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Letting It All Go
By Kirsten Ferguson

Deep-tissue massage isn’t just about pampering— it’s about beginning a healing process by releasing pent-up tension and toxins

Like mud facials or mineral baths, massage is often associated with the all-over body pampering that one can receive at a spa, a form of self-indulgence favored by wealthy women or vacationing couples. To view massage as mere indulgence, however, is selling it far too short. The technique has been used for healing since the start of recorded history; the first written reference to massage is in the traditional Chinese medicine handbook Yellow Emperors Book of Medicine from 2700 BC.

Deep-tissue massage in particular has the ability to provide all sorts of lasting health benefits, from the release of bodily toxins to the reduction of stress and anxiety. If you’re still trying to make those New Year’s health resolutions stick, Dan Wahl, a massage therapist who works out of Clifton Park, recommends deep-tissue massage as a way to kick them into gear. “If you want to clean your life up, deep-tissue massage is a great way to start the whole process of detoxification. The next day you’ll feel better and able to start an exercise program,” he says, emphasizing that a person should always drink a lot of water following a massage, to help flush toxins out of the body.

That process of detoxification, whether it releases the vestiges of pollution, a bad diet, too much booze or stress and negative emotions, can be a powerful, almost overwhelming experience. I received a form of Taoist abdominal massage called Chi Nei Tsang from Wahl, who studied the technique under a kahuna (master of massage) in Hawaii. It was uncomfortable at times, as one might expect from a massage of the rarely probed abdominal muscles. “I try to locate adhesions that are in the abdominal muscles,” Wahl says, explaining the process. “Adhesions are scar tissue from microtears in the muscle. They interfere with oxygenated blood getting to the organs. If you work out adhesions, the nerve roots are going to function better. And your body will function better because there’s more oxygen in the system.”

The first time I had Chi Nei Tsang done, it left me not only with a rash over the liver (a sign of toxin release), but with a rather powerful emotional feeling of catharsis that lingered into the following days. Wahl says that it is common for deep-tissue massage to trigger an emotional response. (A friend who was in massage school once told me that he experienced near emotional breakdowns while on the massage table.)

“Your muscles keep emotional charges,” Wahl explains. “That’s why people will ask you, ‘Where do you hold your stress?’ The more you experience stress, the more your mind conditions your body to hold your muscles tense. When you work that out and release the contracted muscle, you feel relief. It brings it to your consciousness that you’ve been holding stress in that muscle. A lot of times people will cry. I’ve had people almost scream. They’re letting emotion out instead of repressing it.”

Wahl says deep-tissue massage can be especially valuable for people suffering from chronic headaches, anxiety, constipation or sciatica, as well as the tension of everyday life. “The major benefit of deep-tissue massage is stress reduction,” he says. “I say that because the [negative] effects of stress are underrated. If you can regulate stress, then you can regulate [stress hormone] cortisol. If you can get that reduced, your whole body will function better.”

Wahl, who graduated from the Swedish Institute in New York City and has done more than 4,000 massages, recommends that a person interested in receiving a deep-tissue massage should find a licensed therapist either by referral from a chiropractor or friend, or by visiting the American Massage Therapy Association Web site.

Massage is a technique that has been used to improve bodily health and treat ailments for thousands of years, but Wahl indicates that the true measurement of the technique’s value is in the days and weeks following a massage, when one should feel noticeably better. “We don’t work with drugs. We work with the person’s own healing system,” he says. “We all have one. Don’t let them fool you.”

The Neti Diaries
By Miriam Axel-Lute

In pursuit of breathing freely, by any means necessary


Day 1: OK. I’m sick of having a runny nose every three days. The doctor wasn’t very helpful, and I’m already taking too many pills, many of which only sometimes work. Argh. My new-agey college roommate used to have this weird little pot that she used to pour water through her nose. Sounds remarkably unpleasant, but maybe I’ve come to that.

Day 2: According to my research, here’s the hype: It’s called a neti pot. What you do with it is called jalaneti. It comes from India, and is practiced by yogis to help make sure they can breathe freely for meditation and yoga. You pour warm saline in one nostril with your head tilted and it comes out the other. This cleans out all the dirt, allergens, pollutants that your normal mucus can’t quite handle. Also, supposedly, the running water actually makes a little vacuum that cleans out your sinuses too. Certainly sounds impressive.

Day 4: Got a pot, gave it a try. First reactions: I never thought of myself as having particularly small nostrils, but um, that tip barely fit. The ack-I-must-fix-it-now sensation of getting water up my nose only lasted for about 1.5 seconds—basically until the water started coming out the other nostril. After that, remarkably comfortable. I picked the most complete of the “drying routines” I saw described, having been scared by ominous descriptions of what might happen if “dirty water” is left behind. Ten deep breaths out the nose while hanging head down by the knees, then 10 quick breaths out of both nostrils, each nostril separately, and both again. I sound like an angry horse, but it works.

Day 10: Switched pots for one with a tapered tip. Much better.

Day 20: Seems like it improves my runny nose, but still needs to be paired with the nasal inhaler to keep the drip totally at bay. I did go to a friends’ house with cats with none of my usual reaction. A good sign.

Meanwhile, the positive side effects are astounding: I can breathe through my nose! I mean I always could a little, but I had no idea how much I couldn’t, if you know what I mean. I no longer get that nasty dry mouth when sleeping with the heat on. My head feels clearer all the time. I can breathe enough to actually match my breaths to yoga poses appropriately. (And, um, there’s less of an urge to pick your nose.)

Day 21: RB says it gets rid of her itchy eyes (also puts a vacuum on the tear ducts), which nothing else has ever done. RS says the weird feeling of being underwater still happens for him from time to time, but it’s still worth doing.

Day 36: Ran out of special neti salt and switched to regular. Despite the claims about “no added anti-caking agents” I suspect that special neti salt is probably like Excedrin Migraine®—same thing, new name to make it seem fancy.

Day 38: The level to which I am now familiar with the varying qualities and quantities of my snot and willing to discuss it with my family is getting a little embarrassing. But I’ll bet I’m not alone. Lynne Sims, assistant health and beauty aids manager at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, says neti pots are an extremely popular item. “Sinus issues are so common in this area,” she says. Of course she also says the special salt is very popular. Hmmm.

Day 39: First-ever long weekend visiting the in-laws and their cats without a single allergic symptom. Sure, I was still taking the drugs, but the drugs never worked before.

Day 40: Is this even really “alternative?” Dr. Michael DeVito, an otolaryngologist (that’s doctorese for ear-nose-throat specialist), is familiar with neti pots, and says he doesn’t know of any colleagues who have a problem with them. His only caution is that “as with many alternative remedies, there has to be a reasonable thought as to what the expectations are. People that have a bacterial sinusitis can’t expect a neti pot to make it go away.” But he says it’s great for “nasal crusting, and other general nasal irritation.”

DeVito also points out that a neti pot is only one delivery system for “saline irrigation”—you also can buy all sorts of squirt bottles and even an attachment for your Water Pik, not to mention something called Ponaris Oil that is less drying than saline. Good that there’s options, though friends who’ve tried the bottle squirt method make it sound pretty awkward, I must say.

Day 50: Everyone around me is sick, and I’m not. I have no reason to believe it’s the neti pot, except that never before would I have made it this far unscathed.

Day 56: Well, OK, I did get sick, but only for one day, which is a lot better than the weeks I’ve seen people going through. It’s really weird to know you’re sick because of the aches and the tenderness and the sore throat—but to continue breathing free and clear. No congestion, no post-nasal drip. It’s disorienting. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

Day 60: I think I’ve already saved us the money I spent on the neti pot in fewer tissue purchases. All in all, pretty impressive for a little metal pot with a funny looking spout.

Photo: Joe Putrock

M.D. in the MiddleLocal doctor straddles the mainstream-integrative medicine fence
By B. A. Nilsson

Ronald Stram is a healer who is also a doctor. That’s an odd phenomenon to note, but it signifies the gulf between conventional medicine and the less traditional—or at least less familiar—approaches now being offered, approaches still scorned by skeptics and denied insurance coverage.

Two years ago, Dr. Stram opened Delmar’s Center for Integrative Health and Healing with a number of associates offering treatments including acupuncture, naturopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, Reiki and much more. At the same time, he is a board-certified physician with 13 years of experience in this area. Currently, he is Director of Emergency Medicine at Albany Memorial Hospital, a career that predated his interest in integrative medicine. How does he reconcile what seem to be two vastly different worlds?

“The promise is the same,” he says. Stram is a pleasant, soft-spoken man more inclined to ask questions than to answer them. “We’re here to take care of patients. At the center, I’m able to offer a wide array complementary services, and I believe some of them even should be offered in conventional medicine.

“As it is, I’ve tried to bring some of what we do at the center to my work at Albany Memorial. There we’ve gone from a department where people were forced to feel that it was a privilege to be taken care of to a place where we believe it’s a privilege to take care of people. Our patient satisfaction rate there was at 50 percent when I started; it’s been 95 percent for the past year and a half.”

Stram’s professor of emergency medicine at Albany Medical Center was Joel Bartfield, who is the center’s associate dean for graduate medical education. “Ron is a talented guy with a lot of experience,” says Dr. Bartfield. “He brings a multifaceted approach to his work in the emergency department at Albany Memorial. Traditional medicine doesn’t always allow the time you’d like to talk to people, but he does what he can, and does it with the sensitivity he has developed.”

Talking becomes a vital part of the healing process at the Center for Integrative Health and Healing, and Stram schedules a lengthy consultation time for the first visit. “For the first half-hour of our consultation,” he explains, “I’m the student. I’m learning from you. My goal is to listen to people and to break down barriers.”

Stram credits his interest in alternative medicine to “two somewhat life-changing events. The first one took place when my father was ill with a spinal-cord tumor. We’d been estranged when I was a young man. The illness brought us closer, which made me recognize that disease doesn’t always result in loss.”

That was also a time when Stram was introduced to the works of Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra, “healers who are pretty big names,” as well as writers like Ken Wilbur, who tackles questions about our physical and spiritual universe.

“The second event took place when I was working at Albany Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in May and the place was humming. Even the halls were filled with stretchers. And we admitted a 16-year-old girl who had been ejected from a car and hit her head against a tree. The injury had resulted in diffused brain swelling, and there’s not a lot you can do for that. The neurosurgeon came down, looked at the CT scan, looked at the monitor—I don’t think he even looked at the girl herself—then went into the waiting room where about 30 family members were gathered. He told them the girl had about a 5 percent chance of surviving. There was pandemonium as he walked away.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I only knew that this was wrong. I suggested to the family that, whatever they believed in, they should pray. They should speak to friends and set up a prayer vigil, set it up all across the country if they could. ‘When you go to her hospital room,’ I said, ‘bring anything that reminds you of her. Read to her. Tell her that she has chores to do, she has work to finish.’ And, for the family at least, there was a sense of calm. That helped me recognize that healing goes beyond the patient. It includes family and friends.

“Was I giving them false hope? No. I was giving them power. Percentages are false. When people are cared for by other people, they get better.”

Spurred by this to further investigate integrative medicine, Stram pursued a fellowship program under Weil’s auspices at the University of Arizona. In opening the center in Delmar, he offers a program of services intended to complement what conventional medicine provides.

“Ron puts together a realistic treatment plan,” says Christopher Reilly, a staff acupuncturist at the Center. “All my patients say he’s a really good listener who understands what they’re going through and where they’re at.” Reilly also notes that it doesn’t hurt to have a physician with Stram’s training on hand. “A patient of mine had an episode of chest and jaw pain radiating into the left arm, and I was able to grab Ron and make sure that everything was OK.”

As far as cooperation with conventional medical community, progress is slow (and insurance coverage is scarce). “Right now,” says Stram, “there is still a lot of skepticism, but there is also good evidence that these modalities can be effective. Physicians here just aren’t educated in them.”

But he needs no more convincing than the evidence of the young woman with the head injury. “I kept in touch with her family,” he says, “and eventually got a postcard with the girl’s picture on it. She was dressed for her senior prom. She was 100-percent recovered.”

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