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What’s the alternative? A guide to complementary therapy in Belgium

10:11 18/02/2019
Patients are increasingly calling on complementary therapies to treat everything from back pain to insomnia

Despite the lack of legal recognition and government regulation, official figures show that one in three francophone Belgians uses non-conventional health therapies. Osteopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture are three of the most popular: here’s what you need to know about them.

About 120 years old, chiropractic centres on the spine and combines moving and jolting joints with tissue massage, exercise and ergonomics to relieve pressure, reduce inflammation and improve nerve function. “We have a hands-on approach to back and neck pain that is based on scientific evidence and we commonly treat all related problems successfully, without surgery and without drugs,” says Bart Vandendries, president of the Belgium Chiropractors Union.

During an examination, chiropractors will determine the cause of the pain. “We only treat mechanical pain,” says Vandendries. “If we think the pain is the result of an underlying pathology, for example a bone cancer, which can cause back pain, we will refer the patient to a medical doctor or another specialist, or use medical imaging to investigate it further.” The lack of legal recognition is a problem for patients, according to Vandendries.

“Anyone could hang a sign on their door tomorrow and set up as a chiropractor,” he says. To safeguard against this, he urges patients to find an insured practitioner through the Belgian Chiropractic Union, which ensures high clinical and ethical standards. Practitioners are only accepted into the union and insured if they have a European Chiropractors Council-approved education from accredited institutes and universities, and have completed an intensive graduate programme in Belgium.

One Belgian patient, Dirk, has been seeing a chiropractor every few months for the past three years for specific back pain. “I found my chiropractor by word of mouth as my GP was not very open-minded about it. But nothing conventional was making a difference, and I didn’t want to take drugs,” he says. “The manipulation in the first session freaked me out a bit, it was uncomfortable and felt very rough, being held in different positions and jolted and cracked. But it worked. When the pain comes back, I go back.”

Osteopathy is a way of detecting, treating and preventing musculoskeletal disorders and their effects by manually moving, stretching and massaging muscles and joints, to improve the circulatory and lymphatic systems. It respects the body’s intrinsic tendency for self-healing. It’s the most popular complementary therapy in the country, with more than 700,000 people consulting an osteopath every year, according to Belgium’s Scientific Institute for Public Health.

Tom Meyers, an accredited osteopath and stress coach, frequently sees patients with neck, shoulder and back pain, headaches and digestive problems. He acknowledges the similarities with chiropractic, “but from a historical point of view, osteopathy liberates the vascular system to heal, while chiropractic liberates the nervous system to heal.”

Its popularity may stem from its whole-body approach. “It’s manual but there’s also a holistic approach, as we try to connect the dots,” he says. “For instance, someone may come in with a shoulder problem, but when we examine the whole body, we sometimes find that an ankle that was injured some time ago did not really recover and has lost some mobility, which created a chain reaction of stress through the fascia and muscle, culminating in the opposite shoulder to the ankle.”

Accredited practitioners can be found through the website of the Belgian Union of Osteopaths, which regulates osteopathic practice. Th e current health minister, Maggie De Block, a conventional medic herself, is working on reform that would mean patients seeking a chiropractic or osteopathy consultation would have to go through a general practitioner, which may be a mixed blessing for the professions.

Belgian patient Nina has an abnormal curvature of the spine, which causes her back pain. She was referred to an osteopath through her GP and says it has been “fantastic”. “I’ve tried several complementary therapies and all have given me some sort of temporary pain relief,” she says. “Chiropractic sessions were too uncomfortable. But osteopathy was much softer and has taught me how to compensate and release the tension in the parts of my body that get naturally contracted – how to sit, how to sleep, how to adapt doing sport or yoga to the asymmetry of my back.”

Centuries old, and a key part of ancient Chinese generalist medicine, acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles at specific points of the body. Traditionally the needles are believed to stimulate and release any blockages in the body’s energy flow that cause pain or other ailments. Conventional medicine still doesn’t understand how it works, but Western medical acupuncture believes stimulating sensory nerves under the skin and in the muscles releases natural pain-relieving substances such as endorphins. It is most commonly used in the West to relieve chronic tension headaches and migraines, as well as dental and joint pain.

In the UK, oncologists frequently recommend acupuncture to relieve the nausea caused by cancer drugs, and cancer patients use it widely in several European countries, Australia and the Far East. Th is has also begun in Brussels, according to Olivier Cuignet, a doctor, acupuncturist and president of the Belgian Medical Acupuncturists’ Association. “Three or four years ago, oncologists at Bordet hospital in Brussels started to ask for acupuncturists to take care of their chemotherapy patients,” he says.

Spanish expat Alfredo has acupuncture every six weeks or so to keep insomnia at bay and occasionally for back pain. “You know the needles are there but you don’t really feel them,” he says. “It’s a very relaxing consultation in which I usually fall asleep, and can then fall asleep at night at home. It doesn’t work as well for me with back pain, though: the pain usually comes back after one or two days.”

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018

Written by Saffina Rana