From a curiosity to a cure

Alternative medicine has emerged from the shadows and has found a place in major American hospitals

October 07, 2007|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,Sun reporter

Kim Holland's biker-chick days were over not long after they began, with the 46-year-old smashed between her Harley and a guardrail in Elkridge, and a bystander saving her right leg by taking off his belt and making it into a tourniquet before paramedics rushed her to the hospital.

A week after she arrived at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center - a week filled with operations and skin grafts, narcotics by pill and by pump - she lay in bed. The lights down low, soft music playing to drown out the buzzing and beeping and ringing that make up a hospital's soundtrack, two women slowly waved their arms over Holland's broken body, as if trying to push away the pain.

Their motions resembled part modern dance, part pantomime, as they used a technique of laying on hands called reiki (pronounced ray-kee) to help Holland relax and, they hope, heal more quickly by restoring her "energy balance."

In a strange pairing, high-tech Shock Trauma is opening its doors to a fuzzier sort of medicine, one that focuses less on the physical and concrete and more on the spiritual. As part of the Baltimore hospital's pain management options, patients are being offered acupuncture, reiki and music therapy alongside OxyContin and morphine.

Officials at the University of Maryland say this is the first time that alternative medicine has been used in a trauma center in the U.S., a sign of the growing acceptance of this booming field.

"I was very skeptical. I was like, `OK, so you wave your hands over people and there are these energy fields and this makes you feel better?'" recalled Dr. David Tarantino, an anesthesiologist who runs Shock Trauma's pain management service. "I said, `Obviously it isn't going to cause the patient harm so let's try it.'

" ... The more I have become involved with this and seen firsthand what it does for our patients, the more it has piqued my interest."

In partnership with the university's Center for Integrative Medicine, Shock Trauma has been quietly introducing its patients and doctors to some of these ancient, low-tech approaches to dealing with pain. More than 350 have been treated with these therapies in the past year, choosing them as part of a menu of pain management options.

At Shock Trauma, a clinical research study is under way to look at the effectiveness of acupuncture on trauma patients, to see whether it lessens a patient's reliance on drugs. A reiki study could follow, which might quiet skeptics who still wonder whether its power is little more than one of suggestion.

"We're not machines, and our minds affect our bodies in substantial ways," said Dr. Brian Berman, director of the integrative medicine center. But, he said, "the proof's in how people do. We can talk about the theory, but is it helping people or not?"

The medical literature on acupuncture has been growing, showing mixed results. The treatment has been found to help with knee pain from osteoarthritis, with nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, with postoperative pain in dental patients and with some back pain. Sometimes the results are very positive, sometimes less so.

Dr. Lixing Lao, the center's director of traditional Chinese medicine research, said acupuncture has so many possibilities because, unlike a drug, it has no specific receptor in the body. It stimulates the body to heal itself, he said. That is what gives it the power to treat diarrhea as well as constipation, he said.

Reiki has been less studied, though the reaction of patients makes it "ripe for study," Berman said.

Historians say reiki was developed in the early 20th century by a Japanese physician and monk, Mikao Usui, and came to the United States in the 1930s. Reiki is a Japanese word, derived from rei, which means universal, and ki, which means life energy.

Practitioners say they use the technique to quiet the body and mind. This form of laying on hands often involves very little touch, only what looks like a massaging of the air around the body, as practitioners transmit their ki to the patient.

"I know that it can seem a bit strange, but in ways we have to go by what our patients say to us," Berman said. "Patients are saying, `We really feel that it helps us.' We don't really know until we do some randomized clinical trials."

In the past 20 years, more credence has been given to the concepts of holistic medicine and to the role the mind plays in a patient's recovery and well-being. Studies have shown in recent years, meanwhile, that more and more people have tried different forms of alternative medicine.

The National Institutes of Health has a center devoted to these once-fringe methods - the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, established in 1998 - and has been funding a substantial amount of research into them.

"M.D.s hadn't realized what a phenomenon it was," said Dr. James Whorton, professor of medical history at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Nature Cures: The History of Alternative Medicine in America.

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