Integrative medicine focuses on the mind and the body alike.
by Laurie Wink
Chiedu Nchekwube, M.D., completed training in family medicine in the ’80s and started a practice in Northwest Indiana. He began to feel like he wasn’t doing enough for patients by only treating their symptoms. He wanted to find the root cause of the illness, remove it and empower the person to stay well.
“I started to think there was more to medicine than just giving pills,” he says. “I wanted to teach patients new ways to deal with life so they don’t have to depend on drugs.”
So Dr. Nchekwube, a Merrillville physician affiliated with Methodist Hospitals, trained for two years in the subspecialty of integrative medicine. He’s now considered a pioneer in this growing field.
“In modern medicine we’re far, far away from what we need to know about the human body,” Dr. Nchekwube says. “We need to be humbled and open-minded. We don’t know everything.”
What is integrative medicine? It’s a whole-person approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness as much as treating it. Besides looking at physical symptoms, integrative medicine takes into account the emotional, mental, social, spiritual and even environmental factors that can impact overall well-being.
Integrative medicine is gaining traction as scientific research continues to show strong connections between the mind and the body. Dr. Nchekwube says, “The thing about the mind is it’s a big organ without a location. Your body exists in your mind. If the mind is sick, the body gets sick. There’s a tightly woven relationship between the mind and body.”
Dr. Nchekwube’s goal is to get patients to feel renewed and empowered and to be fully functioning human beings. Our current revolving-door health-care system–what Dr. Nchekwube calls “fast-food medicine”–doesn’t give doctors a chance to know their patients. He believes in taking time and paying attention.
“A headache in one person is not the same as a headache in another person,” he says. “Sometimes what a person needs is a hug. You just need to listen for a while.”
Kalpana Doshi, M.D., also believes strongly in the mind-body connection. She says, “With people suffering from any kind of illness, the mind is involved.”
Dr. Doshi is a board-certified medical acupuncturist at Munster Medical Acupuncture Center & Wellness Clinic. She came to Northwest Indiana some 30 years ago to establish medical practice in anesthesiology, treating people who were nonfunctioning because of intense pain. After developing severe back pain herself and facing surgery, Dr. Doshi sought relief through acupuncture and got results.
At that point, Dr. Doshi sought training in medical acupuncture and opened Munster Medical Acupuncture Center & Wellness Clinic in 2006. She also spearheaded the development of integrated medicine within the Community Healthcare system in Northwest Indiana.
“I wanted to do something that has the potential to help patients and also heal my own body,” Dr. Doshi says. “More people in this country are seeking alternative methods of improving their overall health because they’re tired of taking a lot of medicine and not feeling good.”
The health benefits of acupuncture and other integrative medicine practices–including yoga, massage, chiropractic treatment, nutritional counseling and stress-reduction techniques–are not understood by many practicing doctors, she says. Her Indian heritage has given her an open mind to the benefits of alternative practices that have been around for thousands of years.
Dr. Doshi specializes in using acupuncture to treat back and neck pain, sinus issues, digestive problems, dental pain, stress-relief, women’s health issues, and cancer pain and chemotherapy related nausea.
Another medical acupuncturist, Faleh Atassi, M.D., says numerous studies have proven that acupuncture is effective for treating back pain, migraines, infertility, asthma, insomnia, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. Dr. Atassi is a family practice physician with Valparaiso Family Health Center, which is part of the Porter Health System.
Prior to completing medical acupuncture training 10 years ago, Dr. Atassi referred his chronic pain patients to physicians at the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and other places with integrative medicine departments. After his patients reported positive results, he wanted to offer acupuncture treatments in his own practice.
Dr. Atassi says not every patient who comes to his office is a candidate for acupuncture. First, he evaluates a person’s overall health and personal treatment preferences, then he creates a personalized plan.
“Acupuncture is a treatment option for patients who may not have responded to previous medical interventions,” he says. “You have to have a proper diagnosis and evaluation to rule out serious conditions that acupuncture could make worse.”
An array of wellness options that complement traditional fitness programs are available at Fitness Pointe, a medical fitness facility in Munster operated by Community Healthcare System. Andy Wichlinski says Community Hospital started offering yoga to cardiac patients prior to building Fitness Pointe in 1998. He teaches classes in yoga, tai chi and qigong at Fitness Pointe and at the Cancer Resource Centre in Munster and considers the three disciplines to be important approaches to health and well-being.
“Movement is medicine,” Wichlinski says. “We know people who don’t move have more physical problems and stress. Stress is the primary ingredient in 150 major diseases.”
Tai chi, qigong and yoga have been practiced in Asian cultures for thousands of years. Yoga and tai chi are better known in our culture than qigong, which is a form of gentle exercise that engages a person in a series of movements that are repeated a number of times. Qigong stretches the body, increases blood flow and builds awareness of how the body moves through space. Wichlinski says the repeated physical postures of qigong are done while standing, so it’s ideal for people who have difficulty getting down on the floor.
“Both forms of body exercise (tai chi and qigong) are beneficial for older folks because they help establish confidence in their balance,” he says. “That’s important when you’re getting to the age where you have a fear of falling or have difficulty getting in and out of chairs.”
Wichlinski says that the social aspect of being in a class is an additional health benefit for class participants, some of whom are Fitness Pointe members and others are referred by their physicians.
“When dealing with older folks with physical difficulties, some of the more enlightened physicians are talking to patients about doing something preventive,” Wichlinski says. “A lot of physicians in Northwest Indiana are from Asian cultures, but I also see a lot of Western doctors looking at [these] other approaches to preventive medicine.”
The Crossing, a wellness center affiliated with Indiana University Health La Porte Hospital, offers yoga, massage, reflexology, acupuncture and healing touch. Katie Sarver, wellness outreach manager, says the physical therapy program merged with the wellness component about three years ago to deliver a comprehensive approach to health.
Sarver earned a bachelor’s degree at Purdue in dietetics, nutrition, fitness and health. She’s a certified health coach who focuses on the prevention side of health and helping people assess how well they’re taking care of themselves. She says physical, emotional, mental and even financial factors are all addressed as part of wellness.
“Financial stress is a big thing for people at retirement age,” Sarver says. “We can link them to a financial advisor.”
A majority of those served at The Crossing are 50 and older. Many come in for the first time through a physician referral to undergo physical therapy following a surgery or injury. Greeting them is a sign on the lobby wall with the encouraging message, “You are braver and stronger than you think.”
Regarding the message, Sarver says, “It really is true. You walk in for the first time and you’re scared and worried that you won’t be successful in your treatment or wellness program. If you’re here, you’ve already proven that.”
The complementary care services are offered a la carte as an adjunct to the physical therapy and fitness programs. Anyone in the community can come in for these treatments. Certified massage therapists are available to offer relief from injuries and the stress of daily living. Reflexology is a targeted form of massage that focuses on the feet and hands to release tension. Healing touch therapists use their hands to direct the body’s energy fields in a way that can relieve stress and promote a sense of well-being.
Sarver sees a general shift in attitude among those who are aging. They are willing to try preventive medicine techniques and take advantage of ways to stay active. She says, “People want to live healthier longer. They don’t want to be in the position of [their] family members who struggled [with health issues]. They’re looking at the future and want to be around longer for their grandkids and great grandkids.”
As a “certified intrinsic coach,” Sarver empowers individuals to be their own health advocates, rather than telling them what to do. As the saying goes, instead of giving them a fish, she teaches them to fish. “I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m here to help people become the best version of themselves. Every single coaching session is different.”
Sarver and the other staff members at The Crossing are rewarded when they see people who’ve never exercised a day in their lives come in to exercise three or four times a week. “They have a new outlook on life. They have decreased stress levels and overall are healthier and happier.”
Licensed massage therapist Melissa Hull also enjoys helping people who are in pain experience some relief by providing them with massages. In addition to owning Mindful Massage in Valparaiso, Hull works full-time at the Centers for Pain Control in La Porte, where she does intensive trigger point massages aimed at relieving pain in targeted areas, usually in the neck or back, by releasing muscle tension.
According to Hull, about 90 percent of the patients have never had a massage. “Some come in and say they don’t like to be touched,” she says. “I encourage everybody to give it a try. Most of them–even those who think they won’t like it–once they lay down and relax enough, they see it’s OK.”
She says a lot of patients are used to thinking they need a pill to make the pain go away, so part of her job is to educate people about how massage therapy can help relieve pain. Hull experienced the pain relieving results of massage after injuring an ankle about five years ago. Her physical therapist incorporated massage techniques that helped her to heal.
Hull, who already had a bachelor’s degree in nursing when she decided to go to massage school, knew that she wanted to focus more on doing therapeutic massage treatments. She says the number of job openings for massage therapists in the medical field are increasing.
“I love that I can go to work and see people after they’re done [with the massage] and they’re like, ‘Wow,'” she says. “I feel like I’m doing something to really help them.”
Hull and the other alternative health care providers clearly see the benefits of combining the best approaches of mainstream Western medical practices and healing techniques rooted in ancient Asian, African and Native American cultures. It’s a realization that is steadily expanding as integrative medicine centers become an integral part of more and more hospitals and medical practices across the country, including Northwest Indiana.