When you think of medicine do you think of fresh mountain air and cool glacier fed streams? A refreshing breeze rustling the aspen leaves wafting the scent of pine with just a hint of vanilla, while lazy fluffy white clouds drift past rocky peaks. Or, is medicine fluorescent lights, an antiseptic tang in the air; a chemical based world of drugs and pharmacy? In the modern world of steel and glass high rises, cement and asphalt paved ground, it is easy to forget that only a couple generations ago the rainbow of flowers poking through the high mountain grass, the verdant world of grasses, trees and bushes, was the only medicine that has sustained us since the dawn of human existence.
This weekend the American Institute of Integrative Herbalism (AIIH) held our 3rd annual Colorado Mountain Medicinal Plant Field Study where we reconnected with the medicinal plants that grow in the mountains of our beautiful state. Students, clinicians and artists gathered in the picturesque Rocky Mountains to learn how the plants that grow all around us can be used for health and healing. In this modern world of surgery and biomedicine it is easy to forget that nearly 70%-80% of new drugs come from plants, but as you’re walking through the high mountain meadows, hearing each plant’s medicinal benefits, it is impossible to ignore each drop of color holding the whisper of medicine and the promise of health. Every day we encounter herbs that can be used to help many common ailments and here are just 4 of the highlights from this past weekend.
Many of us are familiar with this herb, and you may already be slapping on some Arnica gel or liniment to treat your sore, bruised and achey muscles and joints. Most of us however, don’t know that this beautiful yellow flower grows all over the Rocky Mountains. Like a burst of sunshine poking through the green underbrush, this powerful little plant has long been used topically for traumatic injuries and poor circulation. Infused into oil or alcohol some caution is needed when using this herb as it has some toxicity, and should never be applied to open wounds or taken internally.
Well known for helping us sleep, this plant is another common one that grows throughout much of North America. The root is the main part of the plant that is used. Having a unique, musky scent that some say is reminiscent of sweaty gym socks, it is immediately obvious when harvesting this plant that it contains strong, albeit pungent, medicine. While Valerian is deserved of its reputation as an herb to help sleep, some may find that it has the opposite effect and does not relax them at all. The reason for this, according to Chinese Herbal theory, is that Valerian is a “warming” herb and should not be used when someone has a warm constitution. Signs of warmth, or heat, in the body may include high blood pressure, acid reflux, easily red flushed skin and face, red eyes, generally feeling hot all the time, dry mouth and thirst, a bitter taste in the mouth and being easily irritated and angry. That means, if you have some or all of these symptoms it is best to consult with an experienced herbalist before using Valerian. However, more than just being an herb for insomnia Valerian has a long history of usage to treat joint pain, bruising, digestive pain and diarrhea.
Perhaps not as well known, this plant has recently gained popularity because of its ability to help adjust to high altitude environments and improve exercise performance. The species of Rhodiola that has been most studied is one that grows in Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia, but other species have been used extensively throughout Scandinavia and Europe as well. The Colorado species is quite similar to all of these and could potentially be used for a similar purpose. Aside from increasing oxygenation in the blood, it has also been shown to have positive effects on stress and cortisol levels, In some studies it has even been shown to be helpful in mental health conditions such as depression.
This plant grows all over the Northern Hemisphere of the world and has been used as medicine in nearly every culture since the beginning of human existence. Fossilized yarrow has been found in caves of Neanderthals dating back 40,000-60,000 years ago, and the latin name for yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is named after the Greek hero Achilles where legend says he learned of it from the ancient Greek healer Chiron, and used it to heal his soldiers during the Trojan War. Fortunately, this feather-leafed, white topped plant is ubiquitous in Colorado and perhaps one of our best local medicinals. An herb with many uses, it can help stop bleeding when applied topically, assist in sweating out a respiratory infection in the initial stages, relieve the pain of gas and indigestion in digestive upset, soothe menstrual cramps, ease pain and cramping in muscles and joints when applied topically and even calm symptoms associated with stress and depression. Truly if one were to only know one plant that grows in our beautiful Colorado mountains this would be it!
So, next time you take a hike, or even if you’re just walking around your local neighborhood or backyard, take a look at the plants growing all around you and know that many, if not most, of those plants may be edible or medicinal in some way. Of course, this article is not intended to give any medical advice, and please seek the advice of a trained herbalist before taking any herbal medicines you are unfamiliar with. This is especially true before you go harvesting plants in the wild, as one should always educate themselves on sustainable harvesting practices before collecting any plants in the wild. However, all of us could benefit from knowing how to use the plants that grow all around us, so seek out the aid of your local herbalist, or join us on a plant walk outside and experience the bounty the natural world has to offer.
What Is Holistic Rheumatology?
This is a specialty where we focus on treating pain and inflammation of the musculoskeletal system using natural holistic treatments. In this post we’ll discuss the many holistic solutions to rheumatological diseases such as Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and more.
Why Do We Have Pain?
Before we talk about how to get you out of pain it’s important to know why we have pain in the first place? Think of a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge. Tall, red, steel towers, with arching cables spanning the length of the bridge reaching to the steel girders lining the pavement of the road below. This suspension bridge is a great analogy for the way our body is constructed. The steel cables are like our muscles, tendons, and connective tissue and are attached to the large steel supports and the road, which are like our bones. All these must be balanced and even for the bridge to be usable; just like the tissues in our body must be balanced and healthy for all the blood vessels and organs to have clear passage and space to function. If the steel cables of the bridge have uneven tension one side is pulling more than the other, and it would begin to pull the whole bridge up in one spot while another spot would sink. In the short run, if the amount of pulling was small, it may not cause permanent damage, but over time cracks develop and the cables weaken from this imbalanced tension. This must be repaired, or eventually everything will collapse. The same is true with our body, if one area is continually pulled or pushed more than another, the body must adapt or collapse. The way we repair a bridge is by sending in construction crews. The construction crew must be able to easily drive along the road in order to deliver all the necessary equipment to the bridge, then they must block the area they are working on in order to give them space to do their work. In our body the “construction crew” is our immune system and the response and flow of this crew is dependent upon the vessels in our body and a proper inflammatory response. Like the construction crew rushing to the area, our body increases blood flow to an injured area and immune cells infiltrate the spot to break down the damaged tissue and repair it. Like the orange cones and flashing signs blocking the work site, the nerves send a pain signal as a warning to restrict movement in the area and prevent further damage.
Is Inflammation a Bad Thing?
Overall, inflammation is not a bad thing. Just like a construction zone, it may not be convenient, but it is our bodies natural repair mechanism and the only way it can heal the damage. Of course, we’ve all heard the hype around chronic inflammation being a bad thing and causing many diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, but this is different than a short amount of inflammation. In our bridge analogy chronic inflammation is similar to our bridge continually breaking and the construction crew continually blocking traffic across. We’ve all tried to drive along roads that are always under construction and know the pain and annoyance this causes. More than just an annoyance however, what if this bridge is the only way in and out of a city? How well will the city function if supply trucks, workers, and residents can never get in and out efficiently? This is what is happening in the body when we experience continual, chronic injuries and inflammation and don’t allow for proper healing. So, yes, while inflammation is inherently not a bad thing, chronic inflammation, like a construction crew that never finishes will cause everything to become more congested.
How Can We Heal?
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help our “construction crew.” We must treat the root of the pain, keep inflammation in check and maintain free and open pathways of healing. Holistic Rheumatology utilizes many tools of natural health to assist your body’s natural healing mechanisms. When we use Acupuncture to heal the body, the acupuncture needle alerts the body to the area of damage. If our Golden Gate Bridge has a crack in it, someone must see the damage and call the repair crew. An acupuncture needle is doing just this. By inserting a needle into the body, it is signaling the brain and the immune system to recognize the damage and quickly send help. Herbal medicines are another great tool to help our body heal. They are like the tools and resources our construction crew uses in order to fix the damaged structures of the bridge. Perhaps we need asphalt to repair the road, cement, more steel cables, or more cones or barriers to block the area off. In the same way herbal plants are jam packed with minerals, vitamins and nutrients our body needs in order to nourish our tissues and provide it with the resources and tools it needs to heal. How do the engineers know how to build and repair the bridge in the first place? They run simulations and experiments in order to test their ideas and materials. This is what exercise and stretching does for us. By stretching and exercising we are modeling and practicing the activities and movements our body may have to perform. By physically training our body daily, we are forcing the body to adapt and change, so when we are unlucky and get into a car accident, or fall, we’ve already put our body into a position that it recognizes, we’ve already strengthened it sufficiently, and now it will not become injured so severely. No physical structure, neither our body nor a bridge, can continually function smoothly without continual routine maintenance and repair. The food we eat every day provides nourishment and resources to our body, so everything runs smoothly and efficiently and can provide the day to day maintenance it requires. This is why I combine multiple modalities in my practice to heal your pain. Nutrition alone, while providing the resources for routine maintenance is not always enough to repair recent damage. Herbs, while giving your body important tools to heal tissue damage and calm chronic inflammation, are not as quick at signaling the brain and the immune system as acupuncture is. Acupuncture, while sending a good strong signal, is not going to smooth out the bumps in the road. For this massage is best at maintaining smooth and efficient movement along your muscles and tissues. This is why at Wiseman Natural Health all these modalities of natural medicine are combined to give you the best tools available to stimulate your body’s natural healing mechanisms and keep you healthy every day.
With 4.5 million Americans currently living with knee replacements, it is fast becoming in extremely common procedure. While improved technology and surgery techniques are making this procedure much more successful, patients are still not well informed as to the reality of post surgery recovery. One study of patients undergoing physical therapy post knee replacement showed the majority of patients only completed eight weeks of physical therapy, and at this point their mobility was worse than before the surgery. The recovery is even worse for people who are obese, elderly, have multiple joints replaced or multiple joints affected with pain. Acupuncture is an approach that has been used very successfully post-surgery and many more studies are showing acupuncture helps this process by reducing inflammation and pain post surgery. However, when people only look at scientific articles it is difficult to translate this into what this actually means for your recovery post surgery, specifically what are you actually going to feel and be able to do with your new knee. For this reason here is a story of two patients who came in for knee problems post knee replacement surgery. The first patient came in immediately after surgery, the other six months after.
For patient #1, while their knee was sore and swollen like it typically is post replacement, they were only a week out of their surgery and everything lay before them as they endeavored to do everything they could to recover well. For patient #2, it had certainly been “the worst of times.” Six months out from their knee replacement adhesions had formed all around the knee, walking was a continually painful exercise and the tension and pain was not only worse than it had been before the surgery, but now the hip, the back and the opposite knee were also starting to become very painful. This all despite the fact both patients were undergoing physical therapy for their knee directly after their surgery.
When treating patient #1 immediately after their surgery we did not do acupuncture and massage directly over the replaced knee as the risk of infection is still high in the initial stages. The treatment consisted of acupuncture points above and below the knee, points in other areas of the body, which are beneficial for pain and healing of the knee, and massage on the leg, hip, back. In general, the treatment was designed to not only help the affected knee, but to also treat other areas of the body to help the muscles and tissues not become tight and sore from the compensation of walking with a limp post surgery. As the treatments went on we were able to treat more directly on the affected knee and electrical stimulation was applied to further decrease pain and increase circulation through the affected area. After only four weeks patient #1 was able to ride a bike, have nearly 110o of flexion in the knee, and perform many different weight bearing exercises. Not only that, but the opposite knee(which the doctors advised replacing in the future) was having no problems and felt better than it had in years. At six weeks the knee would feel some soreness post a heavy workout, but otherwise felt mostly recovered. At eight weeks the knee felt as good as it had in years. At this point was when I saw patient #2 who was six months post surgery, walking with a cane and having problems throughout their back, hip and other knee. Immediately we began a similar procedure as in patient #1 with the addition of massage to break apart the scar tissue and adhesions that had formed. After 4 weeks the patient was recovering well, they had increased movement, were riding a bike daily and had a decrease in their pain, however the knee still would get sore after a mild workout and it took a few more months before they began to see the improvements that patient #1 saw after only 6 weeks.
These stories are by no means singular cases. While anecdotal case studies are not an depth scientific analysis as to the physiological mechanisms involved in post surgical care, they are perhaps more relevant to you the patient. Through hearing these stories you can know what you should expect post surgery, and more importantly what kind of treatment you should be receiving. Too often I see patients come in many months post surgery in the same state as patient #2 because they were never told what their options were for optimal recovery. Inevitably when I explain to them what there recovery plan should have looked like they are frustrated they didn’t receive the information beforethe surgery. So, if you are looking at getting a joint replacement, or any surgery for that matter, please seek a qualified acupuncturist, massage therapist and physical therapist. It will be the difference in recovering twice as fast with little to no complications.
Whenever I’m giving a massage I get the question, “How come if I hurt myself in one spot, it begins to hurt in another spot?” Or, in a related question, “How come if I hurt here you’re massaging over there?” In response, I will always tell people “Everything is connected and when muscles get tight they invariably pull on other muscles that are connected.” This is a short explanation of a much larger concept that forms the whole theory of, not only massage, but stretching, physical therapy and even basic reflexes such as the knee jerk response, or walking.
When describing our body we always talk of separate muscles, connective tissues, tendons and ligaments, but in reality all of these tissues can be seen as not separate tissues, but one myofascial system. This system is comprised of muscles which are surrounded, and connected to fascia, which then form the tendons, which then flow into the periosteum (the covering around the bone) from which arise the ligaments, joining to the subsequent periosteum, to the next tendon and so on and so forth. The connective tissue surrounding the muscles and bones is like a continuous sheet of saran wrap throughout the body wrapping all these structures. Just like a plastic pouch where the two sheets of plastic are sealed together at either end, so to does the fascial system surround the muscles and bones then fold and join together in various specific places. In fact these folds and areas of joining tend to run vertically throughout your body from the toes to the head, and from the fingers to the head. Around these folds and places of attachments it is much easier for the muscles and surrounding tissues to become knotted and therefore not move easily. Normally, the fascia and all the muscles have a certain amount of lubrication around them, but when they become stuck and knotted, circulation in the area decreases and the amount of lubrication decreases making the area even more stuck and painful.
These knots are areas where circulation has decreased and toxins have accumulated in the muscles and surrounding tissues. These toxins, such as lactic acid, and various proteins cause the muscle to contract and the tissues to become stuck together. The problem is then aggravated when the nerves running through the myofascial system begin to sned incorrect signals. Normally, nerves continuously send signals to the brain about how tight the muscles are and where the position of these tissues are in space. However, when the tissues become stuck, and the muscles contract for a long period of time the nerves begin to send false signals to the brain. The nerves adapt to the pathological length and tension so the brain begins to think the muscles and tissues are at the correct length and tension when in reality they are too tight and not moving correctly.
All the techniques we have in massage are used to affect this whole myofascial system. Massage, frees up the areas where tissues are stuck, circulates out the toxins accumulating in the area and resets the nerves so the brain can signal the muscle to relax and allow the tissues to move freely again. Where these techniques are applied are usually along the folded and attached areas within the myofascial system where one area of stuck tissue has pulled on another, and another and therefore restricted the whole system. So, next time you pull a muscle or have a painful “knot” in your body and that whole side of your body begins to hurt understand that everything is truly connected. Then, in order to work out the problem use massage, stretching and physical therapy to affect every link in the myofascial chain that is painful.