Wellness care may be best understood by contrasting it against our present health care system. Their underlying principles are quite different, but it’s common to miss these differences and to see wellness as a watered-down version of medical care.
I’ll be exploring these differences in several columns about wellness that I hope you find interesting and educational. I’m a chiropractic physician with 30 years of experience, and have also had training in acupuncture, nutrition and lifestyle changes.
In our current system, when a patient goes to a doctor with an illness or a complaint, the doctor takes over the healing process. If the patient has inflammation, they are given a drug to stop it; if they have an infection, they are given drugs to kill the bacteria. If the patient’s thyroid is not producing enough hormone, more is given in pill form; if the thyroid makes too much hormone, the gland can be partially damaged to reduce its output. If an organ is very diseased, it can be removed and sometimes replaced.
These approaches can be described as “attacking the disease.”
I am all in favor of using aggressive treatments to attack diseases, when necessary. But there seems to be no limit to America’s appetite for prescription drugs. According to Medical News Today, Americans filled more than four billion prescriptions in 2011. In 2003, we consumed more than 25 million pills an hour, every hour, for a staggering total of 600 million pills a day.
This reliance on medications has its costs — every year an estimated 2.2 million people suffer “serious drug-induced diseases.” One and a half million of these people had to be hospitalized due to the seriousness of the reaction. The 100,000 deaths caused each year by adverse reactions to prescription drugs is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. today.
Medications can be lifesaving, but today most medications are given for diseases of lifestyle. Lack of exercise, a diet high in processed and “fast” foods, and constant low-grade stress are huge contributors to all of the major “diseases of civilization”— heart disease, chronic pain, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer.
We are conditioned to think we have little or no control over our health, and that we need our medications to help ease the inevitable decline as we age. This is not true, and research has shown this over and over again. Our health is determined far more by our lifestyles than by our genetics, and when we do get sick, these problems are better treated naturally, with wellness care.
Wellness care takes a different approach. Rather than assuming an illness is a problem that needs to be attacked, illness is seen as a dysfunction in the body that can be corrected. This may sound like a small difference, but it isn’t.
From a wellness viewpoint, if the patient has pain and inflammation, it is usually due to mechanical problems in the joints and muscles. This can be corrected with alternative, natural treatments, including manipulation, acupuncture, deep-tissue massage and others. Often there is no need to arrest the inflammatory process with drugs; just restore normal motion to the joints and muscles and the reason for the inflammation is gone.
Even when the problem is complicated by arthritis, the pain and inflammation can be eased, and sometimes eliminated, with treatment. The patient is given exercises, usually beginning with stretches, and sometimes progressing to core strengthening exercises. Dietary advice can also be helpful. Our modern diets, high in processed foods and grains, are “pro-inflammatory”; some patients will not recover fully from chronic inflammation until they improve their eating habits.
From a wellness perspective, a healthy body is able to fight off most invaders. If the patient has an infection, it is because the body’s immune system is weakened. If the infection is serious, it will need to be addressed with antibiotics first, but if there are recurrent infections the underlying problem needs to be addressed. Again, this could be done with acupuncture, dietary changes, herbs, even manipulation.
It is common to see chronic muscle and joint problems in an area that is prone to frequent infections; if these problems are corrected the infections stop. This is likely because the tension in the tissues interferes with lymphatic drainage, leading to congestion and infection. When these problems are corrected, the body will then take care of the infection on its own.
Modern medicine has made huge strides in treating disease. But its record is not as good for improving health. This year, for the first time, half the entire U.S. population will be on a prescription drug at any one time. Yet despite all that treatment, our health is declining rapidly.
Perhaps it is time we look less to disease treatment and more toward wellness care, which offers an alternative to increasing treatment and declining health. With its emphasis on lifestyle, and natural, safe treatment, it should be a serious consideration for any future attempts at health care reform.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.