Accupuncture: Getting to the Point of Pain

7:06 pm Health Stories

Monday, July 29, 1996

By Dawn Shurmaitis

Take a simple clove of garlic. Now, imagine a doctor from the West and
another doctor from the Orient observing the same clove. The Westerner will figure out what chemical in the garlic lowers cholesterol, put that chemical in a pill and sell it.

The Oriental will say, simply, “Eat the garlic.”

That, according to Dr. William Clearfield, is one way to look at the
differences between more familiar and traditional medical methods and
ancient medicinal arts like acupuncture.

You know — that thing with the needles.

Acupuncture, Clearfield stresses, is not a cure for disease. Mostly, it
helps relieve pain. Clearfield also uses it to help treat asthma,
emphysema, allergies, sinus problems and migraines at his Wilkes-Barre

“We’re basically fooling the body’s pain fibers into not firing,” he says.

“How do we know if we’re doing anything? You go back and ask `How’s that
feel?’ They say `good’ and we know.”

On a recent morning, Clearfield’s three examination rooms are full. So
Rudy, who suffers from a heel spur, is stretched out in a comfy chair in
Clearfield’s private office.

Rudy was taking double and triple shots of medicine right in his heel, and
it wasn’t making any difference.

He turned to Clearfield, who explains what he’s about to do: The Chinese,
he says, translate pain as fire. Like when Rudy steps on his heel and says
“It’s on fire.”

So Clearfield finds a counter point, a water point, to squelch the pain.

“It sounds kind of voodooish,” he admits. “But we put the needle in what
the Chinese call a water point to put the fire out.”

Acupuncture is usually the last alternative for patients who have seen
other specialists, taken medicine and undergone batteries of tests. By the
time most people in pain come to Clearfield, other possibilities, such as a
tumor, have been ruled out.

The needles, which resemble ordinary sewing needles, are crafted in Korea.
Occasionally, when he inserts one, a patient passes out.

Sometimes, when the needle is removed, there is a drop of blood. Other than
a red spot that soon disappears, there is no evidence the skin was even

When acupuncture patients talk about Clearfield, who is quick and lean with
deep-set brown eyes, they speak in terms of minor miracles.

“My back went out and I couldn’t move. They had to take me to the hospital
in an ambulance,” says one. “Dr. Clearfield put a needle in my lip and I
was able to move.

“I don’t know how it works but I swear by it.”

Although he’s practicing a medicine some might call New Age, most of his
patients are anything but flower children and granola heads.

But when he puts a blob of mugwort on the tip of an inserted needle, lights
a stick of incense and sets the herb on fire, it’s easy to think “Timothy
Leary” instead of “William Clearfield.”

The herb, he explains, “draws energy into the area we’re working on. We’re
trying to balance the energy in her body.”

As part of the procedure, Clearfield turns on soft music and dims the
lights. The patient is left — needles in, pain relieved — for 20 minutes.

“It’s quite relaxing,” Clearfield says of the treatment that, at first,
looks like a punk fashion statement. “Most patients fall asleep.”

Clearfield treats about 100 patients a week. About half of his practice is
now devoted to acupuncture. Otherwise, he’s a family doctor.

He finished his medical residency in 1982 and began practicing acupuncture
in 1989, after nine months of schooling at UCLA. A Philadelphia native, he
got his start in Wilkes-Barre after inheriting a practice from an elderly
doctor who died.

There was a niche to fill, babies to deliver and pain to relieve.

He is married to a psychologist and the couple lives in Kingston with their
two kids and two dogs, Chip and Teddy.

If not a doctor, Clearfield might have been a writer. Two of his novels —
murder mysteries — haven’t been published yet. But he has achieved a
certain notoriety in the acupuncture community, serving as secretary of the
National Institute of Acupuncture.

Slowly, he says, acupuncture is acquiring acceptance in this country. When
he traveled recently to San Francisco, Clearfield noted 22 pages of
acupuncturists in the phone book. Here in Wilkes-Barre, there are two.

Doctors, not pages.

“We’re getting there,” he says. “It just takes a little while.”

Still, it’s rare to find an insurance company that pays for the treatment,
which costs $60 a session at Clearfield’s office.

“It gets very frustrating giving people pills and telling them there’s
nothing else you can do,” he says.

“This is fun.”


Dr. William Clearfield

Dawn Shurmaitis

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