Sustainable Health Care by Accident

Bodyworkers see resource savings in treating little problems before they worsen

Editor’s note: Third in a seven-part series about creating a sustainable health-care system for Rhode Island.

By KARINA LUTZ/ecoRI News contributor

Susan Steiner, a craniosacral and occupational therapist, never thought she would be providing sustainable health care — of course, any hands-on treatment fits her definition of sustainability: “using the least amount of resources.”

“We’re using people's time — touch and energy — and a small amount of laundry and oils or other products,” she said. The other way bodywork could be sustainable is that many techniques can be taught to the masses for self-care and community-based care, she said.

Steiner sees great resource savings in taking care of little problems before they get big. “The client has the responsibility to keep themselves well, and not get too sick,” she said. “If a disease process becomes too extreme, it takes more pharmaceuticals and resources to diagnose it and fight it off. So self-care and self-education are key. Being mindful and conscious of your own health and willing to care for yourself is primary.”

Steiner is renowned in Providence for her therapeutic touch, which has evolved from her days as an occupational therapist in public schools to her current melding of manual therapies, including craniosacral therapy and somato-emotional release, from her own office.

She incorporates an awareness of her clients’ body mechanics and postural habits, along with subtle structural adjustments, and so has developed a style that is truly her own. Cranston-based chiropractor Roger Redleaf described Steiner’s work this way: “As chiropractors, as we align the spine, we move the boulders out of the way. Susan gets the stream to flow.”

So what is this energy bodyworkers and energy healers talk about? In traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture and qi gong, it's called “qi” or “chi” — the life-force energy that flows through the energy channels of the body, like an invisible and more comprehensive second nervous system. In yoga, it is called prana. Shamanic healers and other traditional healers around the world have used energy to support healing, and martial artists use it to push away opponents without the use of muscular force. Energy healing has been recently popularized by the spread of reiki, which uses hands and spiritual intention to direct energy to and through different parts of the body.

Western science validates various measurable energies in the body, such as low-level electrical currents and magnetic fields. Radiologists beam X-rays and magnetic resonance to see inside the body, and EKGs measure the electrical pulses of the heart. Pacemakers keep people alive with tiny shocks of electricity to keep the heart pumping.

Still, many adherents to the Western medical model doubt the “reality” of energy medicine. They're even skeptical of hands-on therapies that rely on manipulation of body tissues, such as osteopathy and deep-tissue massage.

Steiner said craniosacral therapy, which was derived from cranial osteopathy, and similar holistic-health modalities aren't for everybody — at least not yet. In her experience, the methods she uses are especially helpful for pain management, especially low back/spinal/neck pain, jaw pain, migraines and headaches, stress management, and anxiety relief from post traumatic stress from emotional injury or car accidents.

Holistic health care can be expensive if the provider’s services aren’t covered by insurance. However, there are more and more in-network providers who offer manual therapies recognized by insurance companies as helping address specific physical conditions.

Other barriers for people with fewer resources include mustering the “will power, motivation and the wherewithal to buy, cook and eat a healthy diet, to drink water and get some exercise,” Steiner said. “It’s going to be difficult in a community where these choices are not supported, where the only stores just sell soda and chips.”

The next hurdle is commitment. “There has to be a certain belief for them to continue," Steiner said. She refers to the "Spiral Dynamics" approach of Don Beck and Chris Cowan — an interaction of world views from simpler to more complex value systems, which can limit or expand a patient and therapist’s capacity for collaborative healing. At the level of oneness-consciousness, receiving deeper energy healing is possible, but at other levels of understanding, such ideas may seem “crazy,” Steiner said.

“You have to describe the healing in the language an individual believes,” she said. “Some can’t hear about angels, some have to have their angel in the office.”

On the other hand, “if there’s already too much damage in the physical body, I don’t rely solely on subtle medicine,” Steiner said. “I’m not a doctor and I’m not going to tell someone to just get some bodywork and wait. I’m a big believer in the team approach.”

Somato-emotional release work, for example, can help people healing from trauma, yet they may also need a psychotherapist if a bodyworker like Steiner uncovers complex issues that her treatments alone can’t help the client fully process.

Similarly, people suffering from some traumas or illnesses may also need medical doctors for physical care. Sometimes an antibiotic is the best solution.

“Thank goodness for medicine,” Steiner said. “I know it's helped me.” Steiner recognizes a sustainable health-care system should use the low-intervention, low-impact techniques first, yet there is a place for Western medical intervention.

“Ideally we should work as a team,” she said.