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Beyond the Mainstream

Complementary Therapies Can Help Manage Ailments


Complementary therapies do not cure disease, but many reduce or eliminate symptoms.

They also can help manage some relatively minor but vexing ailments. Here are five common problems and the complementary therapies that can treat them safely and effectively.

* Headache. One of humankind's most common ailments, headaches afflict millions of Americans to the point that many seek medical relief. But non-chemical complementary remedies are safe, have no side effects and are sometimes free.

Simple behavioral modifications include adequate sleep, exercise, a sound diet, better humidity control in your home and stress management. Complementary therapies that may help ease headache pain include biofeedback, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, acupressure, massage, visualization and guided imagery.

Try massage of the back, neck and head for tension or muscle headaches--or acupuncture or acupressure for persistent headaches. Yoga classes, readily available, may provide relief of headaches caused by tension or stress. As for migraines, they rarely succumb to massage or yoga, but acupuncture may provide good results.

* Pain. Many types of pain can be reduced or banished with complementary therapies. Pain that originates in muscle or skeletal problems is most readily treated with those that promote relaxation, such as music therapy, massage, tai chi, Alexander technique, yoga, Rolfing, hydrotherapy and hypnosis.

The Alexander technique involves exercises that correct posture and is often used to reduce pain induced by movement or posture problems. Tai chi is a gentle but closely controlled exercise, an ancient technique from traditional Chinese medicine. Rolfing applies deep pressure to the fascia, the tissues that cover muscles, and works especially well against pain associated with lower back injury. Highly diluted volatile mustard oil, used as a paste or mustard plaster and applied for less than 10 minutes (more can burn), also can relieve muscle aches.

Sore throat can be eased with slippery elm lozenges or tea. Specific pain resulting from injury or surgery often can be treated effectively with acupuncture. Only an experienced, licensed acupuncturist should be engaged for this treatment, and your doctor should be consulted.

* Stress. We now know that stress a primary factor in the development of heart disease and may contribute to chronic pain, arthritis, diabetes and asthma. So finding ways to reduce or better manage it is crucial. In complementary therapy, stress treatments fall primarily in the area of "mind-body medicine." They include biofeedback, hypnosis, imagery and visualization, meditation and qigong.

* Depression. Half of all Americans are believed to suffer from depression at some point in their lives. Even mild depression can sap energy, damage relationships and take the joy out of life. Many pharmaceutical antidepressants are available by prescription, but some are associated with unpleasant side effects. St. John's wort, also known as hypericum, is a herbal remedy that eases mild and moderate depression. However, this herb must not be used by people on other medications, because it interferes with the liver's ability to properly process many prescription drugs. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, music and light therapies also help against depression.

Many sufferers have found that an over-the-counter man-made product, SAM-e, relieves depression effectively. Coated tablets work best.

* Osteoarthritis. A degenerative joint disease that affects an estimated 21 million older Americans, osteoarthritis is characterized by an often painful breakdown of joint cartilage. The cushioning between bones simply wears away. The disease can affect joints in the hands, feet, knees and arms.

Although there is as yet no cure, some studies suggest that glucosamine and chondroitin can reverse some of the effects of the disease. Glucosamine stimulates the formation and repair of cartilage, and chondroitin sulfate prevents other body enzymes from worsening the damage. Although both are found naturally in the body, supplements are made from animal products and sold without prescription, typically combined as a single capsule.

Numerous complementary therapies relieve the pain of arthritis. Pain antidotes mentioned above, such as massage and acupuncture, can help, as can yoga, tai chi and hydrotherapy. The Arthritis Foundation says some studies have shown ginger, turmeric and other herbs to be useful in reducing pain, and the University of North Carolina is studying a possible link between osteoarthritis and anxiety and depression.

Regardless of your specific illness or condition, tell your doctor about over-the-counter remedies you want to try, particularly herbal remedies such as St. John's wort, to make sure you avoid any potential conflicts. And if you want more information about a complementary therapy, make sure that the information source is dependable. Avoid books or Internet sites that promote a specific remedy.


Barrie Cassileth, PhD, is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Send questions by e-mail to: Her column appears the first Monday of the month.

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