture can be very effective in treating all these ailments.

"It's very effective, but I say I'd love for you to be under the care of a physician, too," Fix said. If someone comes to her with something as serious as cancer, she can still help them, but has them sign a form saying she asked them to seek the help of a doctor.

Besides herbs, Fix uses moxa, a granulated herb called artemisia that comes in a hardened tube or in loose sponge-like clumps, on about 90 percent of her patients. Fix adheres moxa to the patients skin with a sticky pad and burns it until the patient feels their skin growing warm.

"It's very nourishing. It's great for chronic pain, to support the body and facilitate healing," Fix said.

One of her mostly fondly recalled success stories is of a patient who suffered severe knee pain that was almost arthritic in quality. Fix treated her with moxa, sent her home with some to administer herself, and the next morning the patient jumped from bed and reported that all her pain was gone. She felt no aches, no creaking.

Fix will treat anyone from newborns to the elderly, and she doesn't use needles for all cases. Indeed, many of Fix's treatments don't involve needles at all.

For newborns, she massages the access points, which is all babies need because they're so sensitive.

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