Sticking it to pain


Craig Houchen, a traditional Chinese medicine acupuncturist, is part of the team heading up a clinical trial at Saint Mary’s Health Care. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Physicians at Saint Mary’s Health Care have joined a national clinical trial studying the effects of 12 weeks of acupuncture on joint pain related to aromotase inhibitors used in early-stage breast cancer treatment for women.

The study involves three groups: a waitlist control group that does not receive acupuncture treatment and two groups that receive treatments. In reality, however, one of those two groups is receiving “sham acupuncture,” in which the acupuncture needles are not inserted in the precise locations that control joint pain.

The sham acupuncture is equivalent to placebos that are randomly administered to some patients in clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals.

The acupuncture study is being led at Saint Mary’s by Craig Houchen, O.M.D., a traditional Chinese medicine acupuncturist, and Gil Padula, M.D., a radiation oncologist at The Lacks Cancer Center at Saint Mary’s and principal investigator for the Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology Program.

Houchen (the O.M.D. stands for oriental medical doctor) has been on staff at Saint Mary’s for almost eight years and has held the legal status of certified acupuncturist in the U.S. since 2002. He is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Before joining Saint Mary’s, he had an acupuncture practice in New Orleans but his clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Prior to that he was part of a team working near Boulder, Colo. He is a board-certified acupuncturist and a member of several acupuncture associations, and formerly sat on the state board of acupuncture for Michigan. He attended the Colorado School of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the International Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and South West Acupuncture College, and studied at The China Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.

Houchen believes as Western medicine is complemented more and more with traditional, holistic practices, the better the quality of care will be for the patient.

“For years, I have been effectively treating women who experience joint pain as a side effect of their AI medications. When I was approached by GRCOP to help lead our team for this study, I was excited about the opportunity to further contribute to the science base and outcomes related to the use of acupuncture,” said Houchen, who is the medical director of The Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit at Saint Mary’s. Houchen received specialized training at Columbia University Medical Center in New York in preparation for participation in the clinical trial.

Saint Mary’s, through membership with GRCOP, is one of six sites in the nation and the only community hospital selected to participate in this National Cancer Institute-funded study. Other sites include Columbia University Medical Center, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Kaiser Permanente Northern California, Oregon Health and Sciences University and University of Southern California.

Previous studies have found benefit in acupuncture for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee and low back pain.

“I’m optimistic. I know it can work,” said Houchen.

“I feel that the more evidence-based research that traditional Chinese medicine can be involved with, the more physicians will understand the real value behind what their patients are asking for. Chinese medicine in this country is a consumer-driven market. People want alternatives to pharmaceuticals and surgeries, or at least some options to deal with some of the negative side effects that they may experience from them if they are the only solutions to their condition.”

Several patients already are enrolled locally in the clinical trial. More are welcome to apply. Post-menopausal women who are taking an aromatase inhibitor for early-stage breast cancer and are having joint pain or stiffness may be considered for enrollment in the clinical trial. Each must be willing to undergo acupuncture treatments twice each week for six weeks, then once a week for six weeks. Women who are interested should call the Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology Program at (616) 391-1230.

After the study is completed, every participant, including those in the waitlist control group, will receive a voucher for 10 acupuncture treatments at Saint Mary’s for their joint pain.

The Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology Program is a consortium funded by a federal National Cancer Institute CCOP grant since 1983. The consortium includes Saint Mary’s Health Care, Spectrum Health Hospitals, Van Andel Research Institute, Mercy Health Partners, Battle Creek Health System and Munson Medical Center. The Mecosta County Medical Center is an affiliate member.

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