By Beth Ann Downey
Michael Cregger received acupuncture for the first time when he was a teenager.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Michael Cregger inserts acupuncture needles for a shoulder ailment at his Altoona office. Below, Cregger uses therapeutic massage at the end of an acupuncture session.
Because of an injury, he had lost feeling in his right arm.
Acupuncture treatment corrected the problem.
But the ability to relieve his symptoms wasn't the only thing that impressed Cregger about the acupuncturist he visited.
"I was very impressed because he had a signed photograph from Ronald and Nancy Reagan that said, 'Thanks for all the help,'" Cregger recalls. "That was in the '80s, so he was president at the time. It's kind of neat."
Cregger has been a licensed acupuncturist for 25 years. He opened his own practice, Lifeworks Health Center, 5000 Sixth Ave., Altoona, six years ago.
After treating more than 1,000 patients from all over the surrounding area, including athletes and celebrities, Cregger has seen those tiny little pins treat everything from arthritis and facial paralysis to acne and psychological disorders. He's even seen improvement in conditions labeled "untreatable" by doctors.
"I've treated almost anything you can think of, literally," Cregger said.
Acupuncture is a concept derived from traditional Chinese medicine that has been used for thousands of years, but has only recently gained popularity in the United States.
Cregger describes its effect on the body as a freeing-up of the flow of electrical energy in the body. Where this current is not moving freely is where aching, stiffness and pain occur, and it makes internal organs function less adequately.
The metal filiform needles help move that electrical current, bringing oxygenated blood up to the surface of the skin, which helps to repair tissue and rejuvenate cells, he said. The needles are about 1/20th the size of a hypodermic needle, Cregger added, and are malleable enough so that when they are manipulated, they don't actually break the skin. He likened it to a hand passing through a volleyball net.
"It can go in without a person really noticing it," he said. "It's like a fly landing on them."
What Cregger describes as a slight cramping feeling has yielded big results in some of the patients he has treated. From a man in his 20s suffering from Irritable Bowl Syndrome and unable to work to a woman who regained feeling in her feet after treatment, many patients have relayed amazement in acupuncture's effects.
"About once a month, someone breaks down in tears saying they couldn't imagine being without pain," Cregger said. "So, it's a really rewarding career."
Gareth Knowles of Williamsport started seeing Cregger after a very bad ear infection left him with severe paralysis in the left side of his face.
After seeing a number of specialists and having countless tests done, a friend referred Knowles to Cregger, telling him to go before considering surgery.
"The first time I went to see him, he said to me 'We can fix this,'" Knowles said. "No matter if it was true or not, it was so nice to hear the positive news, instead of negative news."
But Cregger's news was true. The acupuncture and deep massage treatments he administered to Knowles brought back most of the nerve and muscle capability. Knowles went from not being able to close his eye and barely being able to talk to talking fine and being able to blink and close his eye.
Knowles still receives treatment once a week, and said the two hour drive each way is well worth it.
"It's been a very positive experience with Mike," Knowles said. "Quite frankly, he's performed kind of a miracle."
But acupuncture isn't just for the sick. Cregger said its general benefits and ability to regulate the body internally are what bring healthy people to his table. And because it can help virtually anyone, Cregger's wife, Lisa, who is the receptionist for the business, said information about the business spreads by word of mouth.
"People come in all the time because they realize acupuncture is beneficial not just for illness and injury, but if you want to work on your tennis game or just be a healthy individual," she said. "We've made a lot of friends in the community because they are just regulars. They've become the advertising out in the community."
Prominent Altoona business woman and philanthropist Ann Benzel is one of Cregger's regular customers, and also helped him get the business started by offering him the office space to rent near the Benzel's Pretzels factory.
Benzel said she was first introduced to acupuncture when her husband used it as a remedy for his chronic back pain. It helps her, however, with stress-related issues.
"I joke with [Cregger] that he has magic hands," she said. "I know so many people who have gone to him and had absolutely wonderful results."
Benzel said acupuncture has a "calming, relaxing" affect on her. And thought she enjoys the treatment, she stresses the importance of "conventional" health care and makes regular visits to her physician.
"I just know what works for me, and it does work for me," she said.
Though Benzel would recommend people try acupuncture, she understands any reluctance to stepping away from conventional medicine. But when Cregger opens each of his sessions by asking Benzel what's bothering her, she's usually able to answer the same way.
"I know that 90 percent of the time, I say 'There's nothing really bothering me and what can you do to keep it that way,'" Benzel said. "And so far, he's managed to do that."
Cregger said he likes working with the medical community. Because of his success with patients, he's already taken referrals from local doctors and psychologists.
He also worked with former state senator Robert Jubelirer in 2006 to allow for patients to visit acupuncturists without a referral or diagnosed condition.
"It was one of the very few 100 to zero votes in the Pennsylvania senate," Cregger said. "Fifty Democrats and 50 Republicans all agreed on one thing."
Rates for acupuncture at Lifeworks Health Center are $40 for a 30 minutes, $65 for 60 minutes and $90 for 90 minutes. Treatments can also include massage. Appointments can be made by calling the Lifeworks at 949-2989.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.