Equal opportunity chi

Prior to leading me into a dimly lit room, asking me to lie back in a recliner and inserting needles in my forearms, shins and head, acupuncturist Michael Peluso reminds me of my mother.

"How's your digestion? Do you sleep well?...Are you digesting your food?...In Chinese medicine, we like details," he explains.

Peluso opened Missoula Community Acupuncture Clinic, on North Higgins Avenue, Sept. 1. The clinic is unusual: Peluso charges clients based on what they can afford, even if it's as little as $15. He's part of a nationwide provider group, Community Acupuncture Network, composed of like-minded practitioners who aim to ensure that everyone who wants access to acupuncture can get it.

Peluso examines my tongue and places his fingers on my wrists to gauge my vitality before settling on a treatment plan. When he sticks one of 11 small silver needles into my right shin, I feel a dull ache. Peluso says some of his patients—the "chi junkies," as he calls them—enjoy that ache. An ache reinforces the feeling of being healed, he says.

In Chinese medicine, "chi" refers to life energy. When chi drifts out of whack, illness often ensues. Acupuncture works to smooth the flow of chi.

Used for thousands of years in Asia, acupuncture didn't emerge in the U.S. until the 1970s, and it's become increasingly popular since. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a million more adults sought acupuncture treatment in 2007 than in 2002, and that about 3.2 million Americans received acupuncture in 2006. It can be beneficial for ailments ranging from headaches to back pain and more serious conditions such as Parkinson's disease and the effects of strokes.

A typical acupuncture session costs upwards of $60. Peluso says more people would seek out acupuncture if it weren't so expensive. At his Missoula clinic, he aims to democratize access. "Medicine," he says, "is a human right."

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