3 treatments that make a difference


8 March 2011

Millions of people visit complementary therapists for a variety of pains and problems, but can they really help? We weigh up the evidence for three of the most popular ‘alternative’ treatments.

Modern Western medicine is offering ever more sophisticated tests and treatments. But it isn’t always as successful as simpler therapies for dealing with long-term chronic conditions such as backache, headaches and arthritis.

Dr Richard Halvorsen, a GP who is also trained in acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine, points out: ‘Orthodox medicine has a lot to offer, but in terms of chronic conditions it palliates but doesn’t cure. Complementary therapies can provide relief for such conditions and also give more power to the patient.

In conventional medicine we are moving more and more towards guidelines and protocols, which means that everyone with a particular illness gets treated the same. The great thing about complementary therapies is that they treat the individual.’ In this feature, we weigh up the evidence of three popular Eastern-based therapies.

T'ai chi

What is it?
A system of movement founded by a Chinese Taoist monk between 960 and 1279AD. There are many different styles and two different ‘forms’ short and long. These are a series of movements learned over a period of weeks or months. Each move is performed slowly with relaxed muscles and complete mental focus.

How does it work?
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), of which t’ai chi is a part, the system helps to rebalance the flow of the body’s ‘life energy’ or ‘chi’, which circulates around the body in invisible channels or ‘meridians’.
Consultant cardiologist Professor Kevin Channer, of Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital, offers t’ai chi to patients recovering from heart attacks as part of their rehabilitation. He says: ‘T’ai chi is absolutely complementary. As orthodox doctors we are very good at treating physical problems, but have nothing that helps the psyche. A third of patients who have heart attacks get depressed but conventional cardiac rehabilitation does nothing to address that. I recommend all my patients to try it at least.’
Professor Channer and t’ai chi practitioner David Barrow are currently studying whether the Wu Chian Chuan style of t’ai chi is effective in helping patients with heart failure. ‘T’ai chi is safe and improves the quality of life of heart patients, and the effects are long-lasting,’ says Professor Channer. 

Who can it help?
T’ai chi can ease stress disorders, improve balance, aid hearing and heart problems, promote wellbeing and slow the ageing process. 

Where's the evidence?
A 2004 study took a group of 256 healthy but inactive elderly people, aged 70 to 92, and taught them either t’ai chi or stretching. After a year, those who had learnt t’ai chi had better balance and suffered fewer falls. A trial carried out in Sheffield in 1996 showed t’ai chi to be as effective as aerobic exercise in helping people recover from a heart attack. And Australian researchers at the Flinders Medical Centre found that t’ai chi can also help reduce the painful post-surgical arm swelling lymphoedema in breast cancer patients.

Find out more
Discover more about the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Great Britain at www.taoist-tai-chi-gb.org.

Case history

‘I have more energy’
Helen Newman, 76, a painting teacher who lives in Hampstead, North London, uses t’ai chi to help with the symptoms of osteoporosis.
‘I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in the 1970s, and it caused terrible backache. I started doing the yang form of t’ai chi three years ago and I now go three times a week. I have more energy, my posture is better and I don’t get backache any more. It is marvellous for the mind and for co-ordination. And the great thing is I can now walk without pain.’ 


What is it?
Part of TCM, an ancient system of healing practised in the Far East for more than 4,000 years, which involves inserting fine needles into specific points on your body. 

How does it work?
According to traditional Chinese medical thinking, the needles stimulate the flow of vital energy or chi, which is said to flow throughout the body in a network of 12 to 14 invisible channels, or meridians, that lie beneath the skin. Conventional doctors believe that acupuncture triggers the release of chemicals in the nervous, hormonal and immune systems that can block pain pathways to the brain and enhance mood. 

Who can it help?
According to GP and acupuncture practitioner, Dr Richard Halvorsen, who practises in Holborn and at the Broadgate Spine Centre in the City of London, ‘I find it successful for painful conditions such as headaches and migraines, musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis, neck pain and tennis elbow. It can also help nausea and vomiting. I use it a lot for pregnancy nausea.
Some practitioners use it to reduce cravings in people who are trying to overcome addictions related to alcohol, smoking, food and drugs. 

What’s the evidence?
Acupuncture is one of the five therapies that the House of Lords Select Committee on Complementary and Alternative Medicine considered to have the best professional organisations and training standards and the most convincing supporting evidence. Meanwhile, the June 2000 report by the British Medical Association recommended that acupuncture should be more widely available on the NHS for treating back pain, nausea, vomiting and dental pain.
Another study in the same year from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, found acupuncture to be effective in reducing pain and increasing mobility in people with osteoarthritis in their knees. Another study presented to the American Heart Association in November 2001 found that it can reduce pressure on the heart in people with heart failure. 


What is it?
A regime of mental and physical training that originated 5,000 years ago in India as part of a programme of spiritual development. ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘union’ (which shares the same language root as the English word ‘yoke’) and the practice is part of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian healing system.
There are several forms, but the one most usually found in the UK is hatha yoga, which means ‘balance of mind and body’. 

How does it work?
Yoga helps stretch and strengthen muscles and stimulates nerve centres and internal organs through the regular practice of physical postures or asanas. Breathing techniques (pranayama), which help optimise the flow of prana, or ‘life energy’, help strengthen the lungs and improve breathing. 

Who can it help?
‘Yoga is good for a wide range of psychosomatic and stress-related conditions, including back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, high blood pressure, heart conditions, ME and diabetes,’ says Dr Robin Munro, founder of the Yoga Biomedical Trust, which carries out research into the medical applications of yoga and trains yoga teachers in therapeutic yoga. Teachers work on a one-to-one basis or in small groups. ‘We have also had success helping people with breast cancer before and after treatment. Yoga is an economic way of treating a wide range of different conditions and of empowering people to manage their own health,’ he adds. 

What’s the evidence?
A 2005 study of Iyengar yoga a type of yoga that uses props such as blocks and straps to help attain postures at the University of Pennsylvania found it eased symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee. Another study that reported in the same year, from the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in London, concluded that yoga may be effective in easing depression. The Yoga Biomedical Trust, meanwhile, is involved in a study of yoga for diabetes and is currently looking to set up a big trial of lower back pain.

Find out more
The British Wheel of Yoga is the largest organisation in the UK and has a list of teachers who have done its two-year course, but this is not exhaustive. Visit www.bwy.org.uk. The Yoga Biomedical Trust has a list of fully qualified yoga teachers who have done further specialist training in yoga therapy. Visit www.yogatherapy.org 

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