Should you consider alternative medicine?

Body: 

Rhonda, age 39, woke up one morning and could barely breathe. It took great effort to get out of bed. She said, “I was struggling to breathe. I assumed it was something like asthma -- that I had developed overnight -- something very strange.” She was in great shape -- she took hours of modern dance classes every week -- and she had never had problems breathing before.

She reports, “I went to see a new doctor, because mine had moved away. He took x-rays and he told me it was gas.”

Rhonda didn’t think so.

The doctor insisted: “The x-rays show that you have an air bubble.”

She replied, “I don’t think that would prevent me from breathing. I have such an intense pain in my chest that if I yawn or cough or sneeze, it feels like someone is stabbing me with many knives in my chest. It’s unbearably painful.” Even as she was talking with him, she reports, she was struggling to fill her lungs with air.

After seeing several different doctors, she was finally treated for the problem she actually had -- costochondritis, an inflammation of cartilage in the chest. The doctor she ended up with gave her some medicine that reduced the problem by about half. Over the course of several months, she saw a number of doctors, all of whom offered the same solution to address the remaining problem: injections of a drug to which she was allergic. She declined them all.

Rhonda comments on the experience: “For four and a half months, I could not lie down and could not bend forward. I could not sleep lying down for the entire time. That was the hardest thing, because if you have to sleep at a 90 degree angle, you can’t get restful sleep.”

Rhonda lived near the coast, and one weekend she went to the shore with a friend. “There’s a walkway over the dunes, and we had to climb a flight of stairs to get to it. I’m somebody who has never had problems going up and down stairs in my life, because of all the modern dance I do and all of the walking I do. And I had to take pauses going up a single flight of stairs. Then I had to sit and catch my breath when I finally made it to the top. I had to take a break for a minute before I could keep walking. And there were so many fun social things I wanted to do but I just didn’t have the energy because it took so much time and breath and lung capacity to do the simplest thing.”

Rhonda is a professional meeting planner. Much of her work can be done sitting at a computer or making phone calls. However, when an event is in progress, she has to be there. And she has to walk -- and walk rapidly, to get from one part of the meeting site to another. She recalls, “I was so slow that it impeded my ability to do my job. I could not walk fast.”

After four months, a friend of hers who practiced yoga suggested that she see an alternative medicine caregiver, who practiced acupuncture and several other forms of treatment. Rhonda at first refused to consider the idea: “It was so against my nature to consider going outside the western medical experience.” Finally, she agreed, more to get her friend off her back than because she thought it could help.

The astonishment in her voice is still evident when she reports the results: “After four visits, the problems went away forever.” And she got her life back.

Rhonda has a lot of company. According to David H. Freedman, writing at length in Atlantic magazine after extensive investigation, “Medicine has long decried acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like as dangerous nonsense that preys on the gullible. Again and again, carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care.”

Freedman notes that the increasing openness to alternative medicine on the part of many doctors is “in large part because mainstream medicine itself is failing.” He goes on to quote Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California and a winner of a Nobel prize in 2009 for her medical research. She discusses the fact that modern medicine was set up to fight infectious diseases with drugs or surgery, but doesn’t work very well against other conditions that aren’t caused by an infection -- for example, chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

Freedman reports that even the Mayo Clinic, long a bastion of mainstream medical care, has created a Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. The dean of Mayo Clinic’s medical school told Freedman that “the beneficial effects of alternative therapies on Mayo Clinic patients have been observable in shorter hospital stays, in lower levels of self-administered painkillers, and in reduced tissue inflammation, which is a general indicator that the immune system is better at holding its own.”

After her experiences with both mainstream and alternative medicine, Rhonda reflected, “You just have to ask as many questions as you can, and see as many different specialists as you can, even if you don’t really believe in them. People are so used to not questioning authority, but it may be the only way out.” She concluded by noting that sometimes what makes a difference in the patient’s health is the level of attention practitioners pay to the patient -- how observant they are and what questions they ask.

Elizabeth L. Bewley is President & CEO of Pario Health Institute and the author of Killer Cure: Why Health Care Is the Second Leading Cause of Death in America and How to Ensure That It’s Not Yours. To tell Elizabeth your story or to ask her a question, write to: thegoodpatient@pariohealth.net.

Author: 
Elizabeth L. Bewley