Living With Polio

(Complementary) Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies, also called complementary, can support natural self-healing and encourage behaviors that promote a sense of overall well-being. Some alternative therapies originated in diverse cultures and in earlier times; others have emerged from new discoveries in science. In one survey, the use of alternative therapies by people with disabilities was higher than in the general population (Krauss et al., 1998).

People use alternative therapies because of their actual and perceived effectiveness, the widespread and erroneous belief that they are natural and do no harm, and because their use offers the opportunity for more control over treatment options and procedures. Alternative therapies can reduce stress, pain, and/or fatigue. Some therapies are covered by health insurance when offered by licensed health care providers.

Nutritional therapies include special diets, dietary supplements, and herbal products. While the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals continues to be debated and studied, cell maintenance and growth requires at least the minimum recommended dietary allowance, and polio survivors should pay particular attention to the daily intake of nutrients. Herbs should be evaluated for possible interactions with medications. The herbal industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. As a safeguard, always purchase standardized products through reputable health food companies or pharmacies.

Exercise that involves gentle stretching and slow movement is often recommended for polio survivors. Yoga, yoga breathing, t’ai chi, and qi gong, with or without modifications, promote flexibility, improve oxygenation, and decrease general fatigue. Newer non-traditional techniques include watsu, a water-based version of shiatsu, and ai chi, an aquatic version of t’ai chi. When considering these therapies, request experienced practitioners with special training in therapeutic and adaptive techniques.

The relaxation response, a healthy state in which metabolism is slowed and muscle tension decreased, can be achieved in many ways: visualization and guided imagery (Rossman, 1993); progressive muscular relaxation; and yoga, meditation, and prayer (Benson, 1996). These self-care techniques provide health benefits including decreases in pulse, blood pressure, respiratory rates, and muscle tension. Research on people with chronic pain who regularly practice the relaxation response shows decreases in the severity of pain, anxiety, depression and anger, and an increase in activity (Caudill et al., 1991). Relaxation techniques can be learned from tapes, classes, or trained individuals.

Bodywork includes myofascial release (Smith, 1997), various types of massage, craniosacral therapy, chiropractic treatments, Trager, Alexander Technique, and trigger point therapy (Goldberg, 1995). These hands-on therapies are offered by specially trained people including some osteopathic physicians, physical therapists, or chiropractors. Improvements in range of motion, pain, and fatigue are often reported.

Energy work includes acupuncture and acupressure, traditional Chinese medicine techniques (Guang et al., 1987); therapeutic touch, developed in nursing (Gerber, 1988; Smith, 1997); and reiki and polarity (Goldberg, 1995). All require specialized training in balancing a person’s energy flow. Treatments typically promote a sense of well-being and relaxation. Improvements in pain and fatigue have been frequently reported.

Other adjunct therapies, some of which are more conventional, tried by polio survivors are hydrotherapy to ease pain and muscle spasms; biofeedback for learning to promote relaxation and increase oxygen flow to muscles (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1993); hypnotherapy for relaxation and pain relief (Hammond, 1991); magnet therapy for pain relief (Vallbona et al., 1997); and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units applied externally to reduce pain. Homeopathy, in which self-healing is stimulated by minuscule doses of a natural substance prescribed by a homeopath, and aromatherapy, which promotes relaxation and improves sleep by breathing or skin absorption of flower essences, have also been tried.

When choosing alternative therapies:

  • Do not assume all pain and fatigue are related to prior polio or that all post-polio pain is the same. Try to determine the location and the factors that instigate or increase pain. Understand the problem as completely as possible before choosing strategies.
  • Read up on therapies under consideration and interview practitioners and some of their patients. Choose a qualified practitioner who will individualize therapies.
  • Select ones that may be of significant help but have minimum potential for harm. Use alternative therapies, if appropriate, in addition to conventional medical interventions, including medication.
  • Disclose and discuss any plan for their use with other members of the health care team.

Excerpt from PHI’s “Handbook on the Late Effects of Poliomyelitis for Physicians and Survivors.” © 1999 

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