By Sara Castellanos, Aurora Sentinel
For those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, most are willing to take a stab at anything to ease the endless days of being tired.
No doubt, the tremors, stiffness and slowness are par for the course. But it’s the general sense of fatigue that’s particularly debilitating.
“People with Parkinson’s disease still have fatigue even when their sleep problems are treated,” said Dr. Benzi Kluger, assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Colorado Hospital.
The enervation is so overwhelming, that Kluger himself decided to take a stab at a non-traditional approach to reducing exhaustion. He’s leading a research study to determine whether alternative Eastern medicine, specifically acupuncture, can help alleviate the symptoms of severe fatigue in Parkinson’s patients. He secured $350,000 last year from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research to fund the study, which commenced in November 2010. So far, about 20 Parkinson’s disease patients are participating in the study and Kluger hopes that number will increase to about 100 within two years.
In his study, Kluger is also trying to determine how much of acupuncture’s effects — if there are any — are due to the actual alternative medicine, and how much of its effects are due to placebo.
“It’s possible that both the acupuncture and placebo groups will show improvement,” he said. “Whether the acupuncture groups show greater improvement than the placebo groups is another question.”
For licensed acupuncturist Daisy Dong-Cedar, Kluger’s study is simply trying to prove what she already knows.
Dong-Cedar, who is the chief acupuncturist in the study, has been practicing the method for 26 years. She trained in China and joined the University of Colorado Hospital 10 years ago. In the past five years, the form of alternative medicine has grown more popular among doctors, she said.
“Physicians have started to integrate the medicine,” she said. “The public really demanded alternative medicine.” Acupuncture is covered for some conditions under certain insurance companies, but her clients usually pay out of pocket. The cost ranges from $25 to more than $100 per treatment, with the average treatment costing between $60 and $70 with a $100 initial consultation fee.
But the cost is often worth the results for people who are trying to quit smoking, trying to get pregnant, or trying to reduce pain in the lower back and neck, Dong-Cedar said.
“If you’re older and you have a lot of chronic conditions, the reaction to acupuncture is slower,” Dong-Cedar said. “If a person is young and healthy, and the condition is more acute, the result is much quicker, sometimes within one or two treatments.”
Kluger’s research is being conducted as a double-blind study. Also, the patients are blindfolded while they are receiving acupuncture treatment, and Kluger doesn’t know which patients are receiving acupuncture treatment and which patients are receiving placebo. Without divulging specifics about the study, Kluger said the acupuncturist places needles in acupuncture points on the patient’s face and back. For patients who are in the placebo group, the acupuncturist may place “fake” needles that don’t puncture the surface of the skin in spots that aren’t typical acupuncture spots.
Symptoms of severe fatigue are common in about half of the people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The neuro-degenerative disease affects between 1 percent and 2 percent of people over the age of 65 and is second only to Alzheimer’s in neuro-degenerative illnesses, Kluger said. Those diagnosed with the disease will lose neurons in specific parts of the brain, affecting muscle movement and control. About half of those diagnosed with the disease have sought alternative treatments including acupuncture to help with their symptoms, but until now, there weren’t many evidence-based studies to determine whether acupuncture is, in fact, effective.
“Patients, particularly for symptoms like fatigue and pain, are going to other sources and they’re going to acupuncturists, herbalists and nutritionists,” Kluger said. “Their physicians don’t really have any good information to tell them about it. So that was really one of the major impetuses for doing this study.”
If Kluger finds that acupuncture can be used as an alternative form of medicine to alleviate the symptoms of severe fatigue, which plague nearly 50 percent of those with Parkinson’s disease, insurance companies might be more apt to cover the treatment, he said.
If the study reveals the effects of acupuncture are due mostly to placebo, that could be a major breakthrough as well.
“Placebo is enormously powerful, and really gives us evidence that people have so much capacity to heal but don’t know how to tap into it,” Kluger said.
It may be too soon to tell, but Parkinson’s patient Howard Ewy said he is noticing some results.
“I think it has helped me in that I can walk further and faster and I need fewer naps,” said Denver resident Ewy, 81, and a retired Navy aviator. He was diagnosed with the disease last year and until he decided to participate in Kluger’s study, he had never received acupuncture treatment before this. Ewy said he decided to participate in the study because he’s interested in learning more about all types of therapies available to alleviate the symptoms of his disease, from Western medicine to Eastern medicine.