The power of mind over biology is a mystery that science has just begun to understand, but healers from the the Eastern world did not wait for science to break the mind-body code. Elaborate systems of curing and preventing disease have been developed by trial and error, and applied by faith in an invisible energy called “qi.”
It was almost like magic.
When a pregnant April Henry of Newmarket learned her baby was breech at 37 weeks, she decided to try it — a small incense cone of mugwort set alight and burned hot and close to the nail of her right pinky toe.
Netta Hart, the Stratham acupuncturist administering the moxibustion — so named for the herb moxa, or mugwort — told April that the energy was blocked in her pelvis.
“She said, if we can open up that channel it will allow the baby to move,” says Henry.
It sounded a little weird but as a labor and delivery nurse preparing to give birth to her second child she wanted to avoid a difficult breech delivery or C-section.
When you hear a story like this, you can usually guess the ending: It worked.
Her son was born in a normal delivery a few weeks later, healthy and no worse for the mugwort Henry says had caused him to squirm with vigor in her womb.
Breath of life
Qi (chi) is the name given to the life force or vital energy that flows through our bodies. In traditional Chinese medicine, an imbalance or disruption of it is said to lead to illness.
You can’t see qi, but you can see evidence of it, says Adam Learner, an acupuncturist and Chinese herbologist at Pinewood Healing Arts in Somersworth. The classic analogy is a sailboat.
“You can’t see the wind, but you see the manifestation of it. The wind catches the sail and pushes the boat,” says Learner.
This vital energy is called ki in the Japanese kampo system, doshas in Ayurvedic medicine and elsewhere prana, etheric energy, orgone, magnetic or homeopathic resonance, fohat, mana, odic force and biofield. The basic idea has crossed cultures, religions and millennia of time.
This energy field has defied measurement by conventional instruments and reproducible methods. Yet practitioners of energy therapies claim they can see it, feel it, work with it and use it to heal the physical body.
Some energy therapies are going mainstream. A chemotherapy patient may be offered acupuncture as a complement to standard treatment. Therapeutic touch may help a patient relax before surgery.
Hospitals in New Hampshire are linking up with centers for integrative medicine that utilize energy therapies. If the existence of an energy field is unproven, why are these treatments being offered?
Looking for alternatives
North Hampton resident Wendy Crowley first tried acupuncture 15 years ago, desperate for relief from seasonal allergies. Allergy shots, sometimes three per month, made her tired for days afterwards and her symptoms would reappear as soon as she stopped the shots.
She sought help from Dr. Kuen-Shii Tsay, affiliated with a holistic clinic in Brookline, Mass., and a teacher at the New England School of Acupuncture.
“My friends and family thought I was crazy, but when I started getting results and feeling better people were more interested,” says Crowley.
Eventually her children’s busy schedules made it too difficult to squeeze in the appointments. She felt fine for six or seven years, she says, then “succumbed” to Claritin and nose spray.
Crowley is a regular patient at a chiropractic clinic in Stratham. She has tried a variety of approaches to getting and staying well.
“I’m not convinced that Western medicine with the tendency to prescribe pills to cover symptoms is the best approach,” she says.
People may try alternative treatments because a friend or family member had good results. Anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of some energy therapies —acupuncture in particular — is increasingly being supported by research.
When Seacoast resident Barbara Macquarrie was scheduled for an abdominal hysterectomy, her sister Karen Maguire, an herbalist and acupuncturist, suggested acupuncture before and after surgery.
Macquarrie, an RN who has worked in cardiac, oncology, maternity and post-surgery units, says the metallic, hair-thin needles felt like “quick bug bites,” followed by a sensation of heat. She was pleased with the outcome.
“I experienced less of the all-around illness that can come with surgeries since I had to take less pain medication,” she says. “I think a lot of money could be saved in hospitals if post-op care included acupuncture and massage therapy. People would feel better and go home earlier.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture has been shown to be effective in relieving post-operative nausea. It provides pain relief, improves function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee and serves as an effective complement to standard care.
Even mugwort has some numbers behind it. A randomized, controlled study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed moxibustion to be effective in turning breech babies 75 percent of the time. In the control group, 48 percent of babies turned on their own.
How acupuncture works has not been fully explained within the framework of Western medicine. It may activate pain-killing endorphins and immune cells at specific points in the body. It may alter brain chemistry and affect parts of the central nervous system related to sensation, immune reactions, blood pressure, body temperature and blood flow.
Dr. Joseph Hill, director of the Fertility Centers of New England, was educated at Harvard Medical School, a bastion of Western medicine, yet when he opened an in vitro fertilization clinic in Portsmouth, he added the services of acupuncturist Adam Learner.
Acupuncture added to IVF has been shown to increase the success rate from 26 percent to 42 percent.
“Whether you call that a positive qi or a positive flow, it’s blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, and we are trying to induce ovulation and get a healthier pregnancy established,” says Dr. Hill.
Infertility is intensely stressful — “a life crisis” — especially for couples that have gone through multiple miscarriages. Dr. Hill says acupuncture helps people feel more relaxed.
“That’s where I think alternative medicine has a higher chance of reaching people than Western medicine. We don’t necessarily have the time or infrastructure to be able to give that care for the whole body,” says Dr. Hill.
“The idea is to get people emotionally and physically centered to deal with whatever comes their way,” says Dr. Hill.
Dr. Hill is a speaker and expert on reproductive medicine who has been named one of “The Best Doctors in America” by three national consumer publications. He emphasizes the need to use evidence-based research in deciding what treatments to use, and to beware of charlatans, faith healers and scam artists.
“Cards, stones, magnets, crystals — it doesn’t stop. It can be taken to the extreme. Health care is much too important to just rely on somebody’s claims,” says Dr. Hill.
He believes there may be a way to conceptualize qi from a Western standpoint. In theoretical physics, string theory — sometimes called “the theory of everything” — posits that all matter has a vibrational energy or force. The fundamental particles that make up matter are not point-like, but consist of tiny, one-dimensional loops. These strings are moving — vibrating and oscillating.
“It may be where East meets West,” says Dr. Hill.
But string theory is just that, a theory. The concept of an energy field in the human body is also theoretical at this point. Medicine needs to be based on data and critical thinking rather than belief, says Dr. Hill.
The human touch
When Sherry Hoffman changed into a hospital gown, lay face down on a table with a strategically placed hole in it and was hoisted in the air for a breast biopsy at the mammography unit in Portsmouth Hospital, she felt like a car in for repairs. But the reiki master changed all that.
He placed his hands near her head and the retired teacher living in the town of Greenland felt a sensation of warmth that surprised her. He stood first at her head, then at her feet during the biopsy. She describes a sense of relaxation and comfort, and a connection with the practitioner.
“I feel like I went someplace with him, someplace soothing and calming,” says Hoffman. “I used to think reiki was hocus pocus. I would ask to have it again.”
The New Hampshire Board of Nursing has no stance on the existence of an energy field in the body. Executive Director Margaret Walker says the Board sometimes receives questions from nurses in the field who want to use alternative modalities in patient care, like reiki, massage, therapeutic touch, polarity and aromatherapy.
“As long as the interdisciplinary team agrees to the care plan, we feel it is appropriate for the nurse to provide it,” says Walker. “If it makes people feel better then that’s a good thing.”
One stop shopping
The medical establishment is making a move toward integrative medicine, according to Terry Johnson, director of Equinox Health and Healing in Portsmouth.
Integrative medicine includes alternative treatments for which there is good evidence of safety, efficacy and cost effectiveness as a complement to standard treatment, rather than a replacement for it, says Johnson.
Equinox has close to 5,000 patients and a team of practitioners using acupuncture, chiropractic, conventional primary care, massage therapy and physical and occupational therapy.
In conjunction with Exeter Hospital’s Center for Cancer Care, Equinox offers reiki, massage and acupuncture to patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy, based on guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology.
Research shows once people receive a cancer diagnosis, nationwide up to 60 percent automatically start using integrative medicine techniques anyway, says Johnson.
“We want to make sure we educate them about the treatments that would work best in their situation, using evidence based research,” he says.
Insurance can be tricky in New Hampshire, says Johnson. Chiropractic is often covered, but most acupuncture is not. Equinox Medical Director Dr. Peter Degnan is a family practice board-certified physician and a medical acupuncturist, so he can use primary care billing codes to cover acupuncture.
Johnson says integrative medicine is bound by regulations and provides a level of trust for patients. There will be no promises of miracle cures.
“Our cancer patients, we will recommend they do massage therapy, but we would never tell them it’s going to heal their cancer,” says Johnson. “We will tell them it helps deal with nausea from the treatment, anxiety and many side effects.”
Many of these energy therapies seem to work through light touch or mind-body interaction, says Johnson.
“But frankly, the medical industry needs to do more thorough research,” he says.
“Early results show they work — we need to show why and how.”
The chaplain will see you now
The Reverend Dr. Shoushan Salibian, director of Pastoral Care at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua, is an ordained minister with a doctorate in psychology. She is a reiki master and uses therapeutic touch, hypnotherapy, guided imagery and prayer.
“All of these are leading a person to a place of calm and peace and relaxation,” says Rev. Salibian.
Her voice is soothing and has lilt of an accent. She is an Armenian born in Beirut, a place where women hold hands on city streets and men hug to say hello.
“Touch is a healing connection we have lost or are afraid of,” says Rev. Salibian.
At bedside, she may ask about religious beliefs, then offer a treatment that begins with guided imagery and deep breathing. She will sometimes use a laptop labyrinh or offer a prayer shawl.
“Whatever works for the patient, that’s what I want to do,” she says.
Rev. Salibian works closely with the staff and is able to make entries on patients’ charts. She will also give treatments to doctors or nurses feeling stressed or anxious.
When she practices reiki and therapeutic touch, Rev. Salibian says she can feel a person’s energy and where it needs balancing. She offers a way to think about this mysterious, immeasurable force.
“There is a saying that you can feel a person’s anger when they enter a room. We’re talking about the energy field of the individual,” she says.
How does she influence this energy field? It’s a simple trick, almost like magic: “I try to approach each person with love and peace.” NH
That’s Latin for “buyer beware,” and it’s a good phrase to keep in mind when you venture into the world of alternative or complementary medicine. Some tips:
Make sure you use the services of credible practitioners, such as those at hospitals or other well-regarded facilities.
Ask them if they are licensed by the state — a naturopathic doctor (N.D.), chiropractor (D.C.), acupuncturist and massage therapist are required by law to be licensed.
If you have a complaint about a practitioner, call the N.H. Dept. of Health and Human Services at (603) 271-0277.
Chiropractic: The Way of the West
The original “alternative” or complementary treatment in America is chiropractic care. This American way of healing has helped lead the way for the recent surge of Eastern modalities by challenging conventional medicine at the pocketbook level.
Simply put, enough people wanted chiropractic care to ease their pain or improve their lives that demand for the services could not be ignored by traditional health care systems.
Manchester chiropractor Dr. Ron Aragona says he witnessed the change while doing post-graduate work at Harvard School of Medicine: “In 1984 there was nothing there on nutrition, but by the ’90s they offered post-graduate courses on wellness care and chiropractic,” he says. “Today 90 percent of insurance policies include chiropractic in their benefits.”
So how does chiropractic relate to popular new alternatives like meditation, acupuncture and reiki?
All are based on the ability of the body to heal itself, says Aragona. “If you cut yourself, the cells grow back.” Where Eastern methods envision invisible lines or centers of energy, chiropractic assumes that the nervous system is the principle path of healing power. Both systems blame stress for diverting healing energy from its therapeutic course.
“How chiropractic differs from other wellness methods is that by hand adjusting, to relieve a misalignment, you relieve a quantum of stress. Meditation could not relieve that kind of physical stress,” he says. “So I strive to be the best adjuster I can be.”
This article appears in the March 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine