Supplementing Surgery

Complementary therapies can help ease side effects, speed healing

By Susan Weiner

September 2008

For Ellen Marshall, it all came down to a bedsore that wouldn’t heal. Following gastric bypass surgery, the East Windsor, New Jersey homemaker awoke from an induced coma with her lower back shrouded in a nine-inch bedsore. Doctors prescribed antibiotics and other healing agents, but the sore only worsened.

“For months I was in a reclining chair with pillows propped up behind me. It was a constant burning pain,” recalls Marshall, 50. “One day a visiting nurse suggested I try aloe vera gel. Within days it felt much better and began healing.” After adding capsaicin ointment, derived from the seeds that give chili peppers their heat, to her routine, Marshall’s bedsore vanished.

Both remedies are considered complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), a group of practices that run the gamut from herbal medicine to meditation. CAM is reputed to ease anxiety before surgery, speed healing and prevent complications post-surgery—and Americans are catching on. Among 151 surgical patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, 40% used some type of CAM before or after surgery (International Journal of Surgery 12/06).

“Patients look more relaxed and have less anxiety after getting a massage,” says Melanie Fernandi, LAc, director of the Complementary Medicine Program at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. She treats post-surgery patients with acupuncture, which she says “helps them bounce back quicker since it relieves pain, decreases anxiety and increases lung capacity.”

Acupuncture can also provide significant pain relief for patients after head or neck cancer surgery (American Society for Clinical Oncology, 6/08). Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic reports that hypnosis can control pain during surgical procedures, and patients who receive massage following heart surgery rated their pain as notably less intense.

Mind Over Matter

After the 44.9 million surgical procedures done in the US each year patients face risks that include infections and blood clots—adding weight to the adage that hospitals are terrible places for sick people. It’s no wonder both patients and hospitals are turning towards CAM to thwart complications.

“If any hospital wants to remain competitive in this day and age, they have to offer some sort of integrative medicine,” says Diane Tusek, RN, MSN, president of Guided Imagery, Inc., which produces CDs that use music, nature sounds and story guides to prepare patients for surgery.

As the former director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Guided Imagery Program, use of Tusek’s soothing CDs resulted in decreased bleeding, nausea, vomiting and pain, and reduced healing time (American Journal of Colorectal Surgery 10/96). “I encourage patients to listen to the CDs at home a couple of times a day prior to surgery,” says Tusek, who urges patients to listen to a CD via earphones during surgery. “Patients really are in less pain and take less pain medication. With less medication, there are fewer side effects.”

Supplement Wisely

Discuss supplement usage with your surgeon and a practitioner who has a nutrition-oriented background. Some supplements should be discontinued up to three weeks before your surgery; feverfew, garlic, ginger, ginkgo, ginseng and fish oil may increase the likelihood of bleeding, while herbs such as echinacea and St. John’s wort may alter the effectiveness of drugs given during surgery. Find out from your practitioner when you can resume your regular regimen.

Also ask which supplements should be added to your pre-op checklist. Since the body uses vitamin C to make connective tissue and speed wound healing, Andrew Weil, MD, suggests using it before, after and even during surgery via an IV drip. Susan Lark, MD, recommends a high-quality multivitamin, along with vitamin A (as beta-carotene), quercetin and the omega-3 source flaxseed oil. Two days before surgery, start taking bromelain to control swelling and bruising, and keep taking it afterwards (along with the multi). Other helpful post-surgery supplements include homeopathic arnica to help minimize pain (plus topical arnica on intact skin to combat bruising), phosphorus to lessen pain and grapeseed extract to reduce swelling.

A holistic approach also entails finding the good in a bad situation. After three near-death experiences within the last 20 years, Robert Flower, PhD, author of Your Exceptional Mind (Gilchrist Institute), believes that sickness presents an opportunity for change. “Illness has a way of generating a greater awareness of things,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to become a better person in many different ways.”

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