No Longer a Last Resort Alternative Health Care Makes Strides in the Mainstream

A dozen years ago, Mary-Anne DiBlasio was suffering from severe endometriosis, a condition of the uterus that causes often-severe pelvic pain.

Two surgeries later — both with complications, but no relief — her sister told her about Reiki and directed her to a local practitioner. She had never heard of this Japanese technique aimed at stress reduction, relaxation, and healing. It’s based on the idea that an unseen ‘life force’ or ‘energy’ flows through people, and when that energy is out of balance, it can cause someone to get sick or feel stress.

“I’m very much a black-and-white person, and I needed something more tangible. It seemed very new age,” DiBlasio told HCN. “I remember going to this woman and talking to her and giving her a chance to do what she does. I was to have a hysterectomy in six months. I told her, ‘you have six months to fix me.’ She said, ‘I don’t fix you; you actually fix yourself.’”

But after starting Reiki sessions, DiBlasio started feeling better. She stopped going — and the pain came back. When she returned, she started to learn about the theories of chakras, or the body’s seven energy centers. She said Reiki eventually helped her clear a block in one of her chakras, and her condition disappeared for good.

“My endometriosis was gone; it was confirmed by a medical doctor,” DiBlasio said. “When that happened, I went back and said, ‘OK, you need to tell me what you did to me and why it works. If I incurred a disease and this modality healed it, I need to know what happened, and I need to share it with other people.’”

So she studied to become a Reiki master and opened a business, Simple Pleasures of Mind, Body & Spirit, in Belchertown in 1999, offering Reiki treatments and other services. She later moved to West Springfield and changed the name of the home-based business to Western Mass Wellness, and has grown it to the point where she recently opened a storefront on Elm Street.

“I see people who have exhausted all their medical options; they come to me, astonished that this exists and makes them feel better,” said DiBlasio, who has taught this manipulation of energy to others like she was once taught. “It’s all based on vibration, and it’s all more scientifically based than people realize. Most of my clients become my students; I give them the tools to do this themselves.”

As someone who has both benefited from an alternative form of healing and communicated it to others, DiBlasio has observed a growing acceptance of complementary therapies, such as Reiki, acupuncture, yoga, and herbal remedies, over the past decade. In the late 1990s, about one-third of Americans had undergone such treatments. A decade later, a series of studies put that number above 40{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}, and it’s rising.

A study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Assoc. found that people who use alternative medicine tend to be more educated and in poorer health than individuals who use traditional therapies — suggesting that some, like DiBlasio, are arriving at these solutions out of desperation. Debee Boulanger, owner of the Abundant Wellness Center in Chicopee, has seen this trend in action.

“We’re getting a variety of people, even senior citizens who have exhausted all sorts of medical doctors and specialists and feel like there’s no other hope for them,” she said. “They’re seeking things like acupuncture; it seems like they’re doing that more than [therapeutic] massage at this point.

This month, the HCN looks at this trend in alternative health, why more people are seeking holistic therapies, and why they need to educate themselves before diving in.

It’s Not All Equal

Jonathan Evans, business representative for the Herbarium in Chicopee, a retailer of herbal and nutritional products, said he “most definitely” has seen an uptick of interest in holistic wellness.

“For whatever the reason, whether it’s the economy or just the cost of health care right now, people are getting very frustrated with a lot of pharmaceuticals,” he said. “They feel like they’re being overmedicated. And they’ve become much more aware of their own health and their own bodies, and they hear about side effects and contraindications. They see these commercials that say, ‘yes, it’s going to help you have nicer skin, but it could kill you.’ That kind of scares people, so they’re looking for something that’s safe.”

But safe and effective treatments require some research beyond just buying the latest ‘natural’ remedy. “I don’t like using the word ‘natural’ because all-natural doesn’t necessarily mean all-good,” Evans said. “Plutonium is natural, but we’re not recommending it.

“The Internet is a wonderful source of information, but why do people have this mental disconnect to think everything they see printed on the Internet is true? It absolutely confounds me,” he continued. “You can use it as a reference source, but believe 50{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of what you read — and do not buy the product. Talk to someone local.”

As an example, he cited a woman who had spent more than $170 on a supplement she found online, before Evans showed her a product on his shelf that addressed her condition for $12. He said people often have a get-what-you-pay-for mentality and believe something that high cost means greater efficacy. “I could say this costs $170 too, but I have to sleep at night. And if you don’t like my product, I’ll give you your money back. You know where to find me.”

But the price issue is equally irrelevant on the other side, he added, noting that discount houses often sell inferior, ‘secondary-market’ products.

“One fellow was using saw palmetto, one of our brands, and it worked beautifully,” Evans recalled, but when the customer ran out, he purchased a similar product from a discount retailer, and it wasn’t effective. Evans explained that the berries are used to make an extract, and the leftover ‘sludge’ is often sold in the secondary market, spiked with an active ingredient, and sold.

“That’s not how the plant works,” he said. “There are hundreds of chemicals and compounds within the plant. The truth is, the product is 100{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} saw palmetto, but it’s like buying a used teabag — it’s still tea, but you wouldn’t want to use it. It’s frightening.”

But people are becoming more educated and asking the right questions, he said, reflecting growing interest from the public in holistic treatment. Michael Foss, dean of the School of Health and Simulation at Springfield Technical Community College, has also seen this rising tide, as evidenced by enrollment in the school’s massage therapy programs.

“Did we ever think medical doctors would recognize acupuncture? Now they’re doing that,” he said. “Massage therapy is being used for pain management. The field is changing dramatically; it didn’t have a good reputation, but now it’s science-based and outcomes-based. Innovations like this are taking place all over health care, and where there’s innovation, there’s more opportunity.”

Like Evans, however, Boulanger said people who seek out alternative care need to do their homework first.

“You need to interview practitioners to make sure you’re getting a good match,” she said. “Somebody told me, ‘massage looks good; I’ll look someone up online or in the yellow pages.’ But what are their skills? Massachusetts is flooded with massage therapists; I’m not saying they’re not good, but chances are some don’t have advanced training.”

Coming Around

Patients are seeking out complementary care not only for themselves, but their loved ones. According to a striking survey conducted by Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, more than 90{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of parents would like to know more about alternative medical approaches for their children, and 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} believe hospitals should offer experts on both conventional and holistic care.

Yet, health insurers still are not covering many of these treatments, Boulanger said, which is “kind of sad” considering that many sessions of massage, Reiki, acupuncture, and other therapies cost around the same as a co-pay to a medical doctor. With a little research, she said, people could easily integrate them into their overall health picture.

“When people see these things as part of a wellness regimen that includes eating well and exercising, when they understand the benefits, they realize that they don’t have to rely solely on a doctor to take care of their health,” she said.

The insurance issue is also vexing, proponents of alternative care say, because holistic therapies promote general wellness and can help prevent the types of medical conditions that wind up costing the system much more money later on. Fortunately, many companies are setting up tax-free health savings accounts for employees, which often can be used for complementary care.

Meanwhile, the medical mainstream is coming around, if slowly, to the fact that patients are reporting stress relief, pain reduction, and a host of other benefits from alternative therapies.

“They have Reiki clinics in hospitals now,” DiBlasio said. “They’ve found that, if they perform Reiki before and after surgery, patients heal quicker. Think of the ramifications of that; insurance companies don’t have to pay out so much. They’re finding out this does work.”

DiBlasio hopes the day comes when modalities like Reiki, acupuncture, and other holistic healing is no longer considered ‘alternative.’

“We refer to ourselves as integrative therapy,” she told the Healthcare News. “I have clients’ doctors refer them to me, and insurance companies are starting to cover it. It’s growing by leaps and bounds right now. It’s a fantastic place to be.”

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