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Finding relief
Autoimmune diseases respond to alternative approaches


May 2008

Judy Benz

An autoimmune disease is among nature’s most mysterious disorders — a malfunction of the body’s immune system, causing the body to attack its own tissues.

Science has identified more than 80 clinically distinct autoimmune diseases afflicting between 14 million and 22 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. These conditions can result in varying degrees of disability, impaired quality of life and decreased productivity, not to mention outpatient visits and hospitalizations.

Little wonder, then, that individual cases vary so and that patients seek out approaches that will work for them.

Conventional therapies treat symptoms such as pain, inflammation and diarrhea, according to Dr. Neil E. Farber, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "Alternative therapies look at it as a lack of balance in the immune system and try to balance that, whether it’s through acupuncture, herbs, homeopathic approaches, or certain diets and foods," Farber explains.

His patient care emphases include alternative medicine and, as someone diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis himself — most likely an autoimmune disease — he has a strong interest in the topic.

"I don’t think conventional medicine is that far off from a lot of alternative or complementary medicine now," says Farber. Specifically, including antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids in one’s diet, taking primrose oil supplements, getting acupuncture treatments or reducing stress all may be recommended by traditional-approach doctors.

Genetic factors account for only about one-third of autoimmune cases, notes Farber, adding to the puzzling nature of autoimmune diseases.

Rosanne Henrickson

"In conventional therapy, they’re looking at not just symptomatic treatment, but the research is in how do we balance the immune disorder," he adds.

Some patients turn to supplements and herbal products, and Farber urges them to inform their doctor to avoid harmful interactions. He serves as director of pediatric anesthesiology at the Medical College, and helped decide which herbal products would be allowed for use at Children’s Hospital.

"A lot of these things have not been proven safe or effective in children," he notes.

In addition, Farber says people should avoid buying from a Web site, and don’t buy products with multiple ingredients. "The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) doesn’t regulate nutritional supplements, so they can put anything they want on the label and in the bottle," he warns.

Weight loss put lupus patient in control

Frustrated and fatigued by lupus, Judy Benz found inspiration in an article about exercise she read while waiting for a doctor’s appointment six years ago.

The recumbent bike she bought didn’t get much use until Benz lost the 50 pounds she’d gained from steroid treatments. Now a Weight Watchers lifetime member, Benz rides five miles a day and considers herself in remission.

"Before, I’d lose 25 pounds and gain it back. I’d quit and give up," says Benz. "I’m probably 10 pounds over where I’d like to be, but if I go lower, I ‘flare.’ "

Managing lupus requires careful attention to weight, energy and medication side effects for Benz, who lives in Germantown. Her meds have included low-dose chemotherapy and a steroid "cocktail." Checkups watch for problems such as inflammation in the lining around the heart and excessive protein in the urine.

"I definitely think working with your doctor, working out and losing weight is the key to getting it under control," says Benz. "If I didn’t listen to what my doctor tells me and take my meds, I’d be very, very sick. This is a brutal disease."

Benz, 50, works in health care as an executive assistant at Children’s Hospital Health System. Her diagnosis came in 1997 following the onset of painful arthritis-like symptoms. Prior to diagnosis and weight gain, she had done aerobics.

She attends Weight Watchers meetings at her workplace each Thursday. In addition to her cycling routine, she also uses hand weights and an exercise ball. Over the years, she’s done yoga and water aerobics, and gets massages for stress relief.

"I didn’t use the bike regularly right away, but now I can use all the programs for different resistance levels and pace," she says. "I like to ride first thing in the morning, and I get to listen to books on tape or music."

~ Cathy Breitenbucher

Carol Wolter

Yoga got MS patient back in balance

Yoga, according to Rosanne Henrickson, creates a sense of calmness, increases a person’s range of motion, and improves strength and posture. The benefits go much farther for Henrickson, who has multiple sclerosis.

Fifty-six-year-old Henrickson, of Menomonee Falls, was diagnosed at age 43. Her major symptom was fatigue; in fact, she got so tired she had to quit her job and took three naps a day.

Once nutritional supplements helped restore her energy about 12 years ago, Henrickson was determined to get in shape. She now walks two to four miles a day, lifts weights, water skis and — in defiance of many MS patients’ need to avoid getting overheated — comfortably plays tennis outdoors on hot summer days.

"I’m able to keep up with my 4-year-old granddaughter," notes Henrickson. "And I beat my 26-year-old son in racquetball last winter. That was neat."

Henrickson had done yoga in her 20s and rediscovered it a couple years ago when she heard a presentation by Ricky Heldt, a certified MS yoga instructor through Aurora St. Luke’s Hospital and the National MS Society. Now, she attends Heldt’s weekly class for MS patients as well as one at the Tri-County YMCA.

"I believe yoga is the No. 1 alternative therapy for MS," says Heldt, who also teaches yoga instructors how to work with MS patients.

Henrickson got her first hint that she might be developing MS in her early 20s when an inflammation in her optic nerve was discovered. In her 40s, she experienced tingling in her feet and memory problems, both signs of MS. Medication provided only partial relief.

"Most people diagnosed when I was would be using a walker, and outside the home a wheelchair or a scooter," she says.

Today, Henrickson takes no prescription meds. She plans to continue her regimen of supplements and fitness activities. "If you don’t exercise, you’re going to become weak, whether you have MS or not," she says.

~ Cathy Breitenbucher

Lauren Crandall

Acupuncture is pathway to pain relief

"It hurts all over," says Lauren Crandall. Lauren is 11 years old and the hurt is caused by juvenile fibromyalgia, a disorder she was diagnosed with at age 9. "I want people to know it is real, hard to live with and I have to miss a lot of school." Crandall and her family live in the town of Summit.

Her mother, Dawn, says the disorder, whether exhibited in adults or children, is characterized by pain in all the soft tissues: muscles, ligament, and tendons as well as extreme fatigue. Like other people with the disorder, she says, "Lauren was diagnosed by ruling out all other possible explanations and then observing she exhibited pain in more than five out of 18 ‘tender points,’ areas of the body especially sensitive, like both sides of the neck."

The odd characteristic of fibromyalgia is that despite its debilitating effects, the body gives no external indications. Dawn says "It is an invisible disease."

Shortly after she was diagnosed, Lauren was prescribed the usual medications, including non-narcotic pain relief. In conjunction with those, she’s also found help using other techniques, namely Chinese acupuncture from a certified practitioner. Because the majority of her pain is located in the neck, shoulders and back the slender needles are clustered there: she receives two in the lower back and 30 in the head and shoulder area. They are in place for approximately a half hour.

The relief is not long term, but Lauren says it helps for about two days and she was able to move around more easily. Looking a little like a cute porcupine with all the needles in place, Lauren had a photo taken of herself and included it in a report about fibromyalgia she gave to her class at school.

~ Judy Steininger

Soaking in warmth relieves the pain

Carol Wolter of Pewaukee did everything right including exercise and diet; after all, she was a physical education teacher for 42 years. But she endured pain for much of that time. In 1998, she was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a disease characterized by painful swelling of the joints, stiffness and fatigue.

Wolter is retired and she still does everything right, but she has found a new, easy to use technology enabling her to stop taking the drugs prednisone and methotrexate, common medications for the disease. The technology that makes her pain free allows her to read for 45 minutes a day and listen to favorite CDs.

Wolter discovered the Sunlight Sauna. It uses infrared rays which warm the body’s core (not the air around it), affects nerve endings and fluid in the joints. The cedar box with beveled glass doors is installed in her basement; it measures just over 6 feet tall, 6 feet long and 4 feet deep; it is considered a three person sauna. Her biggest surprise, in addition to the almost immediate, complete pain relief, came when she discovered that sweat produced doesn’t smell because infrared kills the body odors.

Early on she used the sauna daily; nowadays, her schedule is three days a week. In she goes with her book and CD player. In the intense temperature of 135 degrees, she can stand, sit or lie down on the bench which runs the length. Jon Reimer, area distributor of the Sunlight Sauna, has one set up for anyone to try before they purchase. (

Wolter combines her sauna treatments with alternate days in the Westwood swimming pool and gym. "Arthritis patients make the mistake of not moving around. Movement helps you. I also eat a good diet." She also continues regular visits with her doctor.

~ Judy Steininger

This article was featured in the May 2008 issue of