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Healing the whole person

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Integrative medicine could hold the key to managing an array of conditions. But what is it and how can we access it?

By Evelyn Metric

Selene Kumin Vega, Ph.D., was a baby when doctors told her mother she would have to wear a brace the length of her entire leg. A dance teacher, her mother was not thrilled with the thought of putting her daughter in a brace to fix her pigeon toed feet. Instead, she engaged her young daughter with an assortment of physical activities in an effort to fix the problem.

“She had me doing various movement exercises,” says Dr. Vega, Saybrook University faculty in the Department of Mind-Body Medicine. “Because she was a dance teacher, she had me doing pliés in the playpen as soon as I could stand at all to adjust and shift the problem, and it worked. I am no longer pigeon toed. My legs work just fine and I never had that brace.”

Years later in adulthood, Dr. Vega suffered a back injury. Though her life was riddled with pain, she refused to become dependent on anti-inflammatory medications and searched for non-traditional methods. Through chiropractic and physical therapy, which was just starting to become more common at the time, she was able to manage the chronic pain from her injury.

These movement exercises, chiropractic care, and physical therapy are all examples of integrative medicine at work. While these methods are seen frequently today, they were previously on the fringes of medicine and were considered to be “alternative” practices.

“The National Institutes of Health funded research in the early 90s to examine how often people in the United States used what was then called alternative medicine but is now called complementary and integrative medicine,” says Luann Fortune, Ph.D., Saybrook University faculty in the College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences. “What their survey of thousands of people discovered was that one-third of Americans were using these alternative products, and most of them were only just starting to tell their physicians.”

One-third of Americans were using these alternative products, and most of them were only just starting to tell their physicians.

Dr. Fortune has experienced firsthand the wonders of integrative medicine. Her daughter was born with dermatitis and her skin was constantly inflamed and red. Dr. Fortune, a licensed massage therapist, was already well-versed in integrative medicine, so she sought answers outside of the traditional medical field.

“I found an acupuncturist who worked with pediatrics when my daughter was two and a half,” she says. “Within the first treatment, the rash that had covered her from head to toe was gone. At that point she had already been allergy tested and she was the candidate for a really fatal level of anaphylaxis. I kept taking her to the acupuncturist and by age five, her allergies had cleared all the conventional tests.”

But what exactly does integrative medicine mean, and how does it work?


What integrative medicine is and isn’t

Integrative medicine covers a wide range of practices and methods. Among the many types of integrative medicine, the three most common and well-known forms are chiropractic, massage therapy, and acupuncture. There are also the traditional medicines such as Ayurveda, which has given rise to yoga. Ayurveda, which is a “science of life”, is a mind-body health system developed thousands of years ago in India. Its two principles are that the mind and the body are inextricably connected, and nothing has more power to heal the body than the mind.

“Integrative medicine is, by definition, a delivery model and approach to providing health care services, advice, or consultation that takes conventional approaches and blends in those that come from complementary places, sources, and philosophies,” Dr. Fortune says.

In terms of massage therapy, a practice Dr. Fortune has 20 years of experience in, massage is integrative in that it seeks to ease pain and discomfort through muscle manipulation. A knowledge of anatomy and physiology is needed in order to be aware of which muscles to work on, but massage therapy goes deeper than just the physical level. Dr. Fortune says factors like family life and exercise habits can have an impact on one’s health, and more than just the pain the client is feeling must be considered in order to produce the most effective results.

“Conventional medicine is very reductionist,” Dr. Fortune says. “It’s based on the idea of isolating the variable. Integrative medicine, on the other hand, is not a system that isolates. Practitioners of integrative medicine look at your family life, your lifestyle…they look at everything that could have an effect on your health, not just the part of you that’s hurt or sick.”

Contrary to some perceptions, Dr. Vega supports that integrative medicine is deeply rooted in science.

“People are looking for research done by major pharmaceutical companies,” she says, “and when they can’t find that research, they discredit the validity of that method. But there is, in fact, a lot of research that shows us that integrative practices do work. These practices look at the whole person and develop their methods based on the whole person, it’s not just a random process.”

As for what integrative medicine isn’t, Dr. Vega stresses that, most importantly, it isn’t a substitute for conventional medicine.

“The name of this field of medicine has been changed,” she says. “It used to be called complementary and alternative medicine, but it is now complementary and integrative medicine. This is because, with time, there has been more and more of an understanding that the best approach includes all of what we know, which includes Western medicine as well as these other approaches. It’s not like you use one instead of the other. We must use all of what’s available.”

It’s not like you use one instead of the other. We must use all of what’s available.

When she injured her back, Dr. Vega’s primary care physician was struggling to come up with a care plan that could effectively help her. When he heard that she had been experiencing positive results with chiropractic, he asked if he could speak with Dr. Vega’s chiropractor to find out what they were doing that worked in alleviating her pain. Dr. Vega says she initially laughed at this idea, but soon came to realize that it made sense. By communicating with each other and working as a team, her primary care physician and chiropractor could create a care plan that would produce the best results.

So while integrative medicine does use alternative methods, they are not used in place of conventional methods but rather in conjunction with them, which is the difference that Dr. Fortune and Dr. Vega say is crucial to understand.


Uses of integrative medicine

Integrative medicine has been found to be particularly effective in alleviating the symptoms of chronic conditions and pain, particularly when helping with multiple sclerosis, diabetes, thyroid disease, obesity, and more.

But why is integrative medicine so effective in treating chronic conditions? According to Dr. Fortune and Dr. Vega, it’s because of the complex nature of chronic conditions. They say that conventional medicine spot treats pain and illness whereas integrative medicine looks at the bigger picture. According to Dr. Fortune, chronic conditions have to do with one’s lifestyle rather than a single episode of pain or illness.

An example of this can be found in chiropractic, where practitioners use spinal manipulation to improve health. However, many chiropractors also talk about lifestyle with their clients, and sometimes even nutrition. Even though the focus of their work is on the spine, they also take into consideration other factors that may cause pain or discomfort to their clients. Both Dr. Fortune and Dr. Vega cite the individuality of integrative medicine, including chiropractic, as a key as to why integrative medicine is so effective in the treatment of chronic conditions.

“It’s very individually oriented,” Dr. Vega says. “No one is going to try to impose some universal plan on any given person. Practitioners are going to be looking at you and your personal history, your present, and your needs for the future to develop a very individualized plan.”


An integrated future

With tens of billions of dollars spent on integrative medicine each year, and an increasing number of insurance companies covering more practices, integrative medicine is permeating the medical landscape at a rapid pace. Dr. Fortune and Dr. Vega are hopeful that one day, integrative medicine and conventional medicine will exist in an environment where they are accepted as complements of one another, not as substitutes nor pitted against each other.

They are also hopeful that the new medical environment will see patients who are ready and willing to take their health into their own hands and explore all the available options that can better their well-being, both mental and physical.

“What I hope is that we are moving toward an empowerment model,” Dr. Fortune says, “Toward a place where people take individual responsibility for their health and wellness, because that's going to translate to people taking responsibility for their planet, for their world, for their government systems, for the ways that they interact with each other, and for the economics of the way that we live. Then maybe we can start to think more globally about everything and appreciate what we do have here which is amazing and beautiful and full of potential.”


 

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