Alternatives abound in modern cities. Bike lanes shoulder up to car lanes. Farmers markets are held in fields adjacent to grocery stores. Gluten-free items belly up to bowls of pasta on menus. What once were considered alternative options are actually becoming mainstream.
And, while the term “alternative” means an either/or equation: Either traditional medicine or something outside of traditional medicine, a new term has taken its place — “complementary medicine,” with its both/and approach and cooperative tone.
Patients are now freer to explore the possibilities and incorporate the right method for themselves. No longer are the two paths set up in opposition to one another. Now, complementary medicine is embraced.
There are many forms of healing and a variety of options that put health care back in the hands of the patient.
East Meets West
Kim Perrone’s embrace of Eastern practices and her desire to use them to complement Western medicine has become her life’s passion. But, the journey had a painful beginning. “My sister got cancer and Western medicine couldn’t help her. So, we traveled to Mexico and spent three weeks exploring other options. That is what really opened my eyes to so many other available approaches to healing,” Perrone said.
She began acupuncture school in 1994, a week after her sister died. Perrone graduated from Dallas College of Oriental Medicine, (only three schools like it remain in the state of Texas, two in Austin and one in Houston) and went on to found The Center for Healing Arts in 2004.
A registered pharmacist, Perrone began her career working in her family’s Perrone Pharmacy, which is now one of the oldest family-owned pharmacies in town.
She is also a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. “Eastern approaches made sense to me,” she says. “It’s been around for thousands of years and incorporates the use of herbs. Being a trained pharmacist, it really resonated with me,” she says. “In China, it’s not either/or; it’s both Western and Eastern medical approaches combined. Each has its different strengths,” she says.
A number of physicians refer patients to The Center for Healing Arts, Perrone says. “We look at things differently. I think Western medicine treats acute medical needs well, while we specialize in treating chronic illness and focus more on prevention.”
Many of the treatments Perrone uses are what she calls energy-based medicine. She uses the latest technology like Light Box (Life Vessel) treatments (cocoons that work to reset your autonomic nervous system) alongside 5,000-year-old remedies, like acupuncture.
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The Spirit/Mind/Body Connection
Dr. John Sklar, a board-certified M.D., who practices as a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, stopped prescribing pain medicine about seven years ago. He believes that drug companies do a great job of promoting their products, and often to the detriment of patients. “The resulting opioid epidemic has been in the news a lot lately,” he says. “I don’t prescribe any pain medications any more.” He says it wasn’t helping his patients heal.
“Most neck and back pain problems don’t have any structural cause,” Sklar says. “So, they are mistreated to an alarming degree with drug therapy and by limiting mobility.” The physical pain a patient is experiencing is really just a symptom of stress, Sklar believes. He says it’s ultimately a spiritual issue, and the pain itself is not the root cause that should be treated.
“Most therapies, either drug or surgical, produce no results at all. They are only selling hope to patients, with no actual improvement in pain symptoms and outcomes,” he says.
Simply put, Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS) is the understanding that few neck and back pain issues are actually the result of trauma, tumor or any structural issue. Instead TMS finds that the pain is caused by repressed emotions (stress). Understanding the true cause of the pain significantly changes the treatment of patients.
Once patients are told they have a “bad back,” they begin to act like it, and they limit their range of motion, which only compounds the problem and actually makes the pain increase. Sklar believes it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, when he explains that they have unrecognized psychological/spiritual conflicts (stress) which is manifesting itself as pain, he finds that his patients begin to resume their normal activity and become stronger and healthier in the process.
Sklar recognizes that there are acute causes such as injury (trauma) or disease (such as tumor) in a few patients that do require medical interventions. But, the vast majority of chronic back and neck pain sufferers, he says, will get no remedy from drugs and surgeries. And, in many cases, those traditional therapies will only make the matter worse.
He pioneered The Sklar Approach which focuses on mental stress triggers. “Tension in the mind becomes tension in the muscles,” he says. “Stress is ultimately a spiritual problem at its core.”
Patients who seek out TMS treatment by Sklar are told to resume normal activity, eat a proper diet and learn techniques to de-stress, like meditation.
“People want a diagnosis to know the cause of their pain. It doesn’t mean you are crazy. In fact, science supports the spirit/mind/body connection,” Sklar says.
The Osteopathic Method
Fort Worth has long been the training ground for osteopathic doctors. When Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM) began training Doctors of Osteopathy (DO) in 1970, there was already an osteopathic hospital here. But, few people really know the difference and what goes into the DO designation.
There are some clear differences between an MD and a DO. But, according to Dr. David Mason, interim senior associate dean of academic affairs at TCOM, the differences are less about training and more about philosophy.
There are two pathways a physician can choose for training. “Most typical medical schools are four-year programs, with the last two years focusing on more clinical aspects,” Mason says. “And, both paths are now followed by a three-year residency program.”
While MD’s are geared more toward research and tend to focus on a specialization — trained to identify and treat disease, osteopaths tend to be more primary care physicians — focused on treating the patient as a whole. There is a good reason for that. The osteopathic method really began in 1892 and was championed due to a severe lack of care in especially rural settings. “There was a need to train more family practice doctors that could focus on a more holistic approach in their practice,” Mason says.
There are four basic tenants of osteopathy. First, osteopaths treat the mind, body and spirit of a patient. Second, they believe the body has the ability to heal itself and focus on bolstering the immune system. Third, osteopathic medicine believes that anatomy and physiology are related, so they are trained in hands-on medicine. And finally, they try to treat every patient as an individual, taking the time to listen well before beginning treatment.
“We are open to working with herbalists and acupuncturists to treat our patients,” says Mason. “We guide our patients and let them know what alternatives are safe for them and which might be beneficial to their treatment.”
Another major difference is the addition of hands-on treatment to traditional medicine. In fact, all regular exams include a musculoskeletal biomechanics screening. Osteopathic doctors are trained in what is called osteopathic manipulative medicine. The therapy can relieve pain and pressure, promote healing and increase mobility without medication. They incorporate techniques like stretching, gentle pressure and resistance to treat musculoskeletal abnormalities.
“I was trained in New Jersey and found the DO’s approach seemed more comprehensive,” he says. “I think it’s a better way to approach patients and really listen to them.” Osteopaths examine patients by fully integrating the psychosocial aspects of their lives and incorporating their work, family and life into their treatment.
There are now some 40 osteopathic medical schools training physicians nationwide.
The Map to Health
Kim Perrone, from Center for the Healing Arts, describes the body like a map. “There are 12 main meridians. It’s like looking at a map and choosing the city you want to travel to, then choosing the correct highway to get there, before picking the spot you plan to stay when you arrive at your destination,” she says.
The First Rule Is Do No Harm
“We don’t have all the answers in traditional medicine, and where it is beneficial to our patients, we should be open to complementary therapies,” says Dr. Robert Watson, who recently transitioned from his OB-GYN practice after over 30 years. He now serves as both medical director for the Women’s Health Line at Baylor Scott & White and medical director for Baylor Scott & White Quality Alliance.
Throughout his career, Watson has seen a shift. Patients now have access to more information via the internet and word-of-mouth than ever before. But not all of that information is credible, and doctors must spend time reeducating their patients. “There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of what you find online are flat-out marketing ploys,” Watson says.
“I don’t think alternative therapy is bad as long as it doesn’t pose a health risk to the patient,” he says. “The downside is that there is just no proven benefit to some of these therapies and no scientific studies to support them.”
In an effort to live a “natural lifestyle,” people have begun opting for natural therapies and shunning pharmaceutical ones. But, natural therapies are often not the best, safest, or most cost-effective treatments. Take bio-identical hormones for instance. “That is not a scientific term; ‘bio-identical hormones’ is a marketing term, and I have seen the harm they can do firsthand in my patients,” Watson says.
One of the other big issues is cost-effectiveness. “For example, some compounding pharmacies actually charge per ingredient, so some of those ‘natural’ medications can cost thousands of dollars,” he says. And, he has seen patients overbilled for unnecessary testing and lab work as well.
So, buyer beware. Not all complementary medicine is beneficial. Some can actually be harmful to your health. “In our society’s desire to feel younger and have more energy, some people have taken advantage and have actively preyed on the public,” Watson warns. “It’s always best to use common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it most often is.”