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Adding acupuncture to the doctor’s bag

Family doctor offering traditional Chinese remedies alongside Western medicine at Mount Pleasant office

Closeup of an acupuncture needle in a man's forehead
Christopher Hafer gets acupuncture by Dr. Christopher Bunt. Photo by Sarah Pack 
Leslie Cantu | cantul@musc.edu | Dec. 7, 2018

Family medicine doctor Christopher Bunt, M.D., is bringing some of the skills he picked up in the military to his civilian patients at MUSC – namely, acupuncture. The ancient Chinese medical treatment is something he first began to practice in the Air Force, where he learned a version termed “battlefield acupuncture.”

Essentially, he said, Air Force doctors were looking for some type of pain management besides morphine, which makes people drowsy and unable to perform their duties. The battlefield acupuncture protocol is to insert semi-permanent needles that resemble stud earrings into the ears, where they remain two to five days before falling out on their own. Bunt took a course and began practicing and soon found himself using it for all manner of aches and pains. “It was working. It was amazing,” he said. 

When Bunt was ready to leave active duty, seven academic medical centers offered him positions. But it was MUSC’s Terrence Steyer, M.D., chairman of the Department of Family Medicine, who agreed to enroll Bunt in a 300-hour medical acupuncture course, so Bunt could add medical acupuncture to the list of options he can offer patients. Bunt completed the course in 2017 and is now offering a half-day acupuncture clinic every Thursday at Ben Sawyer Primary Care in Mount Pleasant. 

One of his first patients was Christopher Hafer, who works for MUSC Information Solutions.

Hafer enjoys judo, but his judo training has exacerbated some old injuries, and he wants to avoid surgery. When he saw that Bunt was offering acupuncture, he decided to give it a try. 

Bunt placed solid rounded needles in Hafer’s scalp, hands and feet. Because he doesn’t use piercing needles, like those used for injections, they don’t hurt, Bunt said. They won’t puncture a blood vessel but will instead push it out of the way. Also, the acupuncture points mapped out by Chinese medicine aren’t near large blood vessels or nerves. Patients should feel an achy sensation.

In addition to acupuncture, Bunt offers Gua Sha, or scraping, and cupping, which was widely publicized during the 2016 Summer Olympics. Hafer took advantage of Bunt’s expertise in scraping. Bunt ran the side of a ceramic soup spoon along Hafer’s skin to release tension deep in the tissue. The procedure leaves dramatic red marks on the skin but Bunt says it improves range of motion. After his session, Hafer reported he felt relaxed and no longer had the pulling sensation that had been bothering him. 

the scraping procedure

Bunt uses a ceramic Chinese soup spoon to "scrape" Hafer's skin, pressing deep into the tissue, in a procedure called Gua Sha. Photo by Sarah Pack

Acupuncture and other complementary medicine have increased in popularity in the West in the past few decades. One paper estimated that 10 million acupuncture treatments are administered in the U.S. each year. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health says research indicates acupuncture can help with pain management, but scientists are still grappling with how it works. 

The Eastern explanations of yin and yang don’t translate well to Western ideas about scientific process. But Bunt has seen the benefits up close, in patients who’ve gone from using handicapped parking and barely able to complete grocery shopping to walking normally and able to enjoy life.  Bunt said one of the benefits of being a medical acupuncturist is it allows him to combine the best of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine to treat his patients. 

“Regardless of whether I’m in the acupuncture clinic, I try to help my patients get better or more healthy. If that “more healthy” involves acupuncture, I’m going to offer that to them. If it involves me prescribing a medication or physical therapy or referring them to a specialist for a consult, I’m going to offer that to them. If it’s some combination, then I’ll offer both,” he said. 

Bunt thinks it’s a good option for a lot of people, because there are generally no side effects to acupuncture.

“My big concern about acupuncture is people think about it as a last resort, and I wish they were thinking about it as an early adjunct of therapy,” he said. “Instead of saying, ‘Let’s prescribe narcotics for the next 10 years and then go to acupuncture,’ let’s think, ‘OK, maybe we can do acupuncture earlier and avoid going down the road to narcotics and contributing to the opioid epidemic.’”

In addition to traditional acupuncture, Bunt offers a heat version and electric version as well as the semi-permanent needles he first used in the Air Force. 

Most people in South Carolina will probably need to self-pay for acupuncture. Cigna and Aetna offer limited coverage, but Blue Cross Blue Shield and Medicare/Medicaid don’t cover the procedure. However, Bunt noted, MUSC offers an automatic 50 percent discount for self-pay patients. He estimated that a first-time visit would cost between $60 and $110 after the discount, depending on the treatment plan. Subsequent visits would be in the same range, with $180 being the upper limit. 

Bunt also noted that patients don’t need to switch to his practice to see him for acupuncture. They can remain with their own primary care physician and see him as needed. 

Bunt’s practice will move to the new Daniel Island office when it opens in spring 2019. 

 


Battlefield acupuncture? Yes, it exists, and the military is using it to fight troops' pain (Military Times, Feb. 10, 2018) 

Acupuncture becomes popular as battlefield pain treatment (Stars and Stripes, March 24, 2017)

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