As their use increases, alternative treatments become more credible MEDICAL OPTIONS

April 05, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

After a long career in dance, Hazel Chung has gained a deeper knowledge of the body's rhythms through her mastery of Oriental touch therapy. The area's only certified practitioner of Ohashiatsu, Ms. Chung uses pressure to free energy from "channels" in her clients' bodies.

"Our work is the same philosophy as acupuncture without the needles," says the Ellicott City practitioner.

Joseph Mitchell of Baltimore has had Ohashiatsu treatments fairly regularly for three years. The procedure often incorporates stretching different parts of the body so pressure can be applied more effectively.

"Some of it is painful, but it's a good kind of pain," he says. The treatment has dramatically improved his lower back pain and sciatica as well as his sinus problems. In addition, Mr. Mitchell says Ohashiatsu has helped him control his stress.

Although numbers are elusive, many Baltimoreans are exploring the benefits of alternative medicine -- or complementary medicine, as it is known in Europe -- in order to save money and to treat chronic conditions that conventional Western treatments have failed to remedy.

The constellation of local treatments promises health and serenity through herbs, diet, exercise, meditation, massage and touch.

A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in three Americans are seeking some form of alternative medicine to improve their mental and physical health. Popular therapies include nutritional medicine, exercise and massage as well as acupuncture and chiropractic medicine. Alternative medicine is gaining more acceptance in the medical community, too. Once considered the province of "health nuts," alternative therapies are now being studied by medical researchers. In 1992 the National Institutes of Health opened the Office of Alternative Medicine. And, the NIH will soon publish its first encyclopedic report on alternative medicine.

And many local physicians showed an interest in receiving additional training in such areas as acupuncture, hypnosis and homeopathy in a survey of primary care physicians in the region conducted by the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Emergency and acute care

Dr. Brian Berman, chairman of the editorial board for the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, believes conventional medicine is excellent for emergency and acute care but less successful at treating chronic health problems.

Trained in family medicine, the physician traveled to England to study acupuncture and homeopathy and to learn how the health of the mind can affect the health of the body.

"These therapies really look at the whole person, not just at the disease," Dr. Berman says. "Holistic medicine is looking at the patient's body, mind and spirit. And it's showing people ways that they can help themselves."

Dr. Berman is directing a program at the UM Medical Center's pain clinic that studies the effects of several alternative medicine therapies. Physicians are using acupuncture, homeopathy, zTC Chinese herbs and therapeutic touch to treat pain, in addition to conventional Western treatments.

The program has proven that acupuncture is effective at relieving the pain of osteoarthritis as well as post-surgical discomfort. But researchers do not yet understand the science behind the results.

'Balance the body'

Many alternative therapies claim to help "balance the body" by stimulating the flow of vital energy throughout body and mind. Such treatments can strengthen the body's immune system, practitioners say, by reducing the energy blocks and stresses that weaken it.

Until recently, however, alternative medicine has lacked the funding necessary to analyze these therapies' benefits.

Now the project at UM Medical Center, financed by a grant from the Sir Maurice Laing Foundation in Great Britain, is researching the scientific basis of the alternative therapies for pain.

Call it 'traditional' medicine

"The term 'alternative medicine' is a waste basket for many, many types of therapies," Dr. Berman says. "Some are patently unscientific, and some have a real usefulness."

Baltimore physician Dr. Alan Gaby, president of the American Holistic Medical Association, bridles when the term 'alternative medicine' is used to describe his practice of nutritional and herbal medicine.

"Herbalists have a 1,000-year-old tradition of medical care. I consider that what I do is traditional medicine," he says.

"In the past, alternative medicine has had a bad reputation among the medical community, partly because it is so diffused, and partly because research has not been emphasized," Dr. Berman says.

"This project is really to see where alternative medicine and conventional medicine can work together to help patients."

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