Alternative medicine: Is it safe for your kids?
When conventional medicine isn’t cutting it, some parents turn to therapies like chiropractics, craniosacral massage and acupuncture.
Our family’s foray into the world of paediatric alternative medicine was driven by two factors: desperation, and our neighbour Tracy. She left a fateful green sticky note on our kitchen counter after a pivotal conversation we had when my daughter, Isla, was about eight weeks old. On it she’d scribbled a phone number and the words “Cranial Therapy Centre.”
I can’t recall our talk with perfect clarity – my brain was fuzzy at the time from lack of sleep and the gnawing worry that Isla was on the verge of exploding into yet another crying jag. Once she started, she was inconsolable for hours, her little body sweating and rigid. I tried to downplay the situation to Tracy, a midwife and mother of four, whom I had vowed not to pester with rookie questions. “Things are going OK,” I remember saying, forcing a smile. “But we haven’t quite achieved awake-happy yet.”
The green sticky note appeared the next day. While I had never heard of cranial therapy, I had the immediate sense that whatever it was, this was my shot at a Hail Mary pass. My nerves were frayed, my hopeful vision of early parenthood tarnished. Despite the years of babysitting I had under my belt and my stacks of how-to bibles, I could not stop my own child from crying. I felt like a failure and doubted whether I was fit to have more children. What if cranial therapy could turn things around? I’m not the type to gamble with fringe treatments, particularly on a tight maternity-leave budget, but it felt like the future of our family dangled in the balance.
I clicked through the centre’s website, which described the therapy as closely related to osteopathy and massage. One picture featured a newborn looking content as his head was gently cradled by adult hands. I dialed the number and practically begged for an appointment.
In doing this, I joined a growing swath of Canadian parents who use alternative therapies – or “complementary alternative medicine,” in industry parlance – as part of their family health strategy. A study published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics showed that in some regions of Canada, up to 70 percent of respondents with cancer regularly use alternative therapies, such as massage or acupuncture, in conjunction with conventional medicine to help patients manage their pain. There are a variety of reasons for this, says Sunita Vohra, a paediatrician in Edmonton and director of the Pediatric Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research and Education (PedCAM) Network, which works to bridge the gap between MDs and alternative therapists by sharing research and initiatives from the integrative medicine community. Some Canadians use alternative methods simply due to cultural familiarity or family traditions, while others simply desire a more holistic approach or worry about side effects from conventional medications. There are also mothers and fathers seeking alternative or integrative therapies for the same reasons I did: We didn’t have a medical problem, per se, but we were ready to do anything for a solution.
On the afternoon my husband and I carried a sleeping Isla into the hushed Toronto office of Alix McLaughlin, a registered massage and craniosacral therapist, I was relieved to see other moms and babies. McLaughlin specializes in treating infants. They are referred by midwives, lactation consultants and even doctors for a broad gamut of issues: latching or nursing problems, crossed eyes, misshapen heads, brain injuries, difficult births and colic. She also sees older children, particularly those with developmental delays or learning disabilities.
McLaughlin’s philosophy is built on the premise that freeing up restrictions in the membranes enveloping the spinal cord and brain will allow the body to rebalance itself so the brain can function properly. She says the treatment can even enhance development. “Craniosacral is really about finding areas in the body that are lacking in mobility, usually because of tension, stress or abnormal pressure being put into the body,” she says. “Connective tissues tighten in response to that. Wherever they are tight in the body, there’ll be an effect.”
With her eyes closed, McLaughlin held Isla’s head and moved her fingers around my daughter’s tiny skull and down her spine, applying a light pressure and stopping when she detected severe tightness in the neck. Was this the cause of Isla’s excessive crying? Over the course of three hour-long treatments – which consisted of me nursing, entertaining and using all manner of distractions to keep my baby from tipping into a rage – I held Isla while the therapist moved nimble fingers across different sections of her body: her spine, her head, and even the inside of her mouth. The manipulations were so gentle it barely looked as if anything was happening.
“The reason you can’t see a lot, externally, is that we’re working with micro-movements internally,” McLaughlin explained. “Fussy, irritable, crying-all-the-time babies are probably in pain and will really benefit from craniotherapy.” Isla did seem to sleep longer and more peacefully after each treatment, and was certainly no worse for the wear. Did it cure her, though? There’s really no way to know for certain. I can tell you that we never had to make a fourth appointment – Isla’s crying fits tapered down to what I’d expect from a “normal” baby. During early evenings, we finally found ourselves taking videos of her cooing and kicking instead of bouncing her up and down the stairs to stop her wrath. Was the change the result of Isla’s cranial therapy sessions? Or had she simply outgrown her colicky stage? We’ll never know. One thing’s for sure, though: Since we achieved awake-happy, there’s been a lot more smiling at our house.
The lack of scientific evidence to prove treatment efficacy has dogged alternative therapists for years. As a result, they’re often dismissed, Vohra says, as unproven. But a shift is beginning: A proliferation of randomized controlled trials – the gold standard for scientific testing – is yielding evidence on the safety of alternative therapies, challenging those old assumptions. Vohra’s group is devoted to reviewing that evidence and disseminating the information to healthcare providers; the end goal is to bridge the gulf between doctors and therapists, and to build integrative practices in which doctors feel comfortable discussing and recommending appropriate complementary and alternative therapies. “We’d prefer to see an approach that involves better communication and coordination, so that healthcare doesn’t feel like a tug-of-war,” Vohra says.
In the meantime, among the parents I know, referrals from midwives, doulas and some doctors (plus a pileup of anecdotal evidence on Facebook) is definitely driving an interest in alternative therapies.
Karen Cohen had spent two solid months dealing with her toddler’s repeat ear infections – and multiple courses of antibiotics – when she posted a plea for help on a parenting chat board. She was looking for something that would help her son, Koby, get rid of his ear infections once and for all. “I was willing to try anything, and I didn’t care what it cost. After two months of not sleeping, you’ll try anything,” says Cohen. One post suggested she see an osteopath at Footprints Therapy, a clinic in North Toronto, not far from their home in Maple, Ont. The parent recommending the clinic claimed that her child’s ear infections cleared up after one visit.
Koby, it turned out, needed three visits. The osteopath used a featherlight touch and minuscule manipulations to make adjustments over his entire body.
“When we go to the doctor, we’re often getting a pill to try and heal from the outside in,” says Tema Stein, a physiotherapist, osteopathic manual practitioner, and co-owner of Footprints. “Osteopathy is trying to get the body to heal from the inside out.” Osteopaths are trained to look holistically at how body systems function and relate. “It’s almost like you’re Sherlock Holmes. You put the clues together and treat the cause. An osteopath will treat the systems that are causing the dysfunction, rather than treat the symptom itself.”
Young patients are referred to osteopaths for an incredibly wide range of ailments: recurrent digestive problems; reflux, colic and irritability; breastfeeding and bottle-feeding difficulties; behavioural issues; flat feet; flat heads; hip and joint problems; developmental delays; respiratory problems; sleep interruptions; headaches; orthodontic concerns; autism; and ADHD.
“We don’t claim to cure. What we try to do is heal,” says Stein. With Koby, the goal was to gently manipulate the tissue surrounding the lymphatic system and ear canal to open the inner ear and prevent fluid buildup. It worked. Cohen says her son hasn’t had an ear infection since his visits to the clinic finished almost a year ago. Her only wish, she says, is that a doctor suggested she try osteopathy earlier in Koby’s treatment cycle.
“As a mother, you try to do everything you can, because you don’t want to see your child suffer,” says Cohen, who also has a four-month-old baby girl. “Maybe instead of watching Koby go through three or four ear infections, I could have stopped them after the first one.”
Carol Dizak’s daughter Natasia was only two when doctors handed them a sobering diagnosis: leukemia. Dizak, who lives in Edmonton, has a history of various cancers in both her and her husband’s families, and is currently battling thyroid cancer for a second time herself. She knew that her toddler’s diagnosis meant they had a long battle ahead.
“For us it was a no-brainer that we’d do whatever the medical system said. We did everything her protocol told us to, including intense chemotherapy. But we knew we wouldn’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” Dizak says. Their own family experiences with cancer taught them they would also need to rebuild Natasia’s immune system after the treatment. To do that, they turned to Steven Aung, a physician in Edmonton who is known as a pioneer for his efforts to integrate conventional medicine with traditional Chinese treatments.
In the six weeks after Natasia’s chemo wrapped, she saw Aung two to four times per week for acupressure treatments, and he prescribed a type of Chinese mushroom capsule she took regularly. This combination, says Dizak, is intended for brain stimulation, body harmony and immune system support.
Acupressure (gentle pressure on key trigger points) and acupuncture (tiny needles shallowly inserted into the skin) are based on the Chinese belief that the body has specific pathways, called meridians, that circulate life energy, called Qi (pronounced “Chee”). If the pathways are blocked or disrupted – which can occur for a wide range of reasons – pain and illness occur, explains Aung. He and others who practise the art believe the flow of Qi, and thus health and normal function, can be restored by stimulating key points via acupressure and acupuncture. People seek out the treatment for a long list of ailments, from headaches and back pain to learning disabilities, as well as simply to maintain health.
Six weeks after Natasia began seeing Aung, her cancer entered a range considered to be remission. Her mother believes Natasia owes her health to the family’s embrace of both conventional and alternative medicine. Now 14, Natasia has worked her way up to full acupuncture and sees Aung every four to six weeks to maintain her health. She’s also an honours student, and has not suffered from the learning disabilities common among young cancer sufferers – a side effect for children who take chemotherapy drugs. Whether Aung’s treatments actually influenced this is scientifically unknowable. But in her gut, Dizak feels it was essential.
“When people question me on how I know this worked, I say, ‘It didn’t do any damage or cause harm,’” Dizak says. “If anything, it’s going to increase your immune system and build you up when you’ve been broken down.”
Raven Newport first tried chiropractics a few years ago to cope with her own pain after a bad fall and neck injury. Then, during her pregnancy, which ran 11 days past her due date, the Squamish, BC, resident did acupuncture to help bring on labour. She also used acupuncture during the birth to stimulate more regular contractions. “Yes, it worked big-time,” Newport says. Still, labour was tough – a 45-hour ordeal that included more than four hours of pushing before an emergency Caesarean. It took three people to pull her son, Lucius, out of her pelvis during his birth.
For the first two months, Lucius couldn’t turn his head to the left and he spat up every time he ate. So Newport booked her son with a chiropractor who specializes in prenatal, postnatal and paediatric care. A friend of hers had been bringing her son in, and recommended it wholeheartedly. “I just thought, if it works for me, why not get him checked out?” says Newport. She took Lucius for a regimen of regular visits that stretched over three months, and says that her son’s relief was visible. “The chiropractor was able to let me know his neck was jarred pretty badly. The more I took him, the more mobility he got in his neck. And after an appointment he’d sleep like I’d never seen him sleep before. His body was working with the adjustments. ” The spitting up also decreased, she says, and eventually stopped altogether.
Stephanie Milley is a chiropractor with a family practice in Aurora, Ont. Chiropractors, she says, look at joint and spinal mobility in all patients, regardless of what they are suffering from. A mild adjustment in a part of the spine with restricted mobility often triggers neurological signals to bodily systems in need of retuning. That includes everything from digestion to colic and proper muscle function. She often recommends parents consider well-baby chiro visits for infants and small children, as well as regular checkups with your family doctor for health maintenance and prevention.
Paediatric chiropractic appointments are different from conventional adult sessions. “A lot of people think of chiro and they think of cracking and popping. But that’s not what they do with a baby,” Newport says. “It’s really gentle touch adjustments – so gentle, Lucius sleeps through it.” (Her chiropractor equates the pressure used to treat babies to the touch you’d use to test a tomato’s ripeness.)
However, paediatricians have historically viewed chiropractic care of infants and children with some wariness. In a position paper reaffirmed this year, the Canadian Paediatric Society acknowledges that chiropractic care of youngsters is common. They encourage medical doctors to maintain a “non-judgemental attitude” when discussing details of the treatments with parents and patients, in hopes of facilitating openness and honesty. But the CPS stops short of advocating for the treatment. Instead, they welcome more research that could shine a light on which patients are best suited for “rational use of this treatment.”
For Lucius, there are many more appointments on the horizon. “I’ll continually take him to get tweaked and checked once in a while,” says Newport. “But don’t get me wrong, I’ll take him for checkups with the GP, too,” she adds. “There are situations where [conventional] medicine is the way to go. But there are times when going to a chiropractor or acupuncturist have made a world of difference to me.”
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