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East Meets West: Meandering Through the Medical Maze (of Chronic Illness and Pain)

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By Carol Sveilich, MA

Excerpt from the book Just Fine: Unmasking Concealed Chronic Illness and Pain by Carol Sveilich, MA. This excerpt is from Chapter Four, “Waiting and Wading – Patience and Possibilities”

Editor’s note: the following text differs slightly from that published in the book.

We find ourselves in a new and changing era, where traditional practitioners sometimes are the ones to suggest complementary treatments or alternative care to their patients. Why? For one thing, chronic illness and persistent symptoms are difficult to treat. This is frustrating for both the patient and the physician.

In addition to traditionally trained doctors who refer patients to alternative practitioners or particular complementary treatments, a growing number of traditionally trained medical practitioners boast practices that combine Western medicine with complementary or alternative treatments.

Dr. Roopa Chari is a traditionally trained internist who draws on her unique training as well as her experience with alternative medicine when treating patients. Although she was certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine after her internship and residency at McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University, she also learned a great deal about natural healing methods and became certified in hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, Pranic Healing, and Yuen Energetics. Dr. Chari’s ultimate goal is to help her patients by teaching them to heal themselves using natural remedies. “Conventional medicine is becoming more accepting of complementary treatments than it was in the recent past,” says Dr. Chari. The new generation of trained physicians is often more open and accepting of natural remedies. They see the public’s demand for such healing techniques and are aware of the public’s heightened awareness about these matters. Also, traditional physicians are starting to use natural remedies themselves and experiencing the benefits of these remedies firsthand. They are also seeing and appreciating the scientific documentation of some natural supplements and treatments.”

The main disorders Dr. Chari sees in her practice are chronic fatigue, high blood pressure and cholesterol, fibromyalgia, candida, allergies, and arthritis. She offers her patients tailor-made treatments based on their unique needs and requirements. This includes nutritional counseling, herbal remedies for strengthening the immune system, hormonal balancing, and detoxification. (Detoxification programs use herbal remedies and/or diet changes to cleanse the colon, liver, kidney, skin, and lungs). “I have had a good success rate in treating chronic conditions due to the fact that I address the physical concerns and the emotional needs of each individual client. As a result, many of the underlying causes of their conditions can be addressed.”

Most of Chari’s patients seek her assistance out of frustration with the side effects of conventional medications and their inability to obtain more time with physicians. “They feel that no one takes the time to listen to what they have to say. They are overwhelmed and confused with the wide array and potential dangers of some of the natural treatments available for their specific condition. Most of my patients mention that they seek my assistance because I have a traditional medical background as a medical doctor, and at the same time, I am familiar with natural remedies. I am able to guide them in the best of both worlds. I also spend time with each client to ensure their concerns are addressed.” Dr. Chari tapers the patient’s medications accordingly and recommends nutritional supplements based on individual needs and comfort levels.

Dr. Jill Van Meter is a licensed acupuncturist with a Master of Arts degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine. She, too, feels that conventional medicine is much more accepting of complementary treatments now. “Medical doctors are witnessing more and more of their patients having good results with the various complementary therapies available. Many conventional medical physicians appreciate the limitations of Western medicine and are starting to understand the enormous benefits of blending the two approaches.” Van Meter sees many patients with digestive disorders and chronic pain. She utilizes a combination of acupuncture, breath work, visualization, and herbal therapy in her practice. “Patients come to see me when they are not getting better with traditional health care. They have heard how effective Chinese medicine can be and are ready to try it. They also crave more user-friendly services and greater attention to their physical challenges.”

Van Meter has had varying degrees of success with her patients who suffer from chronic illness or conditions. “So much depends on active participation and desire for real change on the part of the patient. Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia require permanent lifestyle and diet changes. Many patients are not willing to commit to this.” It also requires a substantial investment of time to observe positive results. Many people become frustrated and quit too early; for others, the financial cost of long-term treatment is too draining. “Patients who are able to comply show the greatest improvement with Chinese medicine,” says Van Meter. “For instance, I have worked very successfully with patients who have rheumatoid arthritis and have been able to help alleviate their pain. I have also had great success with treating digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease.

Someone who successfully combines the advantages of Western medicine and alternative therapies is Hope M. “For the past fifteen years, I have used a variety of alternative therapies, not to cure my condition, but to east the pain of my condition.” Hope lives with painful structural challenges in her body that have plagued her since birth. Although she has utilized such techniques as chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, cranio-sacral massage, qigong, tai chi, and movement therapy, she may need to consider back surgery in the near future to fully relieve the pain. “I have successfully combined both Western and alternative medicine as they both have their benefits. Why not utilize them both if you are looking for the greatest results to your physical challenges?” Hope originally had difficulty with Western medicine’s approach because it seemed to treat the symptoms and not the cause of the problem. “I feel the alternative practitioners were able to help me care for my overall health, but when and if I need surgery, I will not hesitate to call on modern Western medicine. Nothing else can compare to the miracle it provides when people are facing a life-threatening illness.”

Cheri Reeder is a public health nurse who was employed for many years in traditional medical settings such as surgery centers, cancer centers, chemical dependency units, and psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities. She eventually took a 125-hour course in reflexology, became nationally certified, and has been a practitioner for over a decade. Reeder is also a certified hypnotherapist and yoga teacher and has received certificates for her study and practice using essential oils to promote health and vitality. “People seek my attention for physical symptoms and soon gain insight and awareness into their own disease process. They come to realize the importance of balancing the physical body with their mental thoughts and patterns. Conventional medical schools still teach allopathic medicine, so even the new graduates are not taught the science behind holistic medicine.” Reeder says the good news is that many doctors now study beyond what they were taught in school. They are learning from their patients that there is a great deal of validity to complementary treatments. “I am hopeful that America will continue to be a melting pot, and we will all become much wiser about healing.”

Although Reeder has studied many conventional approaches to medical science along with holistic methods, she does not refer to her services as treatments because she is not a medical doctor. Instead of using that term, she refers to her approach as assistance in the healing process. “I have been able to assist hundreds of people. One person came to me with chronic tinnitus (ear ringing) and it was gone within one session. Another man’s recurring migraines vanished after my assistance. He did not need to take his migraine medication again. I am here to assist the body in balancing itself so that is can heal itself, and in this process, awareness is key. The person needs to become aware of their thought patterns, emotional judgments, and spiritual alignment. This awareness, along with a few lifestyle adjustments, can set anyone on the path to improved health.”

Many pain clinics throughout the country combine conventional medicine with alternative treatments. In fact, a significant number of medical facilities and respected hospitals throughout the nation now offer patients an integrative medicine department so that they will have a raft of options for better health and faster healing.

Treatments offered may include the following: mindfulness meditation, biofeedback, massage therapy, healing touch therapy, guided imagery, yoga, watsu water massage, herbal and vitamin consultations. “This sets the stage for furthering more systematic research effort,” says Dr. Genee Jackson. “The biggest challenge is attempting to apply conventional research methods to study systems that come out of a completely different paradigm, such as that of Chinese medicine. If nothing else, it will increase our understanding of the strengths and limitations of Western medical practices. There are numerous privately run professional clinics around the country structured out of an integrated model of treatment with varying combinations of specialized alternative and traditional caregivers.” Patients whose symptoms have been resistant to traditional medications or palliative remedies are rushing to these centers in hopes of benefiting from an integrative approach to care.

“Chronic problems are, by nature, systemic, impacting several organs and systems, as well as mental and emotional well-being,” says Jackson. “The complexity of these illnesses lies in the interplay between the medical, physical, emotional, social and, for some, spiritual issues heightened by long-term pain, suffering, and degeneration.”

Dr. Artemio G. Pagdan is a board certified neurologist who received his training from the University of Louisville Hospital in Kentucky, Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago, and the University of Michigan Medical Center. He is also trained in acupuncture. When Dr. Pagdan started applying acupuncture in his practice several years ago, he met with snickers and silent contempt by his Western medicine colleagues. “Now, some of these same physicians are referring to me their patients with pain who to not respond to conventional treatment. Physicians practicing Western medicine are gradually coming around to accepting acupuncture.”

Many patients who seek Dr. Pagdan’s help have migraines or chronic pain that has not been helped by conventional pain medications. “The model and pathology of chronic or ongoing pain is different from that of acute pain,” says Dr. Pagdan. “Hence, the pain medications that are effective for acute pain do not work well with chronic pain. For example, I use the novel antiepileptic drugs and tricyclics antidepressants to treat chronic pain due to nerve injury. Not all physicians know how to use these medications effectively.” Dr. Pagdan also notes that chronic pain due to muscle overload or spasm does not respond to conventional pain medication. “I use neuroacupuncture, which is my own technique for treating myofascial pain. It is extremely effective. I have also used Botox alone or in combination with neuroacupuncture to treat chronic pain conditions.”

Some alternative or holistic treatments involve mental or spiritual efforts. Meditation, relaxation, guided imagery, and hypnosis are but a few of these approaches. Some scientists believe that the brain’s ability to change physiologically through natural, self-produced chemicals is extraordinary. Historically, the existence of mind/body interactions was considered nonsensical by many traditional physicians who exclusively practiced Western medicine. However, there is a growing recognition that unconventional treatments work well for a certain percentage of patients who participate in medical studies but are given drugs with no medicinal value. This reaction, known as the placebo response, is thought to be a result of the power of suggestion, which can result in actual physiological changes. Ironically, the very scientific methods utilized by conventional Western medicine in the testing of medications have provided the best scientific support for the existence and power of the mind/body connection. Given the proper environment, the mind itself is powerful medicine, able and willing to connect and heal the body despite the absence of traditional medical treatments.

Alternative or complementary treatments often include combinations of mental and physical activities such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong. These treatments can loosen chronically tight muscles and tendons, and controlled breathing techniques can help induce relaxation — which alone can improve or even restore general physical well-being.

Physical manipulations including massage, reiki, and acupuncture are other forms of complementary treatments. Many practitioners believe that these treatments can relax tense muscles and tissues and release the body’s own healing ability. For instance, the acupuncturist does not administer medicine through the acupuncture needles. The medicine or healing capacity resides within the patient. Needles provide a little help; they simply open those areas that are blocked and thereby allow the body to heal itself. The tiny needle pricks inform the body that it is time to release its healing potential.

More and more, patients seek complementary treatments as an adjunct to conventional medical care. The relaxation of tension and the sense of empowerment patients gain by contributing in a positive way to their own healing can be extremely helpful and full of benefits. If symptoms can be decreased through pain management, quality of life is improved, even if the underlying disorder remains. Traditional Western practitioners are becoming more receptive to and supportive of these trends as they, too, realize the important role of the human spirit in the healing process.

Understandably, many practitioners in the field of alternative medicine do not like the term “alternative” since many of these treatments are, and have been for centuries, considered conventional in much of the world. For instance, Western medicine is a more recent form of healing than acupuncture. In Africa, ancient America, Australia, Europe, China, and India, self-healing and self-care existed long before written history.

These days, many physicians and researchers trained in Western medicine use alternative forms of care in addition to, or in lieu of, traditional treatments. Bookstore shelves are stocked with works by doctors trained in Western medicine but who also employ some complementary approaches. They represent the work of a growing number of doctors who educated and assist patients with treatment that include vitamins and herbal supplements, ancient Indian healing practices, and breathing exercises. The list of Western medical practitioners utilizing complementary or alternative medicine in their practices is a lengthy one. An article in a 1996 issue of Life magazine reported that “A recent survey of family physicians found that more than half regularly prescribe alternative therapy or have tried it themselves.” Additionally, many insurance companies recognize the value of alternative therapies and reimburse for treatments such as chiropractic and acupuncture. In fact, many costly marketing campaigns promise clients alternative treatment coverage in order to attract new clients and increase membership. “The federal government has been steadily increasing the budget earmarked to investigate alternative and complementary treatments,” says Dr. Genee Jackson. “This is most likely because of the demand for integrative approaches from consumers. As in the private health industry, the government recognizes the growing market demand from this group of consumers. Future direction of this effort will undoubtedly involve establishing more credentialing agencies and accrediting bodies that offer reliable research-based information on the various treatment modalities.”

William Osler, M.D., once said that “the person who takes medicine must recover twice: once from the disease and once from the medicine.” Drugs can sometimes increase and complicate a patient’s condition or symptoms. Many people with autoimmune disorders cannot easily tolerate medications’ side effects. Their bodies are simply too depleted or sensitive to contend with a laundry list of adverse reactions. Thus, patients seek physicians who are willing to combine holistic with conventional Western medicine to help them live with challenging symptoms. A person with lupus may find a physician who suggests homeopathy. A particular rheumatologist may encourage fibromyalgia patients to take nutritional supplements such as magnesium and malic acid.

Gastroenterologists are beginning to see the value of nutritional supplements such as L-Glutamine for their gastro-challenged patients, according to Vijaya Pratha, M.D. There is new medical research suggesting that high-potency probiotics can sometimes help Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and pouchitis. Although probiotics are not marketed as a medication, they are being used as one treatment option for those difficult to manage disorders.

About the author:

Carol Sveilich, M.A., is a group facilitator and counselor in San Diego, California. Her background includes conducting support groups for those with health challenges, serving as an academic counselor, and developing newsletters, columns and articles to assist and educate others with chronic health disorders. Although she has FMS and CFIDS, she remains an advocate for others who live with chronic health difficulties. Her new book is entitled Just Fine: Unmasking Concealed Chronic Illness and Pain. This unique resource, that includes 55 in-depth profiles and original photographs, is available in paperback ($15.95) and hard cover ($23.95). Order directly through the book website: www.writefaceforward.com, online at http://www.immunesupport.com/shop/Books.cfm, and at bookstores everywhere.
JUST FINE: Unmasking Concealed Chronic Illness and Pain book website: www.writefaceforward.com. Available now in soft-cover and hardback editions.

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