Study shows that naturopathic medicine helps women experiencing jaw pains

A study involving a painful jaw disorder and the role of naturopathic medicine demonstrates how this holistic approach to care can empower patients to improve their own health.

The researchers behind this investigation will discuss their findings at the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians 19th Annual Convention & Exposition, being held September 8-11, 2004, at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, Seattle, WA.

Naturopathic medicine is based upon a holistic philosophy, an approach to medical care that emphasizes the study of all aspects of a person's health, with an emphasis on finding the underlying cause of the patient’s condition rather than focusing solely on symptomatic treatment. This delivery of healthcare encompasses safe and effective traditional therapies with the most current advances in modern medicine. Naturopathic medicine is appropriate for the management of a broad range of health conditions affecting people of all ages.

For those who think that this 100+ year old approach to good health is “outside the box,” consider the following:

  • Those who graduate from accredited naturopathic schools receive more formal training in therapeutic nutrition than do their medical (MD) or osteopathic physician (DO) counterparts.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that naturopathic medicine be integrated into conventional health care systems.
  • More than a dozen states now license the practice of naturopathic medicine.

In 1999 the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, commissioned a clinical trial, “Alternative Medicine Approaches for Women with Temporomandibular Disorders.” The study, which compares the effectiveness of naturopathic therapies to acupuncture and “conventional” (Western) medical care, was conducted by a team of researchers. They are: Carlo Calabrese, ND, MPH, Professor of Research, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR; Elizabeth Sutherland, ND, clinical investigator and research associate with Kaiser Permanente, Portland, OR; Nancy Vuckovic, PhD, Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Portland, OR; Cheryl Ritenbaugh, PhD, MPH, Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Portland, OR; Erin Lommen, ND; associate medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine (CIM), Inc., Portland, OR; and Anna MacIntosh, PhD, ND, Dean of Research, National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Portland, OR.

Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) are characterized by pain and tenderness in the muscles of mastication and/or the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), limitations to opening of the jaw, and clicking, popping or grating TMJ sounds. Using a database of patients living in Northwestern Oregon, the investigators selected women between the ages of 20-50 who had been medically diagnosed with TMJ and co-morbidity factors such as menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue and depression. These criteria would enable the NDs to create a treatment plan that addressed the “whole system.” A test subject with complex health problem would be the typical patient for the naturopathic physician.

A total of 150 women were enrolled in the study. They were randomly assigned to one of the three study groups: (1) naturopathic care; (2) acupuncture/Chinese medicine; and (3) usual care at the Kaiser Permanent TMD clinic in Portland, OR.

The 50 women who were randomly enrolled in the naturopathic care study were studied over a six month period by one of two naturopathic physicians. Each subject was allowed nine one-hour visits over a six-month period. During Visit 1, subjects were asked a series of questions, including medical history, current stress level, ability to detoxify harmful substances in the body, functioning of the digestive and immune systems, and level of current pain. The primary purpose of these questions was to assess the patient’s functionality -- in other words, how the subject’s physiological processes were working, and how the “whole system” may impact on the disorder being reviewed. The secondary purpose was to identify and prioritize the underlying cause of the TMJ in order to treat that aspect of the body.

The challenge for the test subjects was to accept changes in lifestyle as recommended by the naturopathic practitioner. The subjects were required to consider whole system changes – a challenge never made by physicians from conventional medicine.

The results from the clinical trial correlating TMJ pain and naturopathic intervention are still being tabulated. But the research team has reached two conclusions thus far, based on chart notes and informal patient surveys. They have concluded that:

  1. Patients experienced “transformational” changes. A number of patients came to believe that they had been “stuck” in their pain level and that they could not imagine that they could feel better. After the study, they reported they had become “unstuck” in their way of thinking.
  2. As a consequence, patients found themselves empowered in terms of having control of their own health and their ability to affect their future. This was the result of receiving counsel regarding their whole system provided them information on how to mitigate a wide range of symptoms and an understanding of the richness and cohesiveness of the body’s systems.
  3. Naturopathic medicine has a legitimate role in research, offering a fresh prospective for efforts to find new treatment regimen for disease and disorder.

Traditional research findings address the relationship between disease and treatment. This ongoing clinical trial involving naturopathic medicine is offering a different benefit: trained practitioners of naturopathic medicine are establishing a guide for future research efforts that involve the patient’s system as a whole, rather than on a specific area of the body that is experiencing a disorder of sorts. This study shows that, for at least one group of women experiencing pain, that such an approach provides unexpected and rewarding benefits.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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