Yoga spreads with wave of 'complementary medicine' in U.S., Minnesota


The share of Americans practicing therapeutic yoga has nearly doubled in a decade as adults seek ways to reduce stress, alleviate chronic pain and improve their outlook on life — a trend toward “complementary’’ medicine reflected at leading Minnesota clinics and hospitals.

Overall, about a third of U.S. health care consumers reported using complementary therapies in addition to traditional Western medicine during the period 2002-12, according to a federal survey released Tuesday. They included yoga, herbal products, acupuncture, meditation, massage and chiropractic care.

“The health practices of Americans tend to be quite stable, so an almost doubling of [yoga] use is very striking,” said Dr. Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health. She said explaining the causes will require additional research, but noted that it’s “consistent with the growing focus on having practices available to people with chronic musculoskeletal conditions” such as arthritis or back and neck pain.

The findings came as no surprise to officials at Allina Health in Minneapolis, which has bought into so-called “integrative therapy” at all of its hospitals and clinics.

“I have tons of data to show therapeutic benefit,” said Dr. Courtney Baechler, a cardiologist and director of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, a branch of Allina. Yoga and other movement therapies such as tai chi and qigong from the Chinese tradition focus on integrating mind, body and spirit, she said.

Tai chi, for example, has documented benefits for patients at risk of heart failure, she said, and other complementary techniques have proved effective in treating conditions ranging from high blood pressure to back pain.

“It’s amazing how, after someone has had [heart] bypass surgery and had their chest cracked open, how amazing it feels to have a shoulder massage,” Baechler said.

Matthew Sanford, who became a yoga instructor after he was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident, said the discipline is growing rapidly because it appeals to people across a wide spectrum. Some forms of yoga can challenge the best athletes, he said, while others will benefit people with back pain or anxiety disorders.

“I’m a paraplegic,” Sanford said. “There’s this misconception about yoga that you have to be able to put your leg behind your head. … It’s just a good way to lead a better life.”

Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, said interest in integrative health among both patients and providers has outpaced the U’s ability to respond.

“It used to be, when I started maybe 20 years ago, that this was peripheral,” Kreitzer said. “Now … more and more hospitals and health care systems are saying, ‘No, this is integral to what we do. This is going to improve the patient experience, it’s going to improve clinical outcomes.’ ’’

Kreitzer said a colleague published a study last year of patients who were on ventilators who received a “music intervention” to reduce agitation and the need for medication. “They got off the vents faster; they got out of ICU. Those are the things that save money,” she said.

Controlling nausea with an essential oil like peppermint or ginger, or calming an agitated patient with guided imagery shouldn’t be considered “alternative” therapies, Kreitzer said.

“These kinds of things are just part of good health care,” she said. “In the Twin Cities there’s hardly a health care system that isn’t moving in this direction.”

‘Million-dollar question’

Excluding vitamins and minerals, the survey found that the use of dietary supplements remains the predominant form of complementary therapy for American adults, but their use dipped to 17.7 percent in 2012 from 18.9 percent in 2002.

Fish oil — which is used for heart and blood conditions and a wide variety of other ailments — grew to 7.8 percent from 4.8 percent in the past five years alone. Probiotics for digestive health grew to 1.6 percent from 0.4 percent in the same period.

Meantime, glucosamine and/or chondroitin, once-popular therapeutics for joint pain, declined to 2.6 percent in 2012 from 3.2 percent in 2007.

Perhaps following the example of adults, more children turned to yoga, tai chi and qigong, a category of therapy that increased to 3.2 percent from 2.5 percent.

The U’s Masonic Children’s Hospital just launched an initiative called Yoga Calm, designed to teach young cancer patients and their family members how to use yoga, massage and reiki to manage pain and hasten recovery.

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester also has seen interest grow in its Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program since its start in 2001.

Dr. Brent Bauer, who directs the program, said research has proved the beneficial effects of the therapies, especially on the body’s reactions to stress. Asked how they work, he said, “That’s the million-dollar question.”