ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It might be true, as Albuquerque acupuncturist Denise Garnes says, that New Mexico is a mecca for practitioners of alternative medicine. But for her, it’s simply a matter of demand.
“People are just a lot more health conscious,” she says. “They are taking responsibility for their health in ways they didn’t used to, and they’re looking for alternatives.”
As any person who exercises regularly knows, injuries happen. And recovery can take a long time. Increasingly, New Mexicans have been going beyond, or supplementing, a visit to their family doctor by embracing a range of alternative therapies, both to help them heal more quickly and avoid future injuries.
Three in particular — massage, chiropractic and acupuncture — are playing a big role in diversifying treatment options.
“There’s a great divide among most massage patients,” says Terrie Call, an Albuquerque massage therapist who has been practicing for 20 years. “With the fit patients it’s almost always waist down — quads, hamstrings, hips, ankles — and with every one else, it’s shoulders.”
That switch from massage as stress relief and a way to get kinks out of necks and shoulders to massage as a way to heal injuries and promote better performance is the story of the past 20 years.
“We’ve gone from being something only the rich did at spas to something people actually budget as part of their health care,” says Call.
“Massage not only breaks up scar tissue and knots — both of which can get in the way of good performance and can cause chronic pain — but it gets nutrients into the muscles where they promote function and recovery,” Call explains.
Studies show that soft-tissue manipulation is instrumental for lessening downtime. “Sprains are great candidates for massage,” she says. “Getting blood flowing through damaged tissue gets oxygen back into the muscles and gets you back out there faster.”
Massage therapists in New Mexico must complete at least 650 hours of training for licensure. Those hours include classroom work in subjects like physiology and anatomy, as well as at least 100 hours of hands-on work. They must also pass a national certification exam.
“Keep in mind,” says Call, “that when you’re looking for someone to help you recover from a sports or fitness-related injury, experience counts for a lot. Seek recommendations from like-minded active people.”
Like many alternative therapies, acupuncture has moved into the realm of sports medicine. “What I really like about it,” says Garnes, “is that it offers a true combination of Eastern and Western approaches.”
“I use traditional Chinese medicine to get a read on the person’s body, to figure out where the imbalances are, and then use Western evaluative approaches like muscular and postural assessments as well as things like orthopedic examinations to pinpoint where the problems are. Once I’ve got that, then I can begin to treat the injury.”
Acupuncture relies on the stimulation of particular points on the body in order to correct energy flow imbalances that can cause pain or discomfort. Slender needles are inserted along the body’s energy meridians and are manipulated to reach a desired effect. It’s an old therapy that’s finding new expressions. “I love the variety. I see lots of runners, crossfitters, volleyball players, but also older folks who just want to use exercise to stay healthy,” Garnes says.
Garnes notes that medical studies have focused on acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating pain, and that’s why most people seek her out. “I aim for at least an 80 percent reduction in pain during the first visit.”
That’s a personal goal, and a high one for a profession that bases many of its successes on long-term treatment. “But even after a successful treatment, I want to give my patients some tools — exercises geared toward their injuries — to build a self-care regimen,” she says.
Acupuncturists are licensed in New Mexico and must have passed a national certifying exam. “The good news,” Garnes says, “for active people of all sorts, is that more practitioners are seeking out certifications in sports medicine.”
“I’ll admit, what I do is aggressively manipulate soft tissue. Lots of doctors might say, ‘Nope, you’ve got to stay off of that sprain for 12 weeks,’ and I’m saying, ‘Nope, you’re starting tomorrow morning,’” says Albuquerque chiropractor David Peer. The pictures of athletes lining the walls of his office suggest he might be on to something.
“There’s only five of us in the state that are certified chiropractic sports physicians,” he says. “And basically, if there’s not a broken bone, we’re going to create motion. It’s what we do.”
The vast majority of chiropractors focus on spinal adjustment, and that’s the usual association with the profession, but practitioners like Peer are expanding the parameters of the discipline substantially. “A little over 50 percent of my practice is sports-related,” he says. “And all of my new business is from doctor referrals. Clearly, what we’re doing is working.”
Peer focuses on getting joints operable again after injury, and then addressing weakness or misalignments that might lead to additional injuries. He does it as much for the physical well being of his patients as the mental. “I know how it is with runners,” he says, as an example. “If they can’t run then they’re not right in the head. I do everything I possibly can to get them going and keep them active.”
New Mexico has an evolving relationship with chiropractors, driven recently by the looming primary care gap in the state. While the state requires a chiropractor to have a national board certification and state licensure to practice, there are specialty certifications available — such as advanced practice chiropractic — all of which require substantial additional training.
“The standard in New Mexico is really quite high,” Peer notes. “But you want to look for someone of whom your friends say, ‘I do better, I feel better, I recover better because of this guy.’”