Interview with Mark Montgomery, Licensed Acupuncturist & Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner
By Dr. Brad Crump, Health Services Manager
Q: Mark, how long have you been practicing Acupuncture and what was it that drew you to become a licensed acupuncturist?
A: As strange as it may seem, I was drawn to acupuncture because I come from a long line of Western medical doctors. My father was a surgeon as was my grandfather, his father and his grandfather. My grandfather, who practiced general medicine in rural New York from the late 1920s through the mid-1970s, was really my role model. As a young boy, back in the 60s when doctors still made house calls, I used to accompany him on trips to visit patients in the countryside. After his death many people told me that he hadn’t just been their family doctor—they had considered him part of their family. And because he’d delivered multiple generations of babies in many families throughout the county and watched those kids grow to adulthood, he had a very unique view of the intergenerational health of those families. That sense of relationship was the foundation of his practice.
When I finished college and was pondering careers I thought about going to medical school, but I frankly didn’t see that sense of community-based medicine being taught or practiced in mainstream Western medicine anymore. That led me to research other options and acupuncture struck me as offering the closest thing to that model that I could find.
Q: Acupuncture has such a long history and proven effectiveness, yet it is not fully understood by those who have never experienced its tremendous benefits. In simple terms, how would you describe Acupuncture philosophy and science and its objective?
A: Over the thousands of years since it developed in China, acupuncture has spread to dozens of countries where it evolved in different ways—so in a sense it’s inaccurate to speak of it as a single, monolithic entity. Nonetheless, there are certain principles that all schools or traditions of acupuncture have in common: the idea that good health is a function of abundant and harmonious flow of energy throughout the body; the corollary that disease, and in particular pain, is a function of a blockage of this flow; the belief that by observing nature we can learn about ourselves and how to manage our health; and the idea that harmony and health are expressed throughout nature in alternating cycles of activity and rest. This is the concept—often mocked as New Age mumbo jumbo by people who don’t understand it—of Yin/Yang theory. It is actually a powerful and beautifully elegant way of understanding health and the natural world.
Q: For those who will experience acupuncture for the first time, what can they expect during the first experience?
A: It varies from person to person. When the needles are inserted many people experience a slight prick, followed by a tugging sensation, a sense of heaviness at the point of insertion or even a dull ache. This is what the Chinese call “da qi” or the “qi sensation.” As they lie with the needles in for 30–45 minutes, many people experience either a sense of heaviness throughout their body or, conversely, a sense of lightness, as though they are floating above the table. Many also experience a sense of energy moving through their body or what I call “lighting up”—brief, intermittent intense sensations at the points of insertion. By the end of the treatment most people feel rested and refreshed and often, if they came in for relief from pain, the pain has substantially subsided.
Q: Like most alternative therapies, acupuncture seeks to bring balance and to manage the underlying causes of health issues, but are there certain issues for which people seek Acupuncture treatment?
A: Sure. A great deal of my practice centers on pain relief, either chronic or acute. I’d say 75% of the people who come to me for pain relief leave feeling significantly better. That being said, it’s also important to note that to resolve chronic or even intense acute conditions often requires an entire course of treatment. Many of the people I treat at Red Mountain have never had acupuncture before. They come to see me because they want to try it out and they trust Red Mountain to provide a safe and comfortable experience. After we’ve finished, part of my job is to recommend specifics of how to follow up at home. And because I have contacts with colleagues in many other states I can often recommend a specific practitioner.
So, pain relief is a one of the big reasons people come but remember, from an acupuncture point of view pain is an expression of blocked energy flow, so when we can help the body to resolve the underlying blockage the pain usually disappears or diminishes, along with the issue that’s causing it. Another way of looking at this is that acupuncture doesn’t actually cure or heal anything—it just gives the body a boost in doing what it already knows how to do, which is to heal itself. From that perspective it becomes clear that acupuncture can actually help with just about any condition: musculo-skeletal, hormonal, digestive, circulatory, respiratory, even emotional.
Q: I was also intrigued when we talked about the benefits of acupuncture protocols on hypothyroid or low functioning thyroid issues. This is a significant issue and one that is increasing. From a Chinese medicine approach, namely acupuncture, what approach is taken to help those dealing with low functioning thyroid?
A: Thyroid issues are another example of the way acupuncture uses Yin/Yang theory to explain pathology. From a Chinese medical perspective both hypothyroid conditions and hyperthyroid conditions such as Grave’s disease are actually a function of deficiency states even though they express in very different ways. So even though hyperthyroid conditions usually result in symptoms of sympathetic excess it’s nevertheless important to treat the underlying deficiencies that have led to those symptoms. Hypothyroid conditions are actually more straightforward in that they derive from a simpler condition of deficiency expressed as fatigue, weight gain, etc. In Chinese medicine we tonify the liver and kidneys to nudge the thyroid back to a higher level of functioning. You might think of the process as being similar to “turning up the pilot light” of a person’s metabolism. This is usually done through a combination of acupuncture and herbs.
Q: Another area that people may not associate acupuncture with is weight loss. What role does acupuncture play in weight loss?
A: In my experience weight gain has a lot to do with both systemic inflammation and with stress interfering with sympathetic/parasympathetic regulation, which of course affects hormones, digestion, sleep, immune function and the body’s general ability to repair and replenish itself. By reducing inflammation and helping the body to regulate the nervous system (i.e., helping to move the body from “fight or flight” into “rest and digest”) acupuncture can play an important role in weight loss, or, as I prefer to say, “health gain.” This often shows up as a decrease in appetite or other cravings, an increase in basal metabolic rate, greater endocrine balance and an overall greater sense of peace and relaxation.
Q: Mark, you are also a Qi Gong practitioner and have recently introduced an activity called the Qi Gong Awareness Walk. Could you speak to what the walk is and the expected benefits? By the way, our guests who have done it rave about it.
A: The Awareness Walk is an attempt to distill some of the concepts we’ve been talking about into a brief experiential exercise. Like acupuncture, qi gong is an art which through the centuries has spawned many different schools. Some of them are more focused on health cultivation, some more focused on martial arts applications But all have the goal of teaching practitioners to sense and balance their own energy—a sort of “self-acupuncture without needles,” if you like. Recent research on sympathetic vs. parasympathetic arousal and the adrenal stress reaction has indicated that these states of mind are characterized by very specific types of movement and use of the senses—“Waking the Tiger” by wildlife biologist-turned-psychologist, Peter Levine, documents this beautifully. What I’ve learned over several decades of qi gong practice is that it is possible to induce deeper, more peaceful states of consciousness by learning and practicing the movements of qi gong. But I’ve also learned that these deeper states not only trigger but are also triggered by using one’s vision in a very specific way—by learning to use one’s peripheral vision to enter what I call “the peripheral awareness state,” which is characterized by a sense of deep relaxation, trust, safety and the ability to access insight and wisdom. The activity only lasts two hours—and to really learn this skill can take up to 12 hours—but most people walk away feeling that they now understand—and know how to access—a depth of awareness that they’ve perhaps experienced at certain points in their lives but never consciously controlled.