The Best Alternative Therapies
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Fitness

The Best Alternative Therapies

Americans are trying nontraditional medicine in record numbers. Here's what will work for you.

Relieve Pain

The room looked like any other doctor's office, with its padded examination table and sterile needles. But there were a few exceptions: A soft smell of incense filled the air, the lights were dimmed, and in the background was the soothing sound of water trickling over rocks. And those sterile needles were sticking right out of my ear lobe, my forehead and the back of my leg.

I was at the acupuncturist's office. It was 10 weeks before I was due to run a marathon, and I was desperate to relieve a nagging shin pain that threatened to sideline me. Ice, anti-inflammatories and even physical therapy hadn't really helped, so on a friend's advice, I had decided to try acupuncture. Six treatments and many painless needle pricks later, I felt better. The ache in my shin had diminished, and I was far more relaxed and prepared to run the distance.

Today the idea of visiting an acupuncturist barely raises an eyebrow. In fact, more than a third of all Americans are currently using some sort of alternative medicine, suggests a study published in the August 2001 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. One key reason: The scientific community has begun to investigate-and laud-the many benefits of these treatments, says James Dillard, M.D., a professor of medicine at Columbia University and coauthor of Alternative Medicine for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1998). "Even the word alternative has fallen out of favor," Dr. Dillard says. Today most health-care providers prefer to use the term complementary to illustrate the integration of traditional and alternative treatments.

Acupuncture & Biofeedback

Acupuncture

May help:Menstrual cramps, tennis elbow and tendinitis injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, nausea and vomiting associated with morning sickness or chemotherapy.

How it works:Thin, disposable needles are inserted into the skin at key points in the body. Acupuncture is based on the principle that the needles unblock vital energy (called "qi") that circulates in the body through invisible channels, or meridians. The meridians connect various organs-so a needle applied to the wrist may treat a problem in the lungs. Western scientists theorize that the needles stimulate the body to produce naturally occurring painkillers like endorphins and enkephalins.

Caveats: If the needles hurt, ask the practitioner to adjust them. (Most acupuncture sessions are actually painless -- often even pleasant and relaxing.) You can also try a needle-free treatment like acupressure -- the practitioner uses her fingers instead of needles to stimulate pressure points.

For more info: Contact the American Association of Oriental Medicine (aaom.org) or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (nccaom.org). An initial visit with a licensed acupuncturist will cost $60 to $100 and follow-up sessions about $30 to $80. The average length of treatment is six to eight sessions.

Biofeedback

May help:Anxiety, tension and migraine headaches, incontinence, Raynaud's disease (a circulation disorder), hypertension, insomnia, attention deficit disorder.

How it works: Electronic devices are attached to the skin to help you monitor and gain control over body functions such as heart rate and blood pressure.

"Biofeedback is a way to access the link between your mind and body," says James Gordon, M.D., director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. To treat hypertension, for example, a therapist might attach sensors to a machine that measures fluctuations in blood pressure. The readings are then translated into an image on a monitor. By observing these changes, you can consciously reduce your blood pressure through relaxation techniques.

Caveats: Work with a professional only. Home biofeedback devices are too complicated for accurate results, says Dr. Dillard. For more info: Contact the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback at 800-477-8892 or log on to aapb.org. Sessions with a biofeedback professional can cost as much as $150; length of treatment varies depending on individual needs.

Massage & Chiropractic

Massage therapy

May help: Low-back pain, whiplash and other musculoskeletal injuries.

How it works:Segments of the spine can stiffen and irritate joints and ligaments in the area, causing pain. Chiropractors manipulate the spine to loosen stiff or misaligned vertebrae, which repositions and resets the joints.

Caveats: Beware of chiropractors who promise to treat cancer, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and other serious ailments. Also keep your eye on the calendar and your wallet. Some chiropractors may recommend extensive courses of treatments or try to sell expensive nutritional supplements. According to Dr. Dillard, you should stop seeing a chiropractor if you've shown no signs of improvement after four weeks. (The average length of treatment of uncomplicated ailments is six to eight weeks.)

For more info: Contact the American Chiropractic Association (amerchiro.org). A 20- to 40-minute session usually costs from $50 to $110.

Chiropractic care

May help: Low-back pain, whiplash and other musculoskeletal injuries.

How it works: Segments of the spine can stiffen and irritate joints and ligaments in the area, causing pain. Chiropractors manipulate the spine to loosen stiff or misaligned vertebrae, which repositions and resets the joints.

Caveats: Beware of chiropractors who promise to treat cancer, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and other serious ailments. Also keep your eye on the calendar and your wallet. Some chiropractors may recommend extensive courses of treatments or try to sell expensive nutritional supplements. According to Dr. Dillard, you should stop seeing a chiropractor if you've shown no signs of improvement after four weeks. (The average length of treatment of uncomplicated ailments is six to eight weeks.)

For more info: Contact the American Chiropractic Association (amerchiro.org). A 20- to 40-minute session usually costs from $50 to $110.

Magnets

May help: Back pain, muscle soreness, fibromyalgia, the healing of cuts and bruises, arthritis.

How they work: "Magnetic fields relax muscle tissue, which relieves stress and pain," says William Pawluk, M.D., an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied magnetic therapies for 11 years. Magnets also increase the flow of fluids in and out of cells, which can help improve circulation. There are two types: static (think of the magnets on your refrigerator, only much more powerful) and pulsed (which form a variable magnetic field). Pulsed therapy is most often used in a medical setting like a hospital or clinic; static therapy is usually provided by products like magnetic mattress pads, insoles and wraps. Among the most effective types for treating pain is "quadripolar" (a design that has two positive magnets and two negative ones), which has been shown to produce a strong response in the body, according to Dr. Pawluk. The package will typically indicate what type of magnetic therapy is being provided.

Caveats: Though there is limited research into their benefits, magnets are gaining acceptance in the healthcare community. Avoid them if you're pregnant, since their effect on a developing fetus is unclear. Also, "don't buy pulsed devices on the Internet," says Dr. Pawluk. "The machines should be used under medical supervision.

For more info: Contact the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at 888-644-6226. The cost for treatment varies, depending on what type of magnet you choose. Static magnetic products, for example, range from $5 to $200.

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