Complementary Medicine on the Main Line

From acupuncture to yoga, it’s here to stay.

Blame it on the hippies and their championing of treatments like acupuncture, yoga and Reiki. They have colored many of our views of more offbeat therapies, stigmatizing them as counterculture nonsense. Granted, most of us still prefer the white-coated professionals with prescription pads and initials after their names. These days, though, more and more of us are exploring alternative treatments.

And so are the region’s major healthcare systems. Each has incorporated alternative therapies into oncology, pain management, addiction recovery and other programs in an effort to enhance, not replace, Western medicine. Hence, this new and still-evolving field has been dubbed complementary medicine. 

Naturally, doubts remain. Acupuncture can’t cure cancer, and Reiki won’t prevent it. But that’s really the wrong perspective, says Tom Cain. As the president of Mirmont Treatment Center and Behavioral Health Services for Main Line Health, Cain relies on an analogy offered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Haverford College graduate and the founder of a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program used around the country. “Kabat-Zinn believes that the medical field is like an auto-repair shop,” says Cain. “When our bodies break, they fix us and say, ‘Do this and that.’ We leave and do what’s recommended—or not—then come back when something else breaks.” 

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Eastern medicine, on the other hand, looks at the functioning of the entire body—not simply the parts that are malfunctioning. Nor does it rely solely on prescription drugs. That’s how a lot of people end up in Mirmont. Addiction to opiates, in particular, is rampant in this country. 

At Mirmont, the staff teaches patients to use Reiki, acupuncture and other therapies to treat both physical and psychological pain. In fact, acupuncture is a critical component of a patient’s first 72 hours at the center. It helps the liver detoxify, reduces anxiety, and supports sleep, says Mirmont’s clinical director, Peg Costello.

“It’s important to consider [these] services from the perspective of our patients,” she says. “They’ve lived in realms of suffering and despair, often for many years. Through yoga, Reiki and acupuncture, they’re experiencing the power of their bodies without drugs and alcohol.”

At first, there can be some resistance. “But these things have a catching force, because of the healing and restorative force of their therapy,” says Costello. “That’s especially true of acupuncture. At the end of the detoxification period, patients ask if they can continue to do it.”

Acupuncture is believed to provide relief from chronic pain. “The basic idea is that, when your body is in pain, it’s telling you that your chi—or energy—is being blocked,” says Dr. Kim-Huong Nguyen, an acupuncturist at Crozer-Keystone’s Springfield Primary Care Associates. “We need to allow the blood and chi to flow as it did before the injury.”

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“There are three kinds of responses to acupuncture. Either the pain will not respond, it will get worse, or it will get better. The pain getting worse is not a bad thing. That means it can eventually get better.”

Nguyen goes on to explain that acupuncture isn’t effective for every sort of pain. Acute muscular-skeletal damage—to bones, muscles and tendons—generally needs Western orthopedic care. But neuropathic pain can be relieved through acupuncture, Nguyen says. And the benefit of complementary medicine is to have both Western and Eastern treatments available.

Acupuncture sessions can range from 15 minutes to an hour, incorporating needles of various lengths and widths. Within two sessions, Nguyen can determine if it’s working. “There are three kinds of responses,” she says. “Either the pain will not respond, it will get worse, or it will get better. The pain getting worse is not a bad thing, because at least it has reacted to the acupuncture. That means it can eventually get better.”

Antara Dutta believes in the efficacy of acupuncture. Her Ayuvia integrative wellness center offers Eastern-based treatments for issues ranging from pain management to smoking cessation to menopause. Before opening the center last year in Crozer-Keystone’s Brinton Lake complex, Dutta assembled an advisory board of doctors specializing in pain management, cardiovascular disease, women’s health, oncology and other areas. From there, she solicited advice on which therapies to include. Dutta wound up with a list of 300 treatments for more than 28 chronic diseases in which alternative medicine had been shown to have a positive effect, based on research. First on that list was the pain that can come from neuropathic damage, cancer, pregnancy, menopause, geriatric issues and more. “The list goes on and on,” Dutta says. 

Because Brinton Lake houses the Crozer-Keystone Regional Cancer Center, that disease is a special focus at Ayuvia. Acupuncture and different kinds of massage are used to relieve pain and promote healing in patients. 

Similar treatments are offered at events held by Unite for HER, a nonprofit group founded by West Chester’s Sue Weldon to provide complementary therapies to women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. During Unite for HER Wellness Days at Paoli and Bryn Mawr hospitals and Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, patients learn about Reiki, light massage, acupuncture, yoga, meditation and nutrition. The goal is to find non-pharmaceutical ways to relieve headaches, hot flashes, nausea and muscle pain. 

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The objectives are the same for naturopathy. Its doctors graduate from four-year medical schools and take their board examinations. Their licenses, however, are recognized in only 18 states—and Pennsylvania isn’t one of them. Regardless, naturopathic specialists in this state can work with M.D.s and D.O.s. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America, they’re part of the medical team that offers fully integrated care. CTCA’s Dr. Paul Gannon sees patients when they arrive—and on every visit thereafter. Throughout their treatment, he helps them manage the side effects of chemotherapy and maintain their quality of life. Generally speaking, he uses herbs, nutrients, nutraceuticals and homeopathic remedies—all high-quality versions not available at most stores. 

For nausea, Gannon recommends tea made from gingerroot, ginger extract in a tiny gelcap pill, Sea-Bands (which activate pressure points in the wrist), and peppermint inhalers. He also employs remedies that help the taste buds. “With nausea and taste changes comes the risk of the patient not eating and losing a lot of weight,” says Gannon. “That’s also why I look into gastrointestinal functioning. I want to know if they are eating and absorbing food. I also want to know if they have insomnia. Sleep is not only regenerative but also helps with their elimination, anxiety and a host of other things.”

Like most complementary treatments, the thrust of naturopathy is holistic. “We look at everything going on in the body—and not just the disease,” Gannon says. “That’s especially poignant at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, because people don’t want to have their lives reduced to just being cancer patients. Your life should not be defined by your disease—and neither should your medical care.”

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!