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January 11th, 2012 BEN WATERHOUSE | Culture Features
 

Heretical Healing

A guide to alternative medicine for the bewildered.

culture-2_3810Illustration by Greg Pizzoli
Why are Portlanders so drawn to therapies outside the medical mainstream? Maybe it’s our general love of deviance, or just because we’re broke, unemployed and can’t afford a trip to Kaiser. Whatever the reason, the city is home to a bewildering diversity of healing practices, ranging from the more-or-less conventional (chiropractors aplenty) to the quite odd (reiki for cats) to the outright bizarre (blue-skinned fans of colloidal silver). It’s an intimidating environment for a newcomer, and there’s a lot of misinformation in the marketplace.

It’s important to remember that unusual healing practices may not provide any physiological benefit, and also that, because humans are very strange creatures indeed, a treatment needn’t offer any scientifically measurable benefit. (If you’re really sick, though, please go to the hospital.) With that in mind, here’s a primer to some of the most common “alternative” healing practices in Portland, with analysis informed by the excellent research of Dr. Edzard Ernst, author of the Oxford Handbook of Alternative Medicine. 


Acupuncture

What it is: The practice of pricking the skin with needles to treat physical and mental ailments by manipulating the flow of “chi,” or life force.

What it costs: Based on a quick review of the Internet, anywhere from $15-$35 per treatment at Working Class Acupuncture to $95 per session at PDX Acupuncture.

Does it work? Maybe. With the exceptions of pain and nausea, acupuncture has not yet been shown to be more effective than sham acupuncture (performed randomly, without regard to tradition) in any large, reputable study. That said, even if both acupuncture and sham acupuncture merely produce a placebo effect, they do so very effectively. So long as you don’t run to your acupuncturist for chest pain, you should be fine.


Chiropractic Therapy

What it is: The manipulation of the spine to treat back and neck pain, and sometimes other disorders.

What it costs: Around $50-$100 per treatment.

Does it work? Yes! For back and neck pain, chiropractic treatments are as effective as any other tools in the modern medical arsenal. But like most medical practice, chiropractic care has its roots in some very strange ideas, some of which are still subscribed to by a minority of practitioners. If your chiropractor offers to cure your eczema, they’re probably crazy.


Colonic Irrigation

What it is: The use of enemas to “cleanse” the body, usually of unspecified “toxins.”

What it costs: $65 per treatment at Oasis Colonics, which also offers discounted packages of up to 12 enemas.

Does it work? Enemas have important medical uses, but they cannot “detoxify” the body. Barring serious organ failure, you are not being poisoned by the contents of your colon. If you must worry about pollutants in your environment, worry about your lungs and liver.


Craniosacral Therapy

What it is: The very gentle manipulation of the skull and the base of the spine to aid the proper movement of spinal fluid to treat conditions such as headaches, vertigo and learning disabilities.

What it costs: $70 for an hour of treatment by Dana Buhl, LMT.

Does it work? While the treatment is undoubtedly very relaxing, the little existing research on craniosacral manipulation failed to demonstrate any lasting therapeutic effect.


Cupping

What it is: The treatment of pain through the application of heated cups to the skin that create suction.

What it costs: $65 at Exodus Spa & Salon.

Does it work? The only controlled study of cupping found the treatment had no effect on pain, but it does seem to generate an above-average placebo response. The treatments can leave round bruises.


Ear Candling

What it is: The insertion of hollow candles into the ear that, when lit, supposedly draw ear wax and “toxins” out of the body to treat various nose and throat ailments.

What it costs: $10-$20 at Exodus Spa & Salon.

Does it work? A 1996 study in Spokane found the candles removed no ear wax, and in fact left candle wax deposits in the ears of patients. In short, you’re better off not sticking anything in there.


Herbal Medicine

What it is: The use of plants and plant extracts to treat ailments of all sorts.

What it costs: Varies.

Does it work? Yes, frequently. Much of our modern pharmacopeia is derived from plants to begin with—the English word “drug” comes from the Swedish druug, meaning “dried plant”—and many frequently prescribed herbal medicines, such as garlic for high cholesterol and cranberry for urinary-tract infections—have been proven to be very effective by rigorous studies. But be sure to buy treatments from a reputable source—some imported herbal supplements are contaminated with heavy metals—and keep in mind that herbal medications can have as many unpleasant side effects as anything from Pfizer.


Homeopathy

What it is: The fanciful idea that disease can be treated by administering minute amounts of a substance that would in large amounts produce similar symptoms, diluted in water.

What it costs: Too much. Prices vary wildly, but in all cases you’re just being sold water. Sometimes the water has a few molecules of some mineral, but so does the water that comes out of your tap.

Does it work? Hell, no. Not a single reputable study has found homeopathic magic water to be more effective than plain old water. But you shouldn’t need science to convince you—the principles of homeopathy are patently absurd.


Hypnotherapy

What it is: The use of hypnosis to treat a wide variety of ailments such as chronic pain and anxiety.

What it costs: $105 per session at Glancy Hypnosis; $160 per session from Geoffrey JN Knight.

Does it work? Depending on one’s level of suggestibility, hypnosis has been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety, pain and hypertension, but its usefulness for quitting smoking is still disputed. Unless you’re mentally ill, it couldn’t hurt.


Massage Therapy

What it is: You know, massage. They rub your muscles.

What it costs: Anywhere from $55 per hour at Papillon Massage to $145 per hour at Aequis.

Does it work? Yes, especially for back pain, anxiety and depression and constipation. And it feels awesome. Few studies have been performed on specialized massage techniques such as shiatsu and reflexology, so think twice before paying extra. The normal kind should do.


Reiki

What it is: Buddhist faith healing through the laying on of hands to transmit healing energies.

How much it costs: $45 per hour at Susan’s Reiki for Life; $60 per hour at Awakenings Wellness Center.

Does it work? Of course not—or at least not more so than any other sort of faith healing. Being touched to the sound of singing bowls is nice, but you can probably find someone to do it for less than a buck a minute, even if they might not have a tiny rock garden or miniature waterfall. 


GET IT CHEAP!

Acupuncture:
Oregon College of Oriental Medicine offers $25 treatments at its Intern Teaching Clinic at 10541 SE Cherry Blossom Drive. See ocom.edu for details. The five Portland members of the Community Acupuncture Network (pocacoop.com) offer treatments for as little as $15.

Chiropractic Care:
University of Western States (uws.edu) operates a clinic at 221 W Burnside St. that provides free or low-cost care to uninsured and underinsured patients.

Massage:
There are several massage schools in the Portland area. The largest, Oregon School of Massage (oregonschoolofmassage.com), offers $45, one-hour massages on its campus at 9500 SW Barbur Blvd. East West College (eastwestcollege.com) offers $25, 45-minute massages from its students at 525 NE Oregon St. Thai massage school The Naga Center (thaimassageinportland.com) offers $45, one-hour massages at 4423 NE Fremont St.


 
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