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Monday, April 17, 2006

Alternative healthcare: worth the money?

While this blog is generally pretty fun, sometimes The Bargain Queen just has to talk about the serious stuff. Today, healthcare... (tomorrow, back to the fun stuff!)

The Bargain Queen has an incurable medical condition that hasn't responded to conventional treatment, so she's become a guinea pig for everything else on offer: alternative therapies, complementary therapies and a few other things besides. There's so much controversy about whether they work and many 'miracle cure' claims (plus potentially huge expenses trying them all) that The Bargain Queen's going to weigh in with a little about her own experiences.

But first, a warning. If you want to believe that alternative therapies are a miracle cure, don't bother reading on. The Bargain Queen has tried a few and none of them delivered all they promised. Likewise, if you want to believe that all alternative therapies are useless quack stuff, you'll also be disappointed - some of this stuff has proven useful.

So what's The Bargain Queen tried?

The Bargain Queen saw a naturopath with training in nutrition, herbalism and homeopathy (more info about each of these below) for about a year. The overall treatment was effective, providing a reduction in pain and other symptoms plus more energy. However, it didn't live up to the practitioner's own belief that she could provide a cure. The Bargain Queen would have happily continued treatment indefinitely despite the expense ($150ish/month) because it was working, but her naturopath became frustrated with the symptoms that remained and basically told her to go away. Quite a comical outcome!

Making dietary changes to control a serious illness seems silly at first - how will giving up junk food fix all that? Better nutrition and avoiding allergy/intolerance foods has made a huge difference for The Bargain Queen though, reducing her pain levels considerably and alleviating her gut problems considerably.

After various blood tests and an elimination diet, The Bargain Queen found she is allergic or intolerant of sugar, lactose, wheat, soy, vanilla, ginger, caffeine and some additives. Avoiding all these is challenging, but well worth it considering how effective it is. It's also surprisingly cost-effective since it forces her and Mr Bargain Queen to cook their own meals at home from fresh ingredients, which is SO much cheaper than eating out or buying TV dinners!

Apart from watching what she eats, she also takes a multivitamin and some fish oil capsules most days, just to make sure she's getting the right nutrients. She's also learnt to recognise when her iron, zinc or magnesium levels are low and tops them up with supplements occasionally. None of these supplements are expensive - all up it works out to about $20/month - and all except the multivitamin (which is just insurance) deliver a noticeable effect when she takes them.

The Bargain Queen has tried a few different herbs for her condition, mostly under the supervision of a naturopath. The majority did what they claimed and the only one with negative side effects was an experimental concoction. The down side is that their effects are much gentler than conventional medications so the improvement is less dramatic than you might like. None of the 'miracle' herbs deserve quite the hype they get, but they can give gentle, side-effect-free improvement if you pick the right one.

Whenever The Bargain Queen hears anything about homeopathy, her undergraduate (college) science training kicks in and she has a great deal of trouble taking it seriously. However, when a naturopath gave her some homeopathic stuff for one of her allergies, it settled down shortly afterwards and hasn't flared up since. Coincidence? Placebo effect? The Bargain Queen's still not quite ready to try more of it, but maybe it's not completely useless...

The Bargain Queen has tried accupuncture twice and reacted really badly each time. The needles hurt a lot and afterwards she felt like she'd been hit by a bus. Pre-treatment she thought "what harm can it do?"; now she thinks it's really dangerous in the wrong hands - and with every second quack taking it up, there are a lot of wrong hands out there.

The Bargain Queen already did yoga to improve her fitness and flexibility before she got sick, so when she found a book of yoga exercises for her condition she tried it immediately. As with all the alternative treatments she's tried, they don't provide a miracle cure. They do reduce her pain level significantly though, if only because they relax muscles that clench due to the pain. This gives her a feeling of more control, because she can ramp it down a little (as long as it's not too severe when she starts). Even a mild reduction in pain is well worth the cost of the book ($20), and the exercises can be done almost anywhere in 5-15 minutes.

Gentle exercise
As well as doing exercises specifically for her illness, The Bargain Queen also heard that any gentle exercise can help manage pain. This works really well for her, so she takes a stroll, rides her bike or tinkers in the garden whenever she has the energy. Again, it's no miracle cure, but it does make the pain less intense.

Heat therapy
The therapeutic benefits of a hot water bottle are well established both anecdotally and scientifically - but it's easy to forget that something so easy works when the medical approaches (drugs and operations) are so complicated. It's possibly too obvious to state that a hot water bottle doesn't cure anything except chilly feet, but it is worth remembering that it provides as much pain relief as a mild analgesic and works more quickly too. Also, at under $5 for the bottle and neglible ongoing costs, it's the most cost-effective pain relief around.

Psychological techniques
The Bargain Queen has also read up on psychological techniques for making pain more bearable, from meditation to distraction to using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) techniques to change her thinking about the illness. She found meditating while in severe pain a really strange idea. How the hell do you relax while clenching your teeth and clutching your tummy? Distraction is a powerful tool though, as anything that stops you thinking about the pain makes it less intense, so books, DVDs and the internet are always handy ;)

But of all the treatments she's tried, the most effective technique by far has been to look at things differently. The Bargain Queen's illness won't kill her, and thanks to Mr Bargain Queen's excellent care, she will neither starve nor go broke because of it. So instead of seeing it as something that's taken away her career, social life and favourite foods, The Bargain Queen has finally learnt to see her illness as an opportunity and make the best of the situation. She spends her days reading, writing this blog, creating embroidery, having friends over for meals, making her new favourite foods and spending quantity time with her husband - a surprising amount for someone who's in bed 16+ hours a days! But with all that to enjoy, she rarely feels sorry for herself any more.

So that's The Bargain Queen's experience of alternative healthcare: sometimes worth the money, sometime not. If you approach it as a gentle helper rather than a miracle cure and spend accordingly, it can be really helpful. That said, if The Bargain Queen was cured tomorrow, she'd instantly ditch everything except exercise, eating well and positive thinking.

If you've had some experience with alternative healthcare, whether similar or different to The Bargain Queen's, she'd love to hear from you - please leave a comment below!

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  • At 4:08 pm, Blogger Rebecca said…

    Actually, a couple of years ago, following a back injury, I experienced an extended period of severe depression. Believe it or not, I tried homeopathy and it worked. Also exercise (after I was able to walk again), healthy eating, and massive amounts of conversation.

    It's a little bit embarrassing to admit, although I'm not sure why.

    Sympathy and prayers for you, from the Great Northwest.

  • At 2:26 pm, Blogger Henri-V said…

    Hey - I am so sorry to hear that you are handling a mysterious and incurable condition. You are never taught to expect chronic health troubles when you are becoming an adult.

    I have had some immune weirdness over the past couple of years and have seen my blood cell counts fall and remain in below normal ranges. Tests indicated it was neither an iron nor a Vit. B12 deficiency and may be cyclical or inherited anemias. It was a pain in the ass to be tired all the time and short of breath (as well as to be dealing with doctors who treated me like I was a bothersome "case" instead of a human being), but staying positive and informed gives me some kind of "control". The psychological element has been most important, because it my life to live pleasantly or morosely, and I get to make that choice. (I have not had to take conventional medicine for my symptoms, and I really hope I never need to.)

    Staying physically active and walking as much as possible to increase my aerobic threshold really helped my RBCs. And eating well (whatever your limitations allow, but keeping to the freshest, least processed as possible) makes all the difference for your long-term health, in my mind.

    We love homeopathic rememdies for insect stings and cold symptoms -- we have found ones that work for us. Also, I've taken Bach flower remedies for anxiety/sleeplessness at bedtime, and something always seems to click me to slumber.

    Rebecca - don't be embarrassed -- the world and life are confusing and depressing places at times. We shouldn't feel bad for not always knowing how to make sense of them!

    Stay peppy, BQ. ;-)

  • At 10:53 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Rebecca - Thanks so much for your kind words. I know what you mean about illness being embarassing, it's definitely one of the less-fun things in life!

    Henri-V - Thank you for sharing all that! I'm trying to adopt a similar attitude myself, making the best of things rather than being unhappy. Thankfully my condition won't kill me, but constant pain and fatigue can still suck the joy from life... but only if I let them! :)

  • At 6:08 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    BQ, I wonder where you went for the blood tests and advice on changing your diet and all? Not the place, specifically, but what sort of place?
    I have gone the gamut of conventional doctors for my issues which also include debilitating pain(s) exacerbated by stress at work, and have had it up to the ears with being told that there couldn't be anything wrong with me because I'm "too young to be hurting so much" or that only drugs are available to slow the progress of the disease.
    I agree that having these illnesses are very psychologically depressing because I'm rather afraid that as this progresses, I've no hope of developing a career, being a partner in marriage and a proper mother to children.

  • At 9:10 am, Blogger The Bargain Queen said…

    Hi Miniducky, I've been to both naturopaths and medically trained allergists. There are some great online directories to help you find someone suitable: try this one for naturopaths or this one for allergy doctors.

  • At 8:32 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you! This will definitely help in narrowing down what to try next.

    - Miniducky


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