Published September 29, 2012
Has your doctor ever prescribed you salt therapy or maggots? Maybe not...yet. Respected physicians, including ones at top medical schools like Harvard, have been rediscovering the power of ancient cures.
"A decade ago there weren't Western studies on these treatments, so most doctors dismissed them as quackery," notes Dr. Woodson Merrell, chair of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. But with a flurry of research proving their potency, many MDs have been won over.
No one's saying you should give up regular meds or doctor visits. On the contrary: Many work best when combined with traditional medical care. (You should always inform your doctor if you're receiving one, to make sure it doesn't overlap with other treatments.) "The future of medicine is integrative," Merrell says. "It incorporates all the best therapies, from antibiotics to acupuncture."
The evidence behind these four may surprise you—and cure what ails you, too.
What it could do for you: Relieve pain, ease itching from eczema, help heal knee and shoulder injuries, and treat everything from migraines to asthma. Some studies suggest acupuncture could even help people lose weight, quit smoking, boost fertility, and lift depression, although the research is not as strong on those benefits.
How it works: Chinese practitioners have long revered the treatment for keeping energy flowing through the body (and warding off illness). From a Western perspective, "acupuncture is believed to stimulate the nervous system, which activates changes in the brain we're still trying to pinpoint," says Vitaly Napadow, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. Practitioners insert needles into the skin at strategic points. Although you may feel small pricks, it generally doesn't hurt.
What the research says: This therapy has undergone the gold standard of scientific testing—randomized, controlled, double-blind studies—and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) deems it effective for dozens of conditions, notably pain relief.
Want to try it? Sessions (you'll need at least a few) can cost anywhere from $60 to $120, and some insurance carriers cover it. Ask your doc for a referral, or find a licensed practitioner at nccaom.org.
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What it could do for you: Curb coughs, bronchitis, and asthma, and reduce muscle, joint, and menstrual pain.
How it works: Practitioners of the 2,500-year-old Chinese treatment place heated glass cups or cones on the back or stomach, creating suction on the skin. The circulation boost supposedly reduces inflammation and unblocks congestion.
What the research says: Academic reviews conclude that there's a potential benefit, but better research is needed. Still, cupping has been used safely for thousands of years, Dr. Merrell says. Adds Napadow, "It seems to be especially helpful for clearing up colds and other respiratory problems."
Want to try it? You'll need at least three sessions at $60 to $100 a pop; that might include the cost of acupuncture, which is usually done in conjunction with cupping. Like acupuncture, it may be covered by insurance. (Pregnant women and anyone on blood thinners should avoid it.) Find a practitioner at nccaom.org.
What it could do for you: Help you combat stress and anxiety, quit smoking, lose weight, ease GI distress, and relieve insomnia, allergies, and aches.
How it works: A hypnotherapist talks you into a trance-like state (don't worry, you stay awake!). This helps you focus on suggestions to change your behavior—and even bodily functions.
What the research says: Numerous U.S. studies—as well as the NIH—back hypnotherapy, which was first practiced by an Austrian doc in the 1700s.
Want to try it? Most people need multiple sessions at $125 to $200 each, though it's often covered by insurance, says Carol Ginandes, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Find a licensed clinician at asch.net.
What it could do for you: Ease chronic respiratory issues like bronchitis, sinusitis, and asthma.
How it works: In the 1800s, a physician noticed that Eastern European miners working in salt caves had fewer breathing problems than people who didn't. Today, "halo chambers" are common in Russian hospitals. In the U.S., you can visit salt spas featuring generators that blast out ionized salt particles. Proponents say salt can reduce inflammation and help "liquefy" mucus.
What the research says: Some Western studies support salt's powers, like one in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that inhaled saline droplets improved lung function in cystic fibrosis patients. But not all experts are convinced that the effects of a salt spa are as potent.
"Studies haven't validated that salt rooms are effective," says Dr. Leonard Bielory, an attending physician and allergist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. Still, seeing is believing for doctors like Dr. Nita Desai, who runs a salt spa in Boulder: "I've seen asthma patients do treatments and go months without an attack."
Want to try it? It's worth a shot for chronic ailments when nothing else has worked. Expect 12 to 24 hour-long sessions (at $25 to $99 each) to reap the benefits. Search online for "salt spa" or "halotherapy" and make sure the place uses a generator so you get the full effect.