More MS news articles for Feb 2002

Movement Therapy's Usefulness Debated

Feb 19, 2002
Charlotte Moore
Lachlan McBane was a derelict dialer.

When placing a phone call, he would splay his thumb out to the side instead of letting it rest naturally next to his palm, which would explain the discomfort in his thumb joint. Before you deride his problem, you should know that for McBane - a violist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - such a malady could ruin his career.

McBane might never have noticed and corrected his wayward thumb were it not for the more serious shoulder strain he suffered two years ago. He was undergoing conventional physical therapy, taking anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve his shoulder pain and "getting nowhere fast."

In desperation, he took the advice of a fellow musician and began practicing a burgeoning alternative to traditional forms of physical therapy known as the Feldenkrais Method.

"Now, I've been back at work, full time, for over a year and a half and I haven't had to miss anything," McBane said.

Part physical therapy, part stress reducer, the Feldenkrais Method is old hat in places such as Austria, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It was introduced to the United States in the 1970s by Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born physics scholar and judo doyen whose knee problems led him to discover self-rehabilitation through simple body movement. The Feldenkrais Method has been thriving in the West - where many nontraditional mind-body practices have found an initial foothold - and only recently has begun inching eastward and finding followers in the Southeast; the Atlanta area is home to nearly a dozen certified Feldenkrais practitioners, some of whom were just certified a year or two ago.

The method involves group therapy, where participants sit on mats and follow the instructions of the practitioner, and individualized therapy, a hands-on technique in which the practitioner works with the client one-on-one. Practitioners help clients focus on problem areas of the body in an attempt to facilitate ease of motion. In the process, many patients report a reduction in anxiety and other psychological benefits.

Alan Questal, a Feldenkrais practitioner who was host of a workshop at the Cobb Galleria Centre last month, said Feldenkrais is a way of using movement to improve the quality of life; to "evoke a more skeletal use of the self; to deconstruct some of our muscular habits so that there's more variety in how we use ourselves, bringing about reduction of pain, improved function and greater vitality."

Feldenkrais referred to his technique as "The Elusive Obvious," the title of a book he wrote more than 20 years ago.

It's somewhat easier to understand what the Feldenkrais Method is not. It is not yoga. It is not massage. And, despite some claims that the Feldenkrais Method is an ideal therapy for sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases, it is not supported by the medical community at large. According to American Medical Association policy, there is little evidence confirming the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies.

Yank D. Coble Jr., president-elect of the American Medical Association, is not well-versed in the Feldenkrais Method, but acknowledges there are multiple variations of hundreds of alternative therapies. The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine recognizes nearly 350 forms of alternative remedies, many of which have never been subjected to scientific scrutiny.

"It would be impossible to study them all," said Coble.

In 1999, the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published details ofan NIH-funded study performed in Charlotte analyzing the effects of the Feldenkrais Method on multiple sclerosis sufferers. Twenty participants practiced the Feldenkrais Method for eight weeks, followed or preceded by eight weeks of a mock therapy.

"We found that the only effects of the Feldenkrais Method, over the sham method, were in decreased perceived stress and anxiety," said UNC assistant professor Susan K. Johnson. "There were no differences in some of the more physical symptoms of MS."

Frank Fearon, physical therapy professor at North Georgia College and State University, doesn't buy into Feldenkrais hype and encourages medical professionals to think twice before endorsing the method.

"It definitely works on the conceptual side of things; it decreases stress and anxiety and patients feel much better, emotionally," he said. "But I'm not certain they're getting better physically. We ought to be pretty hesitant about offering hope beyond what can be demonstrated with evidence."

Still, many practitioners - and a growing number of patients - swear by Feldenkrais. Nearly 2,000 people in the United States have spent the requisite four years and nearly $15,000 to become certified Feldenkrais practitioners.

Bobbie Dees graduated from Duke University in 1954 when few physical therapy colleges existed. Now, a licensed physical therapist and a certified Feldenkrais practitioner working out of her Ellijay, Ga., office, Dees incorporates principles of Feldenkrais into her traditional therapy sessions.

"Clients love it," Dees said. "I have clients with auto-immune diseases plus I do the typical sorts of rehab on feet, knees and hips. My clients respond wonderfully well to Feldenkrais. When they begin to move well, they reach a point where they become stronger. Then they can move into water aerobics or some other sort of strengthening exercise."

For Atlanta resident Barbara Elasmar, the Feldenkrais Method has been nothing short of "a marvelous experience."

An automobile accident 32 years ago left her with a broken neck that set up a succession of surgical procedures, including five spinal fusions. She recently underwent surgery to correct severe curvature of her spine. Permanent nerve damage, chronic pain and muscular atrophy on the right side of her body inhibited daily activity; writing a letter was nearly impossible.

"I was a mess," Elasmar said. "I couldn't function. Surgery relieved a lot of the discomfort but now my whole body was teeter-tottering and banging into doors because I couldn't process myself in space properly."

Elasmar sought and achieved some measure of relief through techniques ranging from physical therapy to hypnosis. Eventually, she was introduced to Louise Runyun, a Feldenkrais practitioner in Decatur, Ga. Runyun took Elasmar through a series of lessons designed to increase Elasmar's mobility and improve her posture.

"I'd put my thumb and forefinger on each of her vertebrae and ask her to direct her energy just to that one place," Runyun said. "The goal was to wake up each part of her spine."

Elasmar, who moves easier now and paints portraits and landscapes in her free time, meets with Runyun once a week.

Local performance artists say they have also benefited from the Feldenkrais Method.

During his first visit, McBane played his viola for Runyun who noted "fast and furious" movements of his shoulder and fingers that seemed detached from the rest of his body.

"We worked on (mentally) connecting his arms with his back to see how he could play the viola with his whole self," said Runyun.

McBane began practicing Feldenkrais with Runyun in March 2000. By June, he'd returned to the symphony a more enlightened musician.

"It wasn't an instant process and I still have some weakness with certain motions, but I'm perfectly able to function like I need to," said McBane. In addition to helping alleviate his pain, Feldenkrais exercises showed McBane how he could move his body more efficiently thereby making every action - from brushing his teeth to dialing a phone number - more relaxed.

"Before Feldenkrais, I used my body a lot like the caricatures you see of Al Gore - real wooden and stiff," McBane said.

Atlanta teen-ager Helen Hale of the Callanwolde Dance Ensemble was reared in a family that welcomed nontraditional approaches to healthy living. The 17-year-old said Feldenkrais practice not only relieved pain and weakness in her groin, hips and knees but has helped make her a better performer.

"I can remember the way Louise (Runyun) would use her hands on my back and the way she focused on each of my vertebrae," Hale said. "I learned I could move each one in ways I never thought I could. That was really interesting. In terms of a holistic approach to dancing and movement, Feldenkrais can take the art form to a whole different level."

(c) 2002 Cox News Service