Inside Track: Lifelong career reflects growing interest in Oriental medicine
Craig Houchen came to Grand Rapids eight years ago to practice acupuncture at the Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit.
Craig Houchen was a teenager, already very interested in Asian martial arts and “into everything Asian,” when his mother’s struggle to quit smoking was finally won — and how it happened was a major factor in his decision regarding his future career.
It was acupuncture that helped her kick the habit, and today, Craig Houchen, OMD, is a medical acupuncturist at the Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit, part of Mercy Health in Grand Rapids.
The Wege Institute is still celebrating its recent move into new quarters in the Wege Building at 300 Lafayette Ave. SE. It serves about 9,500 out-patients annually who receive acupuncture and therapeutic massage, plus 3,000 in-patients. The institute went from 1,500 square feet to 3,500 square feet, and will offer new services such as hydro-massage and reflexology.
The expanded clinic reflects a growing interest in Oriental medicine — the OMD after Houchen’s name indicates stands for Oriental medicine doctor. He is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a nonprofit organization established in 1982. NCCAOM certification or a passing score on the certification exam are required for licensure as an acupuncturist in 43 states plus the District of Columbia, which represents almost all of the states that regulate acupuncture.
Houchen was born in Greeley, Colo., but later his family moved to New Mexico. There he began studying Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art, in junior high school and became interested in acupuncture when he was about 16, when two sessions helped his mother kick her 10-year cigarette habit.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
Houchen earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1991. While there, he became a licensed paraprofessional at the university’s Agora Crisis Intervention Center. Later, he served a year-long acupuncture apprenticeship under Daniel Santos in Santa Fe, as part of his work toward a Master of Acupuncture degree, and in the late 1990s, he studied at the International Institute of Chinese Medicine in Denver. Houchen received a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine at the Southwest Acupuncture College in Boulder, Colo., in 2002.
His education has continued: In 2006, he spent a month in Beijing studying at the China Japan Friendship Hospital.
Houchen was a self-employed practitioner of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine in Longmont, Colo., in 2002 and 2003. He moved to New Orleans and his reputation began to spread: He opened a clinic at a medical complex, and his business grew so much in two years that he was planning to move to a larger facility — but then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina changed all that.
“Hurricane Katrina completely took my clinic out,” he said. Everything was ruined, and in the chaos of the emergency evacuation, he ended in up Baton Rouge, where he relied on the generosity of friends for two months.
Then Houchen was contacted by an acupuncturist at the Wege Institute for Mind, Body and Spirit who had been assigned to recruit another experienced acupuncturist to relocate to Grand Rapids.
“I had never been to Michigan,” said Houchen, but that fall, he was flown to Grand Rapids for an interview and to get acquainted with the region.
“I was very impressed,” he said, and accepted the job.
“When I came here I had zero friends, one fork, one knife, no TV and one bed. Now I absolutely love Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
That was eight years ago, and the city has come a long way toward embracing alternative medicine since then, in Houchen’s opinion. “I’m busy every day,” he said, and so is the other acupuncturist at the Wege Institute, along with the rest of the staff.
Soon after moving to Grand Rapids, he met his wife-to-be, Rachel, who also works at the Wege Institute. Houchen found an immediate family in Rachel and her three children.
When asked what he likes to do for relaxation, Houchen said, “I really just like being around my kids,” adding he had been a bachelor for so long that he never realized he was “a family guy.”
Oriental medicine has come a long way in America, too.
“Ten years ago, when I told people what I did, they would say, ‘But what do you do?’” Now people know immediately what he does when he mentions acupuncture — “and they are very interested,” he said.
The interest in traditional Oriental medical treatment is “a consumer-driven demand,” said Houchen.
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into the skin at various points on the body. According to a recent report from Mayo Clinic, it is most commonly used to treat pain and is believed by practitioners to be a way to restore balance to the flow of qi (or chi) — the energy or life force in the body. The Mayo report states that many Western practitioners, however, see it as a way to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue, which may increase the activity of the body’s natural pain killers and increase blood flow.
Houchen’s department at Wege Institute is involved in two clinical studies. One is funded by the National Cancer Institute and takes place at six locations around the country. He was selected for special training at Columbia University Medical Center in New York in preparation for the trial, which is studying the effect of acupuncture on women who suffer from joint pain as a result of a particular treatment for breast cancer.
The other clinical study will be led by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and involves use of acupuncture to relieve xerostomia, a severe form of dry mouth that results from radiation therapy for head and neck cancers.
The National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, has formed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Last year the center funded a study it said provides the most rigorous evidence to date that acupuncture may be helpful for chronic pain. The NCCAM notes that while millions of Americans use acupuncture every year, there has been considerable controversy about whether patients believe it works because they want to believe it — the placebo effect. However, NCCAM adds that researchers have found modest but statistically significant differences between true acupuncture and simulated acupuncture, which mimics the real thing but needles may not actually be inserted or only are inserted in areas of the body that should not be effective.
The authors of the report published last September in the Archives of Internal Medicine noted the study provides the most robust evidence yet that acupuncture is more than just a placebo.
Houchen points out that many American veterinarians treat animals with acupuncture — and animals are not subject to a placebo effect.
Advancing technology — a huge part of so much medical treatment today — is also apparent in acupuncture. Houchen said the clinic at the Wege Institute will soon offer a type of “needleless acupuncture.” The electronic devices are another method of stimulating those points in the body, he said.
Houchen said some patients say the prick of an acupuncture needle feels somewhat like the snap of a rubber band on the skin. “Most people are pleasantly surprised by how painless it is.”