Acupuncturist Laurel Irons sees a similarity between herself and an electrician. In acupuncture, the point you work on may be removed from, but connected to the point you want to help.
“I think a lot of what I do is like being and electrician, but for the body,” she says. “In the same way that you turn on the light switch over here, but it turns on [the light] over there, I can hit a switch, an acupuncture point like an ear or something, but the message will travel to the liver or the lungs or something like that.”
Diagrams on the walls of the Okanagan-Similkameen Community Acupuncture clinic on Main Street Osoyoos clinic show the ear with many dozens of points tied to such organs and body functions as the liver, the stomach, lungs, heart, mouth, intestine and thirst mechanism.
Very fine needles are used on these acupuncture points to trigger the appropriate response in the organ.
Irons says magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used to demonstrate the effectiveness of this technique. Scientists can see the with the MRI the points in the brain that respond when different acupuncture points are stimulated.
“For example, there’s a point on the wrist, it’s for digestion,” she said. “They’ve been able to show – and there are studies – that they can stimulate that point and watch the area of the brain that deals specifically with the secretion of stomach acid. That part lights up.”
Irons, who lives in Keremeos, began a clinic in that community almost eight years ago. A few years later, she opened a second location in Osoyoos. Last September, she moved to the present location at 8714 Main Street across from Town Hall.
In February, she began offering a weekly clinic on Tuesdays at the Zen and Fitness Centre at 1134 Cedar Street in Okanagan Falls, across from the community recreation centre.
“We’re going to be there once a week, so we’re open for bookings now,” Irons said.
Irons has another acupuncturist, Sherri Prechel, an employee, so one can work in Osoyoos and the other in Okanagan Falls on Tuesdays, a day when both clinics are open.
Besides acupuncture, Irons works with other techniques of Chinese traditional medicine such as cupping and moxibustion. Cupping involves using glass cups on the body to create suction, and moxibustion uses herbs and heat over acupuncture points – like acupuncture without needles.
She’s also trained as a Western herbalist and works extensively with herbs as tinctures or dried.
So what led her to pursue a career in acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicines?
Irons said she was starting to gravitate towards natural health and was working in organic gardening on Vancouver Island in the late 1990s. She took a course on massage out of interest, and the instructor’s husband had a drop-in acupuncture clinic in Victoria, so she gave it a try – her first experience with acupuncture. She was impressed with the results, and she saw its potential for cost-effective and efficient treatment.
“I’m part Japanese, so that sort of blends with my natural leanings anyway,” she said. “I didn’t grow up knowing it, but I took to it very quickly.”
So she applied for a five-year doctorate program at Vancouver’s Tzu Chi Institute, got accepted, and it changed her life. She graduated from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctorate Diploma Program in 2004 and has continued to study Chinese and Japanese traditional medicine.
Acupuncture is more effective for some conditions than others. Depending on whether it’s an acute or chronic condition, the number and frequency of treatments might be different, said Irons.
The number one reason people seek acupuncture is for pain, she said. But it can also treat internal health by working with the body’s own healing mechanisms.
“Anything that the body can do on its own, we just support,” she added.
What it can’t do is change structural conditions that are permanent. For example, it can’t make an arthritic condition with calcification of the bone go away.
“What we do is improve the quality of life,” she said.
Sometimes people are undergoing aggressive treatments for such a condition and acupuncture can address unwanted effects of those treatments.
It is often used to address addictions. Acupuncture points on the ear, which are close to the brain, may reduce cravings, stress, and improve a person’s wellbeing and ability to sleep, and it can support the body’s own detoxification process, she added.
Not everyone responds to acupuncture, but Irons said that can be a question of whether they had the right treatment or enough treatments. There may be some other barriers in the way.
For example, someone who gets acupuncture to lose weight and then eats three cheeseburgers may not experience the desired effect from acupuncture.
“Part of what we do is an intense intake and consultation process to look at the whole health picture and see what all the factors are,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not the right treatment. If I take my car to the shop and want my oil changed and they give me new windshield wipers instead, I don’t say mechanics don’t work.”
If someone comes in with an acute injury, acupuncture might make a radical change requiring only three to six treatments. On the other hand, someone with a chronic condition such as arthritis or diabetes may need to come in once a month.
Acupuncture may be subsidized by the B.C. Medical Services Plan (MSP) for low-income people, and in some cases ICBC and WorkSafe BC may cover it as well. Most private or supplemental insurance covers it as well, Irons said.
Irons has also run community acupuncture both in the Okanagan and elsewhere to reduce fees. By working with a group of people who receive acupuncture together, she can serve 10 instead of one or two in the same amount of time, and so charge significantly less.
For this reason, she often works with organizations and groups, even in remote communities, often going to them.
“Historically I’ve done a lot of community work before the pandemic,” she said. “I’m looking forward to doing that again as things open up and become safer.”
Okanagan-Similkameen Community Acupuncture
8714 Main Street
Osoyoos, BC V0H 1V0
623 7th Avenue
Keremeos, BC V0X 1N0
Story and photos by Richard McGuire