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Five people sleeping during acupuncture treatment, covered in red blankets, lying in recliners arranged in a semi-circle.

Trauma-Informed Care & Community Acupuncture

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

by Stef Cordes and Lisa Baird

(This is an adapted version of a longer article on Liberation Acupuncture.)

What is trauma? Trauma Informed Oregon provides this definition:

“Trauma is a wound. Typically trauma refers to either a physical injury, such as a broken bone, or an emotional state of profound and prolonged distress in response to an overwhelmingly terrifying or unstable experience. Some trauma … heal relatively quickly, some heal slowly, and many influence life going forward, like scars. Scars and trauma do not result in defects or deficiencies; rather they are markers of life experience one has survived.

What is trauma-informed care?

Trauma Informed Care (TIC):

  • Recognizes the widespread impact of trauma
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Actively resists re-traumatizing people
  • Tries to restore a sense of safety

What does this have to do with community acupuncture?

Acupuncture can help us recover from trauma. Research has begun to suggest that acupuncture is an effective treatment for the impacts of traumatic stress. We have certainly noticed for our patients as well as ourselves the benefits of acupuncture for integrating and healing from trauma.

Given how widespread trauma is in our society, we know that many of our patients have trauma histories, whether or not we discuss it. Community acupuncture is designed to be safer for people with current and/or past traumas. Guelph Community Acupuncture is a trauma-informed clinic.

How is community acupuncture trauma-informed?

A safer space for healing

At GCA our clients are rarely alone with a practitioner. Your entire visit (forms, payment, intake, needling, etc) happens out in the open in our clinic. We have a large, open treatment room; we’re going for a soothing community atmosphere, not a biomedical one. People who are nervous or unsure about acupuncture often come for treatment with a friend or family member, which creates additional emotional support and feelings of safety.

Our treatment style: no needles in the pain

Acupuncture has been practiced in many different ways all over the world for at least 2,000 years. The community acupuncture model did not invent any clinical strategies for acupuncture, but we like to use so-called “distal points” as opposed to “local points”. For example, there are a number of popular distal point strategies for the treatment of back pain which focus on acupuncture points on the hands, feet, and head rather than on the back itself. Distal points work well in our treatment room where patients are being treated in recliners and are not removing their clothes. In community acupuncture clinics, the points that are most often chosen are located below the elbows, below the knees, and on the head and ears.

Your choice

When you enter our clinic, you choose what you can afford to pay on our sliding scale. You pick which recliner you want to sit in, and whether you want to recline or not, and how long you want to retain your needles. We offer some suggestion as to the length of your stay, and where the needles are placed may be a topic of discussion between the practitioner and the patient, but the patient always has the final say. (If you don’t want to take your socks off, no problem! We can always pick different points.) We will also suggest when or how often you should come in for another treatment, but whether or not you come in more or less frequently is up to you. Our setting emphasizes that our patients are active participants and recognizes that a sense of control over the treatment plan is an important part to the healing process for many of us.

We’re very predictable

Patients can know what to expect by observing what is happening. When our clinic runs as it should, there are rarely any surprises. Being a low-cost, high volume clinic with almost no advertising budget means that we rely on word of mouth to stay open. People need to be able to explain to friends & family what to expect if they come to us for acupuncture, and we need to be transparent and predictable — otherwise word of mouth marketing doesn’t work and our clinic won’t last.

Treatments here are simple. The patient arrives, checks in, settles into a recliner, the practitioner finds them and asks “What can I do for you today?” there is a brief whispered conversation, the patient relaxes for anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, the practitioner takes the needles out, the patient leaves. Community acupuncture is very predictable. This gives everyone a sense that they have control and autonomy over their treatment.

We practice respect, compassion and non-judgment

There is a long tradition of dietary therapy and lifestyle practices associated with Chinese medicine, and some kinds of acupuncture treatment include diet & lifestyle coaching. While many patients find such conversations helpful, many others do not. Some acupuncturists feel such pressure to deliver results that they begin to push their patients hard to make changes, even engaging in subtle forms of shaming. “I just can’t help you if you don’t help yourself,” is a common refrain. (Ugh!)

What community acupuncturists have found is that acupuncture alone can often help, whether or not patients make lifestyle changes. Acupuncture quells inflammation, reduces pain & stress and helps people to sleep. Regular acupuncture treatment often brings about lifestyle changes just because acupuncture fosters mind-body connection. The community acupuncture model explicitly discourages giving lifestyle advice and is designed to avoid interpersonal pressure of any kind. We think this is helpful to everyone, but perhaps especially to those of us with trauma histories.

Our setting won’t work for everyone with a trauma history, because everyone is different and will have their own unique triggers. But we work this way because it tends to be safe-enough for as many people as possible. We also notice that when a space is designed to be trauma-informed, it tends to work better for everyone, regardless of their history.

If you have questions about our clinic and trauma-informed care, please get in touch. We are also open to any suggestions on how to make our space feel safer for you.

Five people sleeping during acupuncture treatment, covered in red blankets, lying in recliners arranged in a semi-circle.

People sleeping in our treatment room (photo by David James Hudson)

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GIA