From the Outside In — Magnets, Massage and More

by Christina Medvescek on June 1, 2002 - 10:14am

There are untold numbers of things you can put in your body, put on your body, or do to your body to try to improve your health.

Every day, more than half the adult U.S. population gulps down some type of dietary supplement, to the tune of more than $12 billion a year. In addition, record numbers of people are turning to special diets, body manipulations and "energy field" therapies in an effort to live longer, stronger, healthier, more potent and pain-free lives.

Most of these practices — including such accepted ones as taking vitamins — offer no clear scientific evidence that they work. Very few nontraditional treatment strategies have been subjected to rigorously controlled scientific studies, although proponents can point to volumes of anecdotal evidence and hundreds of years of successful use by skilled practitioners.

By following such "therapies," some people believe they've experienced "miracle cures," some have traded their hard-earned cash for empty promises — and some have suffered dangerous side effects.

Of course, there also are people who have wasted money or become sicker from using scientifically proven, doctor-prescribed medical treatments. Nothing works for everybody. The bottom line: Be cautious and check things out thoroughly when seeking new therapies.

Marion Brandis, a nurse-clinician at the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Center at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, believes in trying complementary treatments, and says most of the ALS patients she sees already have started them.

"Many people are already going to chiropractors, acupuncturists or massage therapists, and using supplements and vitamins," she says. "You just have to be an extremely wise and careful consumer and not jump on a bandwagon.

"Think, ‘What would be my goals for this modality?'" she advises. "Find a trusted expert or someone in the field you can discuss it with.

"I'm most concerned about people who try unproved treatments where money is demanded up front. You've got to proceed carefully when expensive experimental therapies have not been tested in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial."

Quest discovered several treatments that have helped people with neuromuscular diseases feel better, stay healthier and be stronger. This article offers a shovelful from the mountain of alternatives available.

While there are no promises these treatments will work for you, they're unlikely to hurt you "if used in the usual doses and the way they are recommended," says John T. Kissel, co-director of the MDA clinic at Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus.

But — and we can't say this enough — check with your doctor before starting any new treatment.

Oregano oil

Hold the spaghetti sauce: Oregano oil has cut his CMT pain in half, says Glenn Prager, pictured with wife Sherrill, who uses the oil to keep her sinuses clear.

This isn't the same stuff you sprinkle in spaghetti sauce. The oil of wild oregano (as opposed to the dried commercial spice) is a remedy dating back to the ancient Greeks. It's known to have powerful antibacterial and antifungal properties, as well as being an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory.

Proponents claim oregano oil can clear up such diverse complaints as sinus infections, lung problems, allergies, jock itch and diarrhea. A recent study at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington found that it appears to be effective against drug-resistant staphylococcus bacteria.

It was oregano's pain-killing action that made a believer out of Glenn Prager, 66, of Las Vegas. Prager has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and two years ago was in so much pain he could barely sleep.

Induced to try a couple of drops of oregano oil by his daughter ("worst tasting stuff I've ever had in my life," he vows), Prager was amazed to find his pain subsiding within 45 minutes.

He and his wife now take two drops of the oil twice a day and, "where my pain level used to be at 90, now it is at 40," says Prager, who emphasizes that he doesn't sell the oil and has nothing to gain by touting it. "It's not a cure. It's just a pain reliever and it's helped me tremendously. I can sleep now all night long."

Oregano oil (be sure to get the pure stuff) can be bought online or at natural food/health stores.


Ahhhh: Massage therapist Sharon Kelch gives Danny Kollasch his weekly massage, a treatment his family believes is keeping him on his feet longer.

The healing touch of massage can improve blood flow, relax knotted muscles, relieve muscle spasms, loosen contractures, improve sleep, regulate the bowels and lift the mood. And while it can't make muscles strong, it may help to prolong their function.

Jenny Kollasch of Bancroft, Iowa, believes weekly massage keeps her 9-year-old son, Danny, stronger in the face of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Two years ago, she and her husband, Steve, decided not to put Danny on corticosteroid medication and began looking for another option. The idea of massages came from Danny's great-grandmother, who gets them regularly.

Kollasch says Danny's weekly half-hour massages have been very effective. He still can climb stairs and get up off the floor without assistance, and he isn't toe walking. His painful leg cramps also have greatly subsided.

"This has given Danny more time out of a wheelchair," Kollasch says, noting that prayer, family encouragement and a supportive doctor also have helped. "I believe massage has definitely helped his overall health. By being more active and mobile, he is feeling better about himself — and we all know that a positive attitude contributes to health."

Note: Experts say massage isn't advisable for people with dermatomyositis, skin conditions, blood clots or circulatory problems, malignancies or congestive heart disease.

Green Tea

Celebrated in Japanese tea ceremonies and crowned with names like "precious eyebrows," green tea has been revered in the East for some time. The more practical West recently jumped on the bandwagon, thanks to claims that green tea supports the immune system, prevents cancer, increases the effectiveness of cancer drugs and helps you lose weight.

A new study suggests this ancient beverage also might protect muscles in Duchenne MD.

A study at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2002), indicates that green tea's antioxidant qualities preserved and improved muscle health in newborn mice with DMD. The daily dosage given to the baby mice was equivalent to about seven cups of green tea for humans.

Several MDA researchers have called the Swiss study "interesting" and "worth keeping an eye on," and say it shows the potential for antioxidants to be of benefit in treating DMD, an idea that already was gaining currency. Whether or not it lives up to its promise, green tea is "generally safe" for people with neuromuscular diseases to drink, says Robert McMichael, director of the MDA clinic in Arlington, Texas.


Now this is an attractive idea — sleep on magnets and wake up feeling great. That's how it works for Debara Herman, 47, of Alliance, Neb.

Herman, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, has been sleeping "good and soundly" since getting a magnet mattress pad three months ago. She also uses a small magnet pillow behind her back while sitting and "my back is a new back," she enthuses.

"I really believe in them," she says of the magnets. "My doctor uses them, too."

Research suggests that precisely placed magnets can reduce pain, although the findings are controversial. Proponents say magnetic energy fields increase blood and oxygen flow, thereby reducing pain and swelling.

Anecdotes from people with neuromuscular diseases attribute improvement in their contractures and enlarged hearts to magnets (used with expert advice, not bought over the counter). Skeptics say the only thing magnets attract is the money out of your wallet, but concede that at the worst they're harmless.

Herman, who also uses exercise, vegetarian diet, vitamins and green tea to maintain good health, is ebullient about her results. "I just want people to know that I'm still walking around and still doing my own thing."

Warning: Don't use magnets if you have a pacemaker.

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