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COLUMBIA - Thirty needles stick out of Carrie Linton's ears, legs, arms, wrists and scalp — and she couldn't be happier.

"I feel relief. OK there's finally an answer here," Linton said. "And the fact that it was natural and that I was able to work with it and through it was very much so relief."

The answer for Linton, a lifelong Columbia resident, is the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture. Linton says she has suffered from severe migraines since high school and has seen a neurologist, taken blood pressure medications and various other narcotics--all without results. But by placing thin, stainless steel needles in specific energy channels to stimulate Linton's nervous system, acupuncturist Gina Butler is able to finally give Linton peace.

"It means freedom, it means having an answer to not having pain," Linton said. "It means that I can plan ahead and I'm not just going to be completely focused on if I'm going to have a migraine today. I can follow through in my job or on my farm."

Amid the recent fatal fungal meningitis outbreak, people worried about the safety of steroid shots are looking for drug-free alternatives like acupuncture to treat their pain.

A September study financed by the National Institutes of Health found acupuncture outperformed standard care when used by people suffering from osteoarthritis, migraines and chronic back, neck and shoulder pain. Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the six-year study used data from about 18,000 patients and is the first to show solid evidence of the efficacy of the treatment for pain relief.

Butler is one of four licensed acupuncturists in the mid-Missouri area, according to the Acupuncture Association of Missouri. Lynn Maloney also practices in Columbia and said she has seen exponential growth and acceptance for the practice in the community.

"I have seen the awareness spread big time in the last eight and a half years I've been here," Maloney said. "When I started here, patients would tell me that they were actually afraid to tell their doctor they were getting acupuncture. Now they're more likely to tell me their doctor recommended it, their doctor knows about me, or their doctor is happy they're getting acupuncture."

The effectiveness of the treatment has long been a subject of controversy for many people in the Western medical world, but as more research is released proving its power to heal, the two medical worlds are beginning to coexist in practices. Drs. Mark and Laura Grant founded the Women's Wellness Center in Columbia where Butler practices. Grant believes treating pain with morphine is the way of the past and doctors need to be looking for ways to treat chronic pain that doesn't involve narcotics. 

"I've spent my entire career practicing traditional western medicine," Grant said. "And basically I have two weapons to take care of my patients, I have a prescription pad, and I have a scalpel. I can write for drugs, I can do surgery, but beyond that we have very little to offer and for a lot of problems medicines and surgical procedures are the answer, but there are a lot of things people have you can't fix well with medications or surgeries--particularly pain. Chronic pains are best resolved with acupuncture, people don't become addicted to medications that way."

The National Center for Alternative Medicine estimates more than 3 million Americans have tried acupuncture, and many of the top hospitals across the country, including Mayo Clinic and Duke Medical Center have expanded their programs to provide acupuncture. None of the hospitals in Columbia have integrated programs yet, but Butler said she receives many of her referrals from Boone Hospital Center.

The number of insurance companies who cover acupuncture has also increased, making the treatment more affordable. Acupuncture is not currently covered under Medicare, but that could change in 2014. The cost of an average session without insurance coverage ranges between $60-120 dollars.

Dr. Joseph Meyer of the Columbia Interventional Pain Center has spent his whole career treating pain. He believes, regardless of how intricate or invasive the procedure he's preforming is, one's lifestyle, attitude, and habits must be optimized in order for the procedure to be effective.

"People come to the clinic very, very frustrated," Meyer said. "They've had 1,2,3,4 I could go on up to 10, 12 etc. surgeries and they're extremely frustrated because their pain is still there, they're not getting better, and they wonder, ‘Why is this?' It's because surgeries don't fix you, drugs don't fix you. What any good doctor should or does do is tries to optimize your body so it can heal itself. A negative attitude will almost assuredly cause a negative long-term outcome with more pain and bad results."

Meyer has prescribed acupuncture to patients before and finds it to be a good low side effect option, but not a solution. 

"Acupuncture can actually trigger and help boost pain relief," Meyer said. "Acupuncture though, falls into everything else that we as practitioners or treating physicians do, it does not fix. It can help people feel better. It is a useful tool just like many of the other tools we provide."

Meyer developed the Know Pain, No Pain philosophy and is currently working on a study throughout mid-Missouri surveying people on how they've overcome pain.

Regardless of their techniques, the doctors and acupuncturists agreed on one thing.

"Chronic pain patients come in and they just want to get well," Butler said. "They don't care what happens or how it happens they just want to feel good and once they feel good they're happy, and that's the goal."