“I was always interested in different ways of treating patients. I just liked the idea of treating patients without medicine. All the narcotics are addicting and a lot of patients resist taking their meds. When they realize there’s another option, they’re interested,” says Patricia Wynn-Jones, MD, medical director for Olympia Medical Center’s Integrative Pain Management Center in Los Angeles.
Wynn-Jones’ practice includes all sorts of alternative treatments such as body scraping, acupuncture, music therapy and hypnotherapy. “A lot of my older patients come from Eastern Europe and when we do these things they say, ‘Oh, my grandmother did this.’ These are not unknown practices. They’re just becoming part of western medicine. A lot of out-of-pocket healthcare dollars are going to alternative medicine, and insurance companies want to get that money back,” says Wynn-Jones.
Which means that you and your patients are probably going to get a lot more familiar with what Eastern European grandmothers and Chinese healers have been doing for a very long time. Here is a primer to a few of the more popular alternative treatments.
“I’ve yet to find someone who has pain and who doesn’t have some aberration in their spine,” says Michael LeRoux, DC, a chiropractor in Providence, Rhode Island. “Think of pain as an aberration of motion in the spine.”
Chiropractors, says LeRoux, will adjust your spine in order to restore proper movement – which in turn improves overall health by restoring the nervous system’s ability to work properly. If the nervous system isn’t working properly, the theory goes, then the rest of the body won’t get the messages they need from the brain, and they won’t work properly. Your body will be able to heal itself once the spine and nerves are working well.
On his Web site – www.drleroux.com – LeRoux likens the spine to a garden hose: “Think of it like a green garden hose with a black shoe standing on it, changing the flow into the garden bed on the other side of the house. If that garden hose was a nerve, pain may or may not be present. There is a structural change, and that can change everything at the region of pressure, but also to the area that receives the flow.”
The essence of what a chiropractor does, says LeRoux, is restore motion. “The most important thing is [to] realize it’s all about motion. The two are diametrically opposed: pain and motion. If you can restore motion long-term, pain will never exist. Motion will be the key to blocking pain.”
Chiropractors treat patients in a variety of ways – there are the adjustments; chiropractors also take and read X-rays, make referrals and help patients with their overall well-being, including improving diet, encouraging exercise and developing a healthier lifestyle.
How many times a patient needs to see a chiropractor will depend on what treatment they need. Many insurance plans cover chiropractic care.
But what kind of pain can chiropractors help with? “If someone has an infection, we can’t help that,” says LeRoux. “Broken spine, cancer. There are some things we can’t help with.” Chiropractors can help with lower back pain, headaches, neck pain, fibromyalgia, sports injuries, arthritis and other kinds of pains.
“Every time we get a patient, it’s after they’ve failed medically,” says LeRoux. “People have no clue what chiropractors do – [with] no pharmaceutical companies giving them a lot of publicity. God forbid we help people help themselves.”
Getting to the Point
“Acupuncture is what we call energetic medicine,” says John Myerson, PhD, the founder of Watertown, Mass.-based New England School of Acupuncture. Myerson holds advanced degrees in psychology and specializes in treating pain that, as he puts it, no one else can treat. “It treats the energy system of the body. It directly moves the energy of the body. This is what the Chinese have been working on for 3,000 years. When you insert a needle and you can get the energy to flow you can feel it.”
“Chinese medicine is holistic, it looks at everything,” says Elliott Freed, an acupuncturist in Sonoma County, California. “Western medicine breaks things up into pieces. What alternative medicine tries to do that is different from Western medicines is instead of fixing problems, we try to stimulate the body to heal itself.”
Myerson explains that in Chinese medicine the body has meridians, the pathways that a person’s vital energy (known in Chinese medicine as “qi”) take. Pain and sickness occur when qi is blocked. Acupuncture – inserting the thin needles into one or more of the more than 2,000 acupuncture points on a person’s body – gets qi flowing along the meridians, which restores health.
There is no dispositive Western explanation for acupuncture’s effectiveness; however, there are theories involving nerves, neurotransmitters and placebos about why acupuncture works but none has emerged as the ultimate explanation.
Myerson says that acupuncture can be used to treat any kind of pain. “I’ve treated things from migraine headaches to broken bones, fibromyalgia, back pain, disk pain. It helps to heal – it reduces swelling.” Myerson says that acupuncture can be very effective in treating emotional pain, such as depression and anxiety, as well as physical pain.
Acupuncture can be used in conjunction with other alternative therapies, sometimes performed by the acupuncturist. Both Myerson and Freed use other alternative therapies in conjunction with acupuncture. Freed says yoga and meditation both complement acupuncture – yoga by stimulating overall blood flow in the body, which helps improve overall health rather than treating specific pain, and meditation by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system – the system that helps you relax. Myerson is a trained herbalist and treats pain with herbs. He also is a shaman who uses trances for healing: “Altered states – trance states. You learn to put your mind in different states. It’s the oldest form of medicine.”
Myerson says that an acupuncturist will usually see a patient one or two times a week, depending on the patient’s needs. Visits will generally last less than an hour. Acupuncture is covered by some health insurance plans.
Close to Home
Homeopathy is the use of minute doses of substances to restore health in the body, says Lauri Grossman, DC, a homeopath – and licensed chiropractor – in New York City. “The minute doses strengthen the vital force. In the strengthened state, the body has the capacity to restore health.”
Homeopathy is the medicine of similars. Grossman explains this means if you are experiencing, for example, respiratory allergies, it means your body is somehow not able to overcome the allergies. What a homeopath will do is find a substance that causes a reaction similar to allergies, and have you take minute doses of that substance. The idea is that even if your body can’t fight allergies, it can fight this other substance that causes a similar reaction. In so doing it will overcome the allergies.
“We’re not exactly sure how it works,” says Grossman. Homeopathy came about more than 200 years ago, when a physician named Samuel Heinemann, MD, got curious about why quinine cured malaria. Heinemann – who was not very impressed by the typical medical treatments of his time, such as bloodletting, purging, blistering and the use of toxic substances, took quinine to see what it would do and found that it caused similar symptoms to malaria.
Grossman continues: “Every effective drug provokes in the human body a sort of disease of its own, and the stronger the drug, the more characteristic and the more marked and more violent the disease. We should imitate nature, which sometimes cures a chronic affliction with another supervening disease and prescribe for the illness we wish to cure, especially if chronic, a drug with the power to provoke another, artificial disease, as similar as possible, and the former disease will be cured: Fight like with like.”
Heinemann spent the next 20 years investigating substances to find out what reactions they would cause in a healthy person, and what diseases those reactions corresponded to. This process of testing substances and recording substances’ effects on healthy people is called “provings.”
Why the minute amounts? Greater than minute amounts would be harmful to patients – and homeopaths believe that minute amounts of substances are more effective in treating illness. It’s not quite clear why this is, but a dominant theory is that the substances leave their memories on the substance they are diluted with, which makes the substance potent but not dangerous.
Homeopathy also does more than cure a particular disease, says Grossman. It also improves your overall strength and health – your “vital force.”
Grossman says that homeopathy is excellent for treating both emotional and physical pain, as well as chronic diseases and epidemics. It also has no side effects. “The only downside I can think of is that sometimes it’s very hard to come up with the proper remedy to help the person,” she says.
This is especially true when someone is on a lot of medications, which is often the case with Grossman’s patients. “My practice is generally from referrals from physicians. I get people who have tried traditional medicine and it hasn’t worked for them.”
Grossman says that medical insurance typically doesn’t cover homeopathic treatment. An initial consultation might cost $200 or more, but, says Grossman, “Homeopathic medicine is cheap. Three dollars for what is essentially a lifetime dose.”
Ironically, homeopathy’s resurgence in popularity has led to homeopathic remedies being more widely available – which has led to some people mistakenly believing that homeopathy can’t help them. “The problem with buying homeopathic remedies at the drugstore is you don’t know if it’ll work,” says Grossman. “There are thousands of remedies. The bottle that’s labeled might work but it might not. You walk away and say ‘homeopathy doesn’t work.’ It’s that remedy that doesn’t work.”
Talk to Your Physician
“I have patients all the time who are taking advice with so many directions they don’t know what’s going on,” says Cathleen London, MD, a Brookline, Mass.-based board certified family practice physician who specializes in holistic healthcare. “Somebody who’s got chronic pain is going to do anything to get rid of it.”
Simply stated, it’s probably that people tend to seek out alternative pain treatment when their medical treatment isn’t working. London is afraid that this may lead to people having treatments and then don’t tell their physicians.
“Have the patients get in touch with their doctors,” says London. “Definitely tell the doctor what you’re doing.”
There are some pain-relieving things that people can do even without a physician’s supervision, London says.
Quit smoking, for one. And improve your diet. “Diet is very important,” says London. “Processed food causes inflammation. Your body just reacts to it. A twinkie can make you feel more pain. Soda is about as evil as it gets. The simple lifestyle things that can make the difference between living with pain and living without pain.”
Or put it on ice. “Ice is a great anti-inflammatory,” says London. “It’s better than any drug we have.”
“If I ask you to paint a room red you can take a bucket of red paint and throw it and it might work. That’s how pharmaceuticals work. Alternative medicine is more like painting with a fine brush,” says Wynn-Jones. “Because I feel as though the body knows exactly what it needs, and it does what it needs and then it stops. Pharmaceuticals don’t do that. We haven’t figured out how to fine-tune pharmaceuticals like that. What I’m doing is not necessarily new age. It’s new paradigm. It’s looking at things slightly differently to get a much better result.”