Healing from Within

Comox Valley Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a ‘whole body’ approach to healing.

“Watching my patients progress to a life free of pain and helping couples overcome infertility issues is very gratifying," says Dr. Michelle Hughes, who takes a whole body approach to healing at her Courtenay clinic.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

If you are looking for alternative health care options, the Comox Valley has plenty to offer.  Of the many choices available, acupuncture is often one of the first treatments people think of—not just because it starts with ‘A’ and usually appears first on a list, but because thousands of years of documented history are positive proof that it works.

“Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles on specific body points to encourage natural healing, improve mood and energy, reduce or relieve pain, and improve function in all areas of the body,” explains Dr. Michelle Hughes, Comox Valley Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Kathy Penner’s first experience with acupuncture and TCM was not to address issues relating to her own health, but rather to see if it would help her border collie, who was suffering with arthritis.  She had taken the dog to Tree of Life Veterinary Clinic and was thrilled with the results.  “Acupuncture worked so well for my dog, I figured I may as well try it for myself, too!” says Penner.

“Obviously, I couldn’t go to the vet for my own treatment, so I started asking others for recommendations,” says Penner.  “I can’t recall exactly how (or why) I selected Dr. Hughes, but I am glad that I did!”

Penner’s first visit to Dr. Hughes was for a joint injury but she has since returned for many other concerns, including menopausal symptoms and overall health and wellness. The result? She feels healthier, sleeps better, and is now able to manage her menopausal symptoms.

“At first, I was definitely apprehensive and a bit skeptical about the idea of getting a bunch of needles poked into me, but I discovered that it doesn’t hurt,” explains Penner.  “Every once in a while there may be a spot where I feeling a tingling sensation but it lasts only a second or two.  From a layman’s perspective, I like to imagine that this tingling indicates that the needle has hit its target and there is a release of some sort.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only were the needles painless, but that as I lay on the treatment table I soon went into a deep, deep restorative sleep.  When Dr. Hughes gently woke me up about 20 minutes later I felt so relaxed.  It was amazing.”

Gloria Withall has had a similar experience. She was new to the Comox Valley and new to the whole concept of acupuncture and all other alternative therapies when she moved here in 2010.  The retired school teacher was encouraged to see Dr. Hughes for treatment of menopausal symptoms by both her sister and her massage therapist.

“I went in with no preconceived notions about what to expect but I wanted to give it a try because I was reluctant to use synthetic hormone therapy to relieve my symptoms,” recalls Withall.  “I figured that if the Chinese had been using this for thousands of years there has got to be something to it. Even so, I was still very apprehensive, almost anxious. I had no idea what to expect.

“I was so relieved to discover that Dr. Hughes was very comforting and easy to talk to.  She did a very thorough investigation into my overall health, which was very interesting to me.  I thought ‘Wow!  She asked me more questions than any other doctor ever has!’  She even looked at my tongue.  I’m not sure what she was looking for but she saw things that related to my current state of health and was pretty accurate when she asked me further questions after having examined it!”

Withall says her first acupuncture treatment felt wonderful and she was pleasantly surprised that she felt even more relaxed than she does after a therapeutic massage.  She also was sent home with some Chinese herbs that had been custom-blended for her needs and, after a short time, realized that her menopausal symptoms were greatly reduced and that she felt more emotionally balanced.  “Any woman going through this will understand exactly what I mean,” she adds with a laugh.

“Not only am I now more open to holistic healing, I highly recommend it!” concludes Withall. “Certainly, Western medicine has its place but I am very happy that I tried this alternative approach. This ‘whole body’ care is vitally important to me.”

When I personally meet Dr. Hughes I am impressed with her gentle yet confident demeanor and her welcoming smile. She is a picture of health with clear skin, bright eyes and an enviably lean and fit bodyframe.  We sit down to chat in the waiting room of her clinic on Fitzgerald Avenue and I am soon caught up in her story.

Hughes was born in Vancouver and moved to the Comox Valley with her family when she was in Grade 6.  She graduated from Vanier High School in 1983 and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Psychology, from the University of British Columbia.  She then moved to Whistler “for a summer” and ended up living there for 17 years, during which time she married Devon Sexton, started her family, and discovered the healing arts of acupuncture and TCM.  She decided it was time to go back to school.

At first, her new career choice raised some eyebrows. “My parents thought I was a bit crazy when I told them what medical field I intended to study,” says Hughes.  “I was drawn to the fact that the principles of TCM focus on treating the whole body and addressing the root cause of our health problems. It has been effectively used for over 3,000 years and, more recently, MRI brain scans have scientifically proven it to be effective. Treatment plans take into consideration each patient’s environment, diet, exercise, emotions, stress and lifestyle. This ‘whole body’ approach truly resonated with me.  Most importantly, I liked the fact that TCM is about preventative health care—you can benefit from it even if you are well.  Today, not only do my parents rave about what I do, they come to me for regular treatments. They are now true believers in TCM.”

In 2000, Hughes graduated as a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine from the acclaimed International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Vancouver.  After graduation she interned at the Anhui Acupuncture Hospital in Hefei, China, where she gained valuable experience in acupuncture and herbal medicine from her mentors and the hundreds of patients she treated there.  She went on to secure accreditation as a Registered Acupuncturist and Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine of British Columbia.

“Working in China was a remarkable experience for me,” recalls Hughes.  “I was able to see many of my patients several times a week and watched their amazing recoveries with awe.  I learned so much and am very grateful for this experience.”

Over the course of her academic journey, Hughes also developed a specialty and passion for helping infertile couples conceive children.  She is one of only eight people in all of Canada who are certified as a Fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine.  A fellowship requires advanced courses in reproductive health and pregnancy followed by a written exam that Dr. Hughes wrote in Palm Springs, California.  This exam measures competency in Western and TCM reproductive medicine.  In order to remain a member in good standing continuing education credits are required within the reproductive health field.

After her China excursion, Hughes continued her academic journey and trained with some of North America’s foremost women’s health experts in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine. She traveled to Houston, Texas, to train with Dr. Randine Lewis, author of The Infertility Cure; to Vancouver, to train with Bob Flaws, author of Fulfilling the Essence: Traditional and Contemporary Chinese Treatments for Female Infertility; and to New York City, to train with Mike Berkley, founder of the Berkley Centre for Reproductive Wellness and Women’s Health. She also took birth coaching and doula training.

In 2004, Hughes, her husband and two children moved “home” to the Comox Valley and she opened Comox Valley Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in Tin Town. By 2008 the clinic had outgrown that location, so she relocated to a home that has been converted to an office on Fitzgerald Avenue.

Dr. Hughes and her associate, registered acupuncturist and TCM practitioner Melanie Csotonyi, work with people of all ages and addresses all health issues.  The typical client is aged 30 to 65 with complaints ranging from chronic pain to stress to infertility. The clinic also offers a number of complementary holistic treatment options such as aromatherapy, reflexology and Jikiden reiki provided by practitioner Yuko Baardsnes in the Senju Wellness Room, plus counseling services with Jenny Bridgeman.

Although Hughes is an advocate of her acupuncture and TCM, she believes in a complementary approach to health care that combines the many benefits of Western medicine with TCM.  She has a large referral base of practitioners in various modalities such as clinical counseling, massage therapy, hypnotherapy, hypnobirthing, chiropractic, and physiotherapy, to complement her TCM and help people to achieve optimum heath.

After I learn all of this, Hughes encourages me to experience an acupuncture treatment and invites me to the clinic for a chance to stick my tongue out at her and say, “Ahhhhhh.”  Having spoken with Penner and Withall—and dealing with the odd ‘hot flash’ myself—I was eager to give it a try.  Coincidentally, the day of my appointment, I am dealing with stress-induced lower back pain that makes it almost impossible to sit at my desk to work.  I am eager to see if acupuncture will relieve my discomfort.

The initial consult takes about 90 minutes and is very thorough.  Dr. Hughes wants to know about everything from bodily functions to sleep patterns, moods, diet, exercise and more.

I ‘tell all’ and then sheepishly admit that sugar is my ‘drug of choice.’  I secretly hope that she can poke a pin in me somewhere to enable me to quit chocolate!

Dr. Hughes asks me to stick out my tongue and explains that it reveals a myriad of concerns through its coating, color, granulation and tooth marks. Redness in the tongue, for example, relates to ‘heat’ in the body and may manifest as high blood pressure.  A pale-colored tongue may be indicative of hypothyroidism or obesity.  Dr. Hughes’ observations of my tongue and body posture, combined with notes from our discussion, help her determine which acupuncture points on my body need to be addressed.

The ‘acupoints’ are part of a network of points that have been mapped on the body.  Most are found on the meridians and channels that are believed to be the pathways by which energy or Qi (pronounced ‘Chee’) flows through the body.  The single-use stainless steel needles are placed according to each individual’s health needs.

My acupuncture treatment is relatively painless and remarkably relaxing.  I go home with instructions to apply heat to my back, drink the Chinese herbs that have been prescribed to me as herbal tea—and to eat less sugar.

The next day, my back pain is remarkably alleviated and it, along with some other health issues, continues to improve with time and Chinese herbal tea.  Hot flashes have become warm glows, I am sleeping better, and I am making good progress in my attempt to reduce my sugar intake and lose weight.  At the grocery store I was able to look at the display of chocolate bars and turn away empty handed!

Others who go to see Dr. Hughes, however, have more difficult health challenges. For those struggling with infertility she has proven to be beacon of hope.  Her success in the area of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine is proven not with MRI scans, but with the successful conception and birth of many children. It is one area of her work that she finds extremely rewarding.

“Watching my patients progress to a life free of pain and helping couples overcome infertility issues is very gratifying,” Dr. Hughes says.

“I consider myself very lucky and cannot think of any other job that I would rather be doing.”

For more information visit or call 250-334-3630.  You can also keep up to date with them on Facebook.

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