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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 3, 2010

Alternative medicine may help legs; diagnosis is key


By Mian Long

Q. My legs feel weak, and strangely numb and painful at the same time and medications don't seem to help. Can alternative medicine help?

A. Weakness, numbness, restlessness or pain in the leg can be caused by many conditions such as a slipped disk, low thyroid, poor circulation or nerve damage. If there is poor circulation, the muscles of the legs get starved of oxygen and become weak or begin to send out distress signals to the brain. These signals can be in the form of restlessness, tingling or pain.

The most common causes of poor circulation and nerve damage in the legs are diabetes (even pre-diabetes) and high cholesterol. These can result in peripheral artery disease and diabetic neuropathy. Most people don't realize that diabetes contributes to blockage of the tiniest vessels (capillaries) along with blockage of the large blood vessels.

Less common causes of leg symptoms are autoimmune disease (vasculitis, lupus, Buerger's disease and others), chemicals (heavy metals, pesticides and others), the side effects of medication (such as allergy medication, cholesterol medication, blood pressure medication and potassium), shingles, nutritional deficiency (e.g. B-12, folic acid) or excess (e.g. alcohol), and some rare but serious conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Treatment always depends first on treatment of the underlying cause such as the disk problem, thyroid replacement , controlling blood sugar, controlling cholesterol, and eliminating any chemicals, foods or drugs that may be causing the irritation or damage.

The next step is to control the symptoms. Pain medication and anti-inflammatory medication are often useful. When prescription medications are not enough or their side effects intolerable, non-pharmaceutical treatments are also available.

Traditional Chinese medicine can be surprisingly effective in many cases it looks at these conditions as an imbalance or blockage of qi (chi) energy. Chinese herbs and acupuncture have been demonstrated to be helpful when used in the context of an assessment of qi and balancing it.

While this approach seems unconventional, reputable institutions around the world such as Harvard at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and McMaster University in Canada use traditional Chinese medicine techniques in dealing with some forms of weakness, pain and numbness in legs.

Remember that a good diagnosis is the key to effective treatment. So see your physician first to determine the cause. Then, if appropriate, use a whole-person approach to minimize pain and restore strength in your legs.

Dr. Mian Long is a China-trained physician-acupuncturist and an assistant clinical professor who practices at UH's John A. Burns School of Medicine. She can be reached at 692-0908.