Your body's ability to heal itself is a guiding principle of integrative medicine. That doesn't mean you can't help it along a bit.
"The world is moving on from this idea that you either take the conventional approach or you take the CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) approach," says Brent Bauer, medical editor for "The Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine" (Oxmoor House). "Now it's a both/and. Patients and physicians are embracing the best of the two worlds and bringing them together."
About 38 percent of American adults use some form of alternative medicine, according to the Mayo Clinic. Still, questions and misperceptions swirl around even the most common integrative approaches. Here we look at four modalities that are worth getting to know.
What is it: a 2,500-year-old Chinese medicine practice in which thin needles are inserted through the skin at strategic points to balance the body's "qi," or "chi" (energy flow). "Acupuncturists try to change the flow of energy," Bauer says. "Unblock a blocked area, slow down a channel that's going too fast."
What can it do? The National Institutes of Health released a 1997 statement concluding that acupuncture is effective in treating adult postoperative and chemotherapy nausea and vomiting, postoperative dental pain, stroke rehab, headaches, menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, osteoarthritis, low back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome. The World Health Organization lists a number of medical conditions that may benefit from acupuncture, including drug- and alcohol-addictions, asthma and bronchitis. "Acupuncture is very good for times when people have strong mind-body connection reactions," says David Miller, a medical doctor and licensed acupuncturist who is dual certified in pediatrics and traditional Chinese medicine. "They get nervous, and they get gastrointestinal complaints; they get stressed, and they get acid reflux. Acupuncture can be great for clearing up that disharmony." Miller says the practice is also very effective in easing menstrual disorders, such as irregular or excessively painful periods.
How to get started: Ask your primary care physician to recommend a licensed acupuncturist. You can also turn to the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine's website (nccaom.org) for a practitioner registry. "You want to make sure the practitioner is NCCAOM certified," says Miller. "It's the only real benchmark we have to assure a level of competence and excellence and continuing education." He recommends scheduling five to 10 treatments before you assess whether it's helping you.
What it is: the process of kneading and manipulating your skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments on either a targeted part or the entire body with varying degrees of pressure. Different types of massage offer different benefits. Deep-tissue massage applies heavier pressure to target the layers of muscle and connective tissue that lie deeper in the body. Swedish massage typically uses longer, lighter strokes to relax the entire body. Trigger-point massage focuses on a particular part of the body that may suffer from overuse. Some massage therapists offer cranial sacral therapy, which tries to aid the circulation of spinal fluid through the central nervous system by focusing on the skull and sacrum.
What can it do? "Massage has a million applications," says Bauer. "We know that stress suppresses the immune system, stresses the heart, exacerbates chronic illnesses. Anything that helps you deal better with stress — massage fits that bill nicely — is beneficial." Massage can also decrease swelling and joint pain, ease muscle spasms and improve circulation. J. David Forbes, director of Nashville Integrated Medicine, adds, "Stress is one of the most central players in our day-to-day health and development of disease. An enormous amount of scientific data demonstrates that the capacity for the body to deeply relax and settle into a deep connection with oneself has profound health effects."
How to get started: Talk to your physician about finding a qualified massage therapist and determining which type of massage is best suited to your needs. Forbes notes that with any holistic practitioner, your comfort level and ability to relax are paramount, but particularly so with massage. "If you can't really relax in this person's presence, no amount of credentials on their wall will change that."
What is it: a Japanese method by which a Reiki master positions his or her hands slightly above your body in a dozen or so different formations to raise the "ki," or life-force energy, in and around you. Each position lasts a few minutes.
What it can do: "Like healing touch, reiki can promote relaxation," says Bauer. "One study suggests it may positively affect blood pressure and heart and respiration rates." Reiki has been researched far less than acupuncture, Bauer says, but it can offer some of the same benefits. "Both purport to impact energy at some level — acupuncture via chi that travels in meridians and through the use of needles inserted in the skin; Reiki via energy that is more diffuse and that can be manipulated by the practitioner, even without touching the patient."
How to get started: The International Center for Reiki Training offers a national list of Reiki practitioners and teachers at reiki.org. Reiki masters usually teach students to perform the relatively simple techniques on themselves, so the time and cost risks are low. It's difficult to measure how and whether Reiki is working for you, Bauer says, other than "how it makes you feel." "If you feel more relaxed, chances are your body is going to do better, regardless of the challenges you are facing," he says. "As an adjunct to conventional care, almost any patient could explore it and see if it helps them. As a direct treatment, for a specific medical condition, the research isn't there yet."
What is it: the practice of focusing your attention, often on your breathing or a particular object or mantra. Yoga, tai chi and Qi gong are forms of meditation incorporating physical movement and breathing exercises. Other forms (mantra, mindfulness, transcendental) focus on increasing awareness of the present and an attempt to achieve total stillness.
What it can do: Research shows meditation helps with allergies, anxiety disorders, asthma, binge eating, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, pain, sleep problems and substance abuse. "One of the things we know about human physiology is that a firm split between mind and body is incorrect to make," says Miller. "We know there are many different types of neurological pathways — endocrine, adrenal, thyroid, gonadal axes — that get strong input from our higher brain centers. So an individual's ability to control their mind vastly improves their ability to self-regulate their bodies as well."
How to get started: Check if your community hospital, health clinic or fitness center offers workshops or mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs. You can also try training CDs and DVDs, though Miller recommends in-person training. A local acupuncturist or holistic physician can probably point you to a good training program. Start small, and aim to increase over time. "30 minutes a day is a good goal for most of us," says Bauer. "More is even better."