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Local Doctor Helps Chronic Pain Patients Find Relief with Acupuncture

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(Photo: Dr. Kristen Bell treats her patient, Douglas Shamberger with acupuncture. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

Whether it’s fixing broken bones or treating a sinus infection, western medicine usually has the answer. But some say when it comes to managing chronic pain, western medicine falls a little bit short. A doctor at San Diego’s VA Medical system is using an eastern alternative to help her patients. KPBS Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

If you want to find patients with chronic pain, come to the VA Medical Center in La Jolla. Veterans from all over the region come to this hospital for treatment. Every year, thousands of them have surgery. Many more are seen as outpatients.

Up on the 4th floor, there’s a primary care clinic. Once a week, Dr. Kristin Bell sets up shop here. Most of the time, Dr. Bell works as an internist at a VA clinic in Vista.

Today, she’s come to help patients manage their chronic pain. But she won’t use any western medical techniques. Instead, Dr. Bell will stick tiny needles all over a patient’s body.

Dr. Bell says her interest in acupuncture began when she was a medical resident in San Francisco. She started to think about some things that were missing in western medicine.

Bell:   And pain control being one of the most important things that we didn’t have a lot of new things to offer. So in San Francisco, I had quite a few patients that were Chinese, and they were seeing acupuncture results for their pain.

That piqued Bell’s interest. So she got trained in acupuncture. She later settled in San Diego, and started to work in the VA system. Bell noticed many of her patients struggled with pain.  

Four years ago, Bell came up with idea of starting an acupuncture clinic at the VA Medical Center. At first, hospital administrators were reluctant. They were concerned it would siphon resources from other departments. But Bell says she convinced them patients wouldn’t need as many injections, special treatments, or even surgeries.

Bell: So in the long run it actually was cost effective. I’ve had a lot of patients that were online for you know, knee replacements or invasive procedures for back pain or neck pain, and ended up not having to do those, because they’re getting the relief they need through acupuncture.  

Bell and patient: So tell me, I know it’s been a few weeks since our last treatment. How’s everything been going with you and your pain? Well, the left shoulder is not as bad as it was when I was here with you last time….Okay, great. So the left shoulder and we were also working on your knee…. 

Dr. Bell gets a lot of patient referrals from other physicians at the VA. Orthopedic surgeon Yu-Po Lee likes to send patients Bell’s way. Dr. Lee says sometimes people have problems that are just too extensive for surgery to treat.

  Lee: This is a condition where we know no matter what we do we can never really completely alleviate all their pain, but with a modality like acupuncture, we can hopefully reduce some of it. 

Patient Douglas Shamberger says when he gets done with a treatment, he feels like a million bucks.

Shamberger: After I leave, for the next couple of days, I’m going to be like a new person. So, if I could get acupuncture every day, I’d rejuvenate myself.

Dr. Bell says she’s getting great results from acupuncture. And she says it does more than just relieve pain.

Bell: A lot of patients tell me that their general well-being and their mood and their sleep are improved. So it’s not just the pain but it has a more global effect. And I think that is one of the great things I can offer with my treatments, is that someone just feels better, not just that their pain’s gone, but their well-being is improved. Which is really a great gift.     

The American Medical Association recently gave Dr. Bell their Young Physician Award. The honor was for her work in helping veterans with chronic pain.

One of Bell’s patients nominated her for the award.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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