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Web Offers Plenty of Alternative Treatments

July 7, 2008

By Heather Warlick

Whether it’s cleaning your ears with a candle or creating a vacuum to cure a cold, the Internet offers plenty of alternative treatments for whatever ails you.

A Web search for “alternative medicine” returns millions of hits, but verifying how well these methods work often is difficult since anyone can post a Web site. The term describes treatments that don’t fall into the category of traditional Western medicine.

Though many of these alternative treatments are effective or at least not harmful, some are unproven or even harmful.

Here is a rundown of facts about some alternative practices. Some are endorsed by doctors, and some are not.

Ear candles are long, cone-shape paper and wax devices believed by some to remove excess wax from the ears. Some people believe the candles remove bad spirits and negative energy.

The directions for ear candling instruct users to insert the narrow end of the cone into the ear with the head in a vertical position. The wide end of the ear candle is then lighted which, in theory, creates a slight vacuum effect that is thought to warm the excess earwax and pull it out into the candle.

“I think it’s something that a lot of people do, and they don’t really know what the risks are,” said Dr. Rachel Franklin, associate professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. “People see this black gooey stuff on the inside of the candle and go, ‘Wow, it got it all out.’” In reality, the dark sooty residue is more likely residual wax from the ear candle and not earwax or other in-ear impurities, Franklin said.

Risks associated with ear candling include burns, perforation of the eardrum and blockage of the ear canal with residual wax from the candle.

A recent study analyzed the results of ear candling.

“In the trial, they compared people who used ear candles before and after the candling. They found out that it did not create any suction, it did not remove wax, and in several people, it actually caused candle wax to drip in the ear and block it,” Franklin said.

Earwax moisturizes the ear canal. If the ear canal gets too dry, it can cause dizziness, nausea and pain, and it can predispose the ear for infections of the canal.

Some people do have excess earwax that can become impacted and require treatment — approximately 10 percent of kids, 5 percent of normal healthy adults and more than 50 percent of nursing home patients, according to the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians. And people with more body hair or oily skin than average often have more earwax, Franklin said.

“It can be a problem if there’s an impaction present, but the misconception a lot of people have is that any wax equals dirty ears, and that’s not the truth,” Franklin said. Wax impactions often result from “abusing Q-Tips,” she said.

“Rule of thumb: Don’t stick anything into your ear farther than you can put your pinkie in there,” she said. “Ideally, especially for people who are mentally handicapped, disabled or for children, they shouldn’t put anything in their ears, period, because it’s hard for them to control that.”

For people who use cotton swabs to dry their ears after a shower or swimming, Franklin recommends filling a dropper bottle with a mixture of equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. After showering or swimming, you can put a few drops in your ear to dry the water. An over-the-counter product for swimmer’s ear can be used as well.

Another of Oz’s favorite treatments is the use of a neti pot for sinus-cleansing nasal irrigation. Users of neti pots swear by the benefits for sinus and allergy sufferers. The practice that originated in India as a yogic method of cleansing the sinuses called jala neti involves funneling noniodized salt water through one nostril, up into the sinus cavities and out through the other nostril.

On “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last year, Oz demonstrated the neti pot’s use with an audience volunteer, identified as Amy, who suffered from sinusitis.

“It’s actually filling up those little nooks and crannies that you have and allowing your body to evacuate that stuff so you can actually begin to function normally,” Oz said.

Amy cautiously eyed the pot, which looks like a miniature version of Aladdin’s lamp, but at Winfrey’s and Oz’s encouragement, inserted the spout into her nostril, tilted her head to the side and let the salt water flow through her sinuses. Winfrey jokingly called the device a “nose bidet” and, according to The New York Times, that day, “nose bidet” became among the most popular Google search terms.

A month later, Winfrey did a follow-up interview by telephone, and Amy said she had used the neti pot daily that month and hadn’t had a sinus headache. Since then, neti pots have become widely used and easily purchased at local drugstores, natural food stores and online.

On www.oprah.com, Oz offers advice on using neti pots. He notes that when washing human tissue, skin cells prefer salt water over regular water, which he says can be irritating.

“I thought it would feel like drowning,” Amy said. “But it feels good.”

Oz said during the taping that ear, nose and throat doctors who are specialists in this area often recommend treating sinus and allergy problems with the neti pot treatment over a lot of drugs “because it mechanically cleans out the problem.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz recently sang the praises of rolfing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” undergoing treatment for the show’s taping. After that, the deep muscle massaging practice of rolfing went from the shadows to the limelight instantly.

“Oprah has been a big promoter of rolfing,” said Dan Gentry, an Oklahoma City rolfer. He has been a certified rolfer for 21 years.

Rolfing Structural Integration is the hands-on manipulation of muscles and the fascia that surrounds them. It was developed by Ida P. Rolf 50 years ago. According to www.rolf.org, it works on the connective tissue to release, realign and balance the whole body. Rolfing is believed to enhance patients’ posture and freedom of movement.

Since Oz’s and Winfrey’s endorsement of rolfing, Gentry’s practice has steadily increased, and he said he is booked solid several months out. Gentry charges $150 per session and plans to add rolfers to meet the demand.

Wade Penn has been seeing Gentry on and off for 14 years. His sister in California told him about the treatment, saying it made her feel 18 again. Persuaded by her testimony, Penn sought treatment from Gentry even though he had no drastic health problems at the time.

“You just get tensed up over the years,” Penn said. “I had my muscles tied up in knots, and he just straightened them all out, and he makes you walk straighter and better and lighter.”

When a patient comes to Gentry in pain, he identifies the source of pain and devises a treatment strategy to address it. Once the patient is comfortable, Gentry often continues treatment by beginning a 10-step program “What I do is I go in and lengthen those muscles, taking the pressure off those nerves, and then I work on the muscles that are working against one another,” he said. He has about a 98 percent success rate with his patients and said he believes in the treatment because he sees the benefits to his patients every day.

Penn believes, too. A few years after he began seeing Gentry, he had to undergo major back surgery that resulted in severe nerve damage in his right leg and foot. He said he began seeing Gentry every week when his traditional physical therapy didn’t help his pain.

“Dan’s really helped the nerve problems in my leg and back, and I don’t have near the pain,” he said.

These days, Penn says he is a walking example of the benefits of rolfing.

“I feel pretty doggone good, and for somebody that’s not supposed to be walking, I’m up running and walking. I feel great. Rolfing is just a great thing. I’m all for it. It does wonders.”

In traditional Chinese medicine and in alternative medicines found in many other global societies, fire cupping is an accepted practice in which people apply acupressure by creating a vacuum effect using a heated cup. The vacuum pulls the skin upward, where it is held for the duration of therapy. The therapy is used to relieve muscular pain and various respiratory conditions such as the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis.

Cupping therapy leaves large circular welts on the skin, and Franklin said the reasons Western doctors are concerned about the practice is the possibility of burns and bruising. But the practice is part of a respected and recognized therapy in other cultures.

Another such practice is called coining or cao gi. According to altmed.creighton.edu, the practice of coining is most commonly seen in Southeast Asia and involves rubbing heated oil on the skin, most commonly the chest, back or shoulders, and then vigorously rubbing a coin over the area in a linear fashion until a red mark is seen.

The Web site states that coining is believed to allow a path by which a “bad wind” can be released from the body. This “wind” is believed to be the cause of the patient’s illness. Advocates use this method to treat a variety of minor ailments including fever, chills, headache, colds and cough.

Though American doctors occasionally see patients who practice coining, it is not common in the United States. The practice concerns doctors because of the potential for burns, bruises, renal contusions and brain hemorrhage, Franklin said.

“It’s more a point that people be aware that if they see other people with this on their skin, they’re not abusing themselves. This is part of a respected and recognized traditional medicine in their community. We don’t have any evidence in Western medicine that it does anything, but we don’t believe it’s harmful, either,” Franklin said. She also warned that it is not a good idea to cup or coin yourself.

There are many other alternative practices that doctors warn against but that haven’t been found to be harmful. Use of magnetic or copper bracelets to alleviate arthritis and carpal tunnel pain is one example. The Family and Preventive Medicine Department at University of Oklahoma College of Medicine conducted a study in 2002 comparing the pain-relieving effects of magnetic bracelets versus placebos and found little or no difference in pain relief.

“That said, wearing magnets is not harmful, so it’s one of those things where the placebo effect is nevertheless an effect. If there is no harm, then I don’t criticize the practice as long as the patient doesn’t have unrealistic expectations,” said Dr. Rachel Franklin, associate professor of family and preventive medicine at the OU College of Medicine.

Static magnets have been used for centuries to relieve pain and to achieve health benefits such as increased energy. Critics say magnets have no effect on muscle tissues, bones, blood vessels or organs because typical therapeutic magnets create such a small magnetic field. Doctors also worry that self-treatment with magnetic therapies could stop people from seeking treatment for an underlying medical problem.

Also, most magnetic therapy products carry a label warning that they may interfere with the function of pacemakers, implanted medical devices or insulin pumps. Also, pregnant women are warned against using magnetic therapy.

Image Caption: A patient receiving fire cupping therapy. Courtesy Alanna Ralph (Wikipedia)