By Michael Castleman
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Thanks to a history of bad reactions, Louanne Weston was willing to do almost anything to avoid anesthesia. So when her doctor advised surgery to remove uterine fibroids that were causing cramps and heavy bleeding, Weston went looking for an anesthesia alternative. She found hypnosis -- and her doctor agreed to give it a try.
"Under hypnosis, I visited the moon, a beach, and other beautiful places far away from the operating room, and I felt no pain during the surgery," says Weston, a sex and relationships therapist in Fair Oaks, California. Even better, she avoided what she feared most: days of nasty side effects caused by anesthesia.
After coming out of her hypnotic state, instead of the usual debilitating nausea, she felt hungry. "I got up, walked out, and went to the cafeteria."
Going under the knife without drugs sounds far-fetched. But experts say hypnotherapy is just one of a growing number of alternative pain remedies worth trying; other options aim to ease everyday discomforts such as heartburn or PMS. "Alternative therapies often help," says Ronald V. Myers, M.D., president of the American Pain Institute. "I think it's important for both physicians and the public to keep an open mind. I support whatever works."
Here are five of the most promising alternatives. (More on alternative therapies from Health.com. )
Gum for heartburn
Heartburn happens when stomach acids splash back into the esophagus and burn it. Treatment often includes antacids that reduce the amount of acid. But British researchers recently confirmed U.S. studies showing that chewing gum after a meal helps fight heartburn. Chewing gum increases saliva, which helps wash the acid back down to the stomach, the researchers say. The type of gum doesn't matter, but the latest research used sugar-free -- and it's easier on your teeth.
If you try it: Chew for at least 30 minutes after eating.
Music for body aches
Looking for an excuse to invest in an iPod? New research shows that music can help ease neck and back pain. In a study involving 40 Ohio pain-clinic patients, one group listened to their favorite pop songs or nature sounds on headsets for an hour a day, another group listened to jazz or symphony music, and a third heard no music. The music groups said their pain dropped between 12 and 21 percent (based on the pain scale the researchers used). In related studies, music even helped reduce pain after surgery, lessen labor pain, and aid in burn treatment. Music has also been used successfully to boost immune function, treat insomnia and high blood pressure, and enhance quality of life for people with cancer.
If you try it: For the best effect, use headphones (or ear buds) to help block out noises, says the Ohio study co-author Sandra Siedlecki, Ph.D., R.N., of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Hypnotherapy for ... everything?
Hypnosis is thought to induce deep relaxation, helping to distract you from pain signals or anything else. Researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York analyzed 18 studies of hypnosis for pain relief and found "moderate to large" benefits -- the kind Louanne Weston experienced. Hypnosis also seems to boost immune function and help treat asthma, eczema, and irritable bowel syndrome.
If you try it: The National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists (Natboard.com) can help you find a qualified professional. You can even hypnotize yourself: Contact the Academy for Guided Imagery (Academyforguidedimagery.com) to get a CD.
Chaste tree berry for tender breasts
Monks ate chaste tree berries in the Middle Ages to suppress sexual desire, but it's since been proven to have no effect on libido. The fruit of the chaste tree (also known as Vitex), however, does seem to ease PMS-related breast pain, a common complaint. Turkish researchers compared chaste tree berry with the commonly prescribed drug Prozac, and the natural remedy worked better for physical symptoms of PMS-related breast pain.
If you try it: It's available as a pill or as a liquid at drug and natural-product stores. Follow label instructions.
Good fats for cramps
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil are believed to ease inflammation. Researchers in Cincinnati gave 42 young women with severe cramps fish-oil pills or a placebo for two months. The fish oil markedly reduced their cramps.
If you try it: Use the dose tested in the study: 1,800 milligrams per day.
Michael Castleman is the author of Nature's Cures, a scientific investigation of 30 alternative therapies.