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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2008

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Could Alternative Medicine Help You?

By Rowena Alegrķa

Nearly two in three people age 50 and over have tried “alternative” treatments, says a survey from AARP and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine published early last year. Some are stroke survivors seeking to heal in new and sometimes ancient ways.

Actually, most of these “new” therapies have been practiced in China for thousands of years. Chinese medicine includes herbal supplements, meditation and acupuncture. Some
are meant to work with standard medical treatment. Many are called “holistic,” meaning
they treat the patient as a whole. This includesphysical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and economic needs.

“Stroke survivors should take responsibility for their health, and look for options,”
says Sue Goodin, CEO of Progressive Health Center in Englewood, Colo. The nonprofit organization unites alternative therapies with conventional treatments. “There might be
something that works for them.”

Goodin says that health services are so disconnected
that they don’t address the whole person. For example, many people with long-term conditions say they don’t want to take so many drugs. They want to explore other ways of managing their health problems. The center helps these patients set health and wellness goals, and then creates plans to help achieve them. Staff members work with doctors to offer patients everything from dietary advice and stress management to yoga and healing touch therapy.

“We wanted to be able to enhance someone’s services,”
Goodin says. “Bridging the gap between traditional
and holistic therapies is a huge piece of that.”

The Progressive Health Center, and others like it across the country, is serving a growing number of patients who want to do more than just treat their symptoms. If possible, they want to find the cause of their health problems and do whatever they can to prevent further illness. They are looking outside the traditional doctor’s office for answers.

The Memorial Hermann/HBU Wellness Center in Houston, for example, calls itself a prevention, wellness and recovery center.

“We are a lifestyle change center,” says trainer and program manager John Ramirez. “We cover all aspects of wellness mental, spiritual and  social.”

The center focuses on the needs of the Houston community. So it offers programs to
treat stroke, diabetes, obesity, heart ailments, and arthritis.

To work on balance, for example, patients learn the Chinese forms of movement
and meditation, called tai chi, in the water. The center calls the classes Aqua Chi.

The wellness center strives to be the place patients go when they have finished rehab or physical therapy but still feel like there is more work to do to get back to normal.

So many people complete what I call the probation period, says Ramirez. And then decide they’re not seeing results.

“We try to change that 90-day period to life,” he says. “It’s all about commitment.”

Many doctors in the United States, however, are more committed to traditional Western medicine. “I don’t tend to do any of the alternative things,” says Rich Zorowitz, a visiting associate professor and chairman at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. “There’s lots of stuff out there, but none of it has any evidence for or against it. It’s not proven.”

Zorowitz says tai chi is great for balance, particularly in older adults, and that there’s probably no down side to acupuncture. But he is especially fearful of some of the herbal treatments. “They are not necessarily benign,” he says. “They have potential side effects.”

Take, for example, gingko biloba. It is used to increase blood flow and enhance memory. But studies have shown that the best-selling herb may increase risk of bleeding in the brain. So it should not be used with Coumadin®, which is sometimes taken by those with
high risk for stroke.

“Certainly I think there are things we should be considering,” Zorowitz says. “Doing trials on some of this stuff would be very, very helpful. After all, you talk about willow bark; what became of it was aspirin. There may be some potential benefits. But they have
to be looked at systematically.”

Moleac, a drug company based in the Philippines, is attempting to do just that. The company is testing a mixture of 14 herbs that are used to treat stroke in China. They are testing the drug, called Neuroaid, in a clinical trial of about 600 patients.

David Picard, CEO and founder of Moleac, says the results look promising. “After a month of Neuroaid treatment, when compared with those not taking the treatment, twice as many patients show the chance to achieve independence,” he says.

“If you look at stroke,” he adds, “you have a lot of Western treatments, all meant to address secondary risk (recurrent stroke) prevention. There is no treatment yet in helping recovery. But what matters most for stroke patients is: Will I be able to do tomorrow
what I was able to do yesterday?”

The University of Kansas is also studying acupuncture for its effect on strength and stroke. For more information on this study, go to http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ and type in NCT00547690 on the search screen. “Basically, the major thing is to take great care in what you’re doing,” Zorowitz says. “Before you make any decisions, make sure you have all the information.”

It is also important to talk to your doctor about what you would like to try, in case it would conflict with your more traditional medicines. While 63 percent of those in the AARP survey said they had used an alternative treatment, 69 percent had not discussed
it with their physician.

More research is needed to scientifically prove that Chinese medicine and other alternative therapies can be a safe and effective part of your stroke rehabilitation. As these treatments continue to grow in popularity, however, we are likely to see a rise in the number of research studies in this area. Meanwhile, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence
that Chinese medicine and other alternative therapies work for some people. With the proper guidance from your doctor, you may even find one that works for you.


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