April 23, 2024

Striking Back Against Chronic Pain

Pulsed electromagnetic fields, biofield tuning, and other alternative therapies can offer relief and healing
By Jillian Manning | Jan. 7, 2023

The ache in your lower back that just won’t go away. The unexplained inflammation or skin sensitivity. The chronic illness you’re living with, but only barely.

These are a few of the reasons folks seek out alternative therapies after they’ve left the doctor’s office. Perhaps that looks like massage, acupuncture, or a visit to the chiropractor. Perhaps it looks like reiki or mindfulness practices or infrared sauna.

But how do you know when a therapy is right for you? Or whether you’ll actually get relief? Northern Express talked with local experts in alternative care to learn more about their services, clients, and results.

Following the Path

Wendy Smieska’s path to the alternative care field was an unexpected one. She worked for the prison system as a corrections officer until her husband had a job-related injury that led to months of therapy, including learning to read and write again and dealing with balance issues. For the latter, they would drive to Traverse City several times a week for a therapy called neuromuscular reeducation, which is geared toward restoring normal nerve and muscle function.

It was the therapist treating Smieska’s husband who initially planted the seeds of change.

“After about a year of her showing me some things to do to help him out at home a little bit, she said, ‘Oh, gosh, you know what, you need to leave your current career—you may have missed your calling,’” Smieska recalls.

For the last 23 years, Smieska has been treating clients with chronic illnesses and injuries in her Cadillac business, Creative Paths to Wellness. She is a licensed massage therapist with further expertise in far infrared sauna, pulsed electromagnetic field treatments, and esoteric healing. She also offers meditation punctuated with the relaxing benefits of sound and vibrational therapy from Himalayan singing bowls.

If some of those terms feel unfamiliar, you’re not alone. Even for Smieska, the technologies and learning opportunities are ever-evolving. “First and foremost, [my work] started out as massage,” she says. “And from there, it didn’t take long to have the thought, ‘Alright, some people are getting better and some people are not. And why is that the case?’ … So then you start looking around a little bit to expand or deepen your knowledge.”

All About Energy

Let’s start with pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) treatments.

“[PEMF] was developed by NASA back in the ’60s when we were sending folks to outer space,” Smieska explains. “If you look at the body as being an electrical being, and we’re functioning in an electrical atmosphere with the earth as our ground, that’s a complete circuit, right? But when we were sending folks to outer space, they were coming back with deteriorated muscle and bone.”

Smieska says PEMF treatments are “a way of exposing you to an alternating AC/DC current that shakes up the cells in your body, so everything is free moving,” likening the before and after to a puddle at the end of your driveway and a clear running stream.

For the one-hour treatment ($30), clients lie on a massage table on a PEMF mat that is connected via a heart rate monitor to deliver custom electric pulses. Smieska says that unless someone is particularly sensitive to energy, clients don’t feel a thing during the treatment. But the end result offers improvements in muscle tightness or strains, wound healing, and relief from things like headaches, migraines, and TMJ.

“This is a safe thing for [older clients] to do, where I’m not using a lot of pressure to create change in the tissue,” Smieska says. “It’s great for my veterans with post traumatic stress. … There’s music, there’s a warm blanket, the lighting is soft. I just try to make it an environment that feels soothing and safe.”

Another treatment in Smieska’s repertoire is far infrared sauna, the high-tech cousin of the dry or steam saunas you may have seen or experienced before. The touted benefits are similar—easing muscle pain, increasing blood flow, ridding skin of toxins, and offering relief for colds, asthma, and even nervous system disorders—but the delivery is different.

Rather than turning up the heat or pouring hot water over hot stones, the sauna works by directing infrared light to your body, resulting in more heat penetration but overall cooler temperatures in the sauna itself. Sounds like a natural pairing after a massage, right? (Just be sure to drink plenty of water.).

Last but not least, we move away from tech and into the realm of the ancient and mystical with esoteric healing. (“Esoteric means hidden but meant to be discovered,” Smieska explains.) This is similar to energy-healing practices like reiki, with the goal of adjusting a person’s energy field to a healthier state, though Smieska says the training process is much more rigorous, noting it took her about six years to complete.

Clients sit back and relax while Smieska does her work, all without making physical contact. After the treatment is complete, clients are meant to experience mental/emotional or physical relief. They can also feel more balanced or energized.

One Thing Leads to Another

Kelly Dodson of NoMi Integrative Bodywork & Biofield Tuning in Petoskey is also on a quest to uncover some of the mysteries of the human body and mind—specifically how the two interact and affect one another.

Dodson has practiced yoga since her childhood in California and found the link between movement and breathing helped heal and stabilize her from head to toe. She became a yoga teacher and soon dove into meditation for its soothing effects on the nervous system. This mind-body connection has continued to guide her in her work, now as a licensed massage therapist (like Smieska, she also offers PEMF treatments), certified biofield tuning practitioner, and reiki master.

“Our mindset is very important throughout the day to create harmony and balance in our body,” she explains. “So that led me to reiki, which is a Japanese tradition of laying of hands on the body and transmitting universal chi energy from—as I think of it—the universe or from nature.”

Reiki is what then brought her to biofield tuning, another energy-healing modality that involves the use of tuning forks to pick up on energy and shift it. Dodson says the forks help practitioners hear and feel energy through vibrations, which is different from the more subtle attunement of reiki.

“We are electric beings,” Dodson says. “[Biofield tuning] taps back into the nervous system and how our nervous system is constantly sending electric impulses throughout the body—like our heart beating—that creates an electromagnetic field around the body. That’s what energy workers call an aura, so it’s kind of a more scientific approach to energy work.”

The treatment uses a 174-hertz tuning fork to pick up subtle variations in energy. As Dodson explains it, she works within a six-foot radius of a client, combing through their electromagnetic field while listening for different pitches. When she finds a disturbance, she feeds sound into the area until the turning fork returns to its true tone. The practice involves tuning those areas and dragging energy back into the central energy channel of the body: the spine.

Dodson adds that the vibrations of the forks can also be used on sore and strained muscles, getting into the muscle at the cellular level to shake up the tissue and make space in the fascia around it. When a massage follows, her clients report pain greatly diminishing or even disappearing for good. She jokes that the tuning fork has become her “magic wand.”

“You get off the table feeling like you have more energy than ever before, and you just feel lighter,” Dodson says. “You react to life more in a balanced state. It just balances the nervous system really nicely.”

On the Brain

Another of Dodson’s specialties is helping clients build mind-body awareness and mindfulness techniques. This could come in the simple form of breathing exercises or a more complex route of reworking neural pathways when it comes to thinking about and experiencing pain.

We all know that stress and fatigue can cause problems of their own. (Think of a stomach ache when you’re nervous or a headache when you’ve been dealing with three toddlers running around screaming all day long.) So sometimes, Dodson believes, the pain can be all in our minds.

“First, I would tell [clients] that their pain is real, but it’s not necessarily coming from a physical issue. It could be the way they’re speaking to themselves, their relationships in life, their stressors, their beliefs about their pain, and their fear that’s causing the pain,” she says.

She describes a process called somatic tracking, which requires you to become very aware and intentional about understanding your pain. What does it feel like? What are some of the specific sensations? How does it look? Does it move or buzz or burn? Dodson says clients have to approach this not from a place of fear but of curiosity and creativity, which helps build a new neural pathway.

“The more specific you get, your body starts seeing it as not a threat anymore,” Dodson says. “You can’t really be creative and be in fear, right? Mostly, you’re relaxed when you’re in that creative part of your brain. So it turns on that part of your brain and it connects your brain with a new neural pathway to that area. Then the pain usually diminishes or completely goes away in that somatic tracking experience.”

Right for You

So, which of those services could help you? Smieska says to pick up the phone and find out.

“It’s never a bad thing to call and just say, ‘Can I pick your brain? Can I get some insight from you? This is what I’ve got going on—do you think it’s something that you can help me with? How do I know when I should see you or if I should see somebody else?’”

She adds that although some folks come in with preconceived notions about alternative therapies, asking questions and doing some research can help you feel more comfortable. She reminds us that today’s practitioners are “really, really, really well trained,” with extensive licensing and post-graduate study going toward these fields.

Dodson echoes the need for personal research, noting that Michiganders haven’t been exposed to as much information on alternative therapies. “In California, it’s just common to talk about energy and vibrations,” she says with a laugh. “So that’s been kind of a cool learning journey for me to become more of a teacher.”

And at the end of the day, Smieska says you are the only person who can take charge of your well-being. “The whole idea is to not get people dependent on you in order to feel better, but to get them to own their own stuff and work their own program that they’re best suited for.”

“We are our best healers,” Dodson agrees. “Our bodies have an innate ability to heal.”

Visit creativepathstowellness.net and nomibodywork.com, the latter of which has a Resources for Healing tab with book, podcast, and video recommendations to help you learn more about these treatments.

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