At Home, Spring 2007
Betsy Smith relates the options people have for health care treatment to how they get down a ski mountain.
Although we all take a lift to the top, we use different tools - telemark skis, Alpine skis and snowboards - to make our way to the bottom.
"Each one is perfect and will get you down the hill, but each one will do it in a different way," said Smith, a Five-Element Acupuncturist in Steamboat Springs.
Likewise, Americans increasingly are turning to non-conventional health care treatments for their ailments and general well-being. The trend is no different in Steamboat Springs, where the number of complementary and alternative medical practitioners has increased significantly in recent years.
In 2002, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine conducted a study of 31,044 adults ages 18 and older. Study participants were from the country's "civilian, non-institutionalized" population. The study concluded that 36 percent of adults are using some form of complementary or alternative medicine. People from all backgrounds are accessing such treatments, but seeking out non-Western treatments is more popular among women than men. Those who have achieved a higher level of education also tend to be more open to these practices.
Smith attributes the rising trend to precisely what it represents.
"I think people literally want an alternative. When I was in my car accident and couldn't move, I finally got so frustrated with doctors. I fired them all and went to a massage therapist," she said. "It provided an alternative to get away from pharmaceuticals because I couldn't take the drugs they wanted me to take."
Smith said she does not tell her clients to discontinue the drugs their doctors have prescribed because her treatment is a complementary component to their overall healing.
In general, complementary medicine is used in conjunction with conventional medicine. Consider this example: a patient using aromatherapy to lessen his or her discomfort after surgery.
Alternative medicine is used instead of conventional medicine to treat an ailment.
Smith said she became a five-element acupuncturist because of the unique way it addresses the body, health and healing.
"I was trained completely differently and diagnose, needle and treat differently than other acupuncturists," she said. "I diagnose through color, sound, odor and emotion. We believe when you put them all together, it will bring us to a particular element - either fire, earth, metal, water or wood."
By treating that person's specific element, Smith said she puts her clients in balance and that their symptoms diminish.
"The strength of the five-element treatment is really the emotional stuff," Smith said. "I treat a lot of depression, anxiety and stress from people's jobs. I've seen total changes in people's lives as a result of this."
Local massage therapist and acupuncturist Kari Pollert prefers the term "complementary medicine" to "alternative healing."
The word "alternative" only accentuates the separation from Western medicine, Pollert said. "Any discipline can't exist in a vacuum. People need all of these techniques, and there is not one that is better than another. There are so many ways of working on the body."
She admits that complementary healing has its limitations.
"If your child can't breathe, you're not going to go to an acupuncturist - you're going to go to the hospital," she said. "Western medicine has emergency medicine down pat as far as I'm concerned. That's an incredible thing we have available to us."
Pollert naturally progressed to acupuncture after practicing for many years as a massage therapist.
"They complement each other," she said. "I like to use massage (in an acupuncture session) because I like to be able to warm up an area before I put the needle in. I feel like it prepares the tissue and it reduces the amount of pain."
Acupuncturists insert needles into multiple points along the body's meridians.
"A meridian is like a channel of energy flow," Pollert said. "That's the part of acupuncture that is sometimes challenging for Western people to understand because that's not how we think."
Many acupuncturists also practice Chinese herbal medicine, which proponents say provides substitutes for many Western drugs. The herbal remedies can be used to treat allergies, asthma, fevers, digestive issues and emotional problems, among other issues.
"Chinese herbs are not designed to mask or suppress symptoms," Pollert said. "Herbs have actions that may be the opposite of what you experience. For instance, if you are having hot flashes, the herbs actually cool you on the inside."
Alternative healing practices also can be empowering to clients, said Julie Brusky, a Steamboat resident who practices Maya abdominal massage in addition to other massage techniques, physical therapy, cranial sacral therapy and Reiki. She enjoys teaching her clients how to perform Maya abdominal massage on themselves.
"It is very empowering for clients to be able to go home and do this," she said. "It makes a difference."
This massage technique can be used on men and women and is good for everything from back pain to fertility issues and emotional issues. She said she can guide internal organs into their proper position for optimum health and well-being.
"There is a huge amount of emotional stuff we hold in the pelvic area," Brusky said. "The main premise is to increase circulation to this core area."
Brusky often works on pregnant women as a preventive measure and to help make their pregnancies more comfortable.
"I can get the baby to lift up so you don't have the baby on the bladder the whole time," she said. "And it can help eliminate some of the back work."
Brusky is one of two local practitioners who use this technique. Suzanne Telly also performs Maya Abdominal Massage, which proved to be the missing link to Brusky's other disciplines.
"Incorporating it all together makes so much sense," she said. "I am a firm believer in alternative medicine. I try to do that first because it tends to be less invasive than Western medicine and is more of a holistic approach."
Steamboat Springs general surgeon Mark Hermacinski also considers Western medicine holistic - but in a different way.
"I might take care of your ulcer, but if you have another issue, I might send you to a mental health specialist, for example," he said. "If you have multiple problems, then you might be referred to multiple Western doctors to take care of your problems."
The big difference between conventional and complementary or alternative medicines, Hermacinski said, is that conventional medicine is based on scientific evidence.
"When we have a hypothesis, we test it with an experiment and we record all the history of the results. We have the history to back it up if the treatment works," Hermacinski said. "Alternative medicine can say 'We have good results here,' but they don't have numbers."
In Hermacinski's 10 years of practice in Steamboat, he has had two patients who were diagnosed with breast cancer and declined conventional treatment.
"They went on to do alternative medicine and failed miserably and died," he said. "There is enough scientific data that if you don't have breast cancer removed, it will grow and spread and eventually kill you, if something else doesn't first."
Hermacinski, like an increasing number of residents, thinks there are specific solutions for specific problems, and some of those solutions may involve complementary treatments.
"There's a lot of things that Western medicine does not address and does not address well, so there is a void," he said. "We need to individualize every patient and what is out there that can make you get better faster."