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Better than a pain pill?

Dan McKee gave up believing he'd ever play soccer again after he lost feeling in his left leg and foot after he developed complications in 2011 from treatment of Hodgkin's Lymphoma. An alternative bodywork treatment, however, called ortho-bionomy turned things around for him.

The Fruita Monument High School soccer coach was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. He began chemotherapy and lapsed into a coma for nine days. Later, McKee developed a fungus due to his compromised immune system.

Both the cancer and fungus were successfully treated and McKee, 39, returned to his job as coach in 2010.

Then, half-way through the soccer season, McKee began experiencing pain in his back. An MRI revealed that the fungus had returned and spread to his spinal column. A six-week medicine regimen cleared up the fungus and in March 2011, he underwent back surgery to alleviate the pain — but it didn't work; McKee continued to experience significant pain in his back. He also had peripheral neuropathy in his leg, which meant he felt nothing and could not walk.

That's when Debra Hesse, cancer survivorship program coordinator at St. Mary's Hospital, suggested he try ortho-bionomy, a structural and neurological approach to bodywork that "allows the body to reorganize and heal by accessing neurological reflexes." Treatments encompass gentle massage or subtle adjustment-like movements by the practitioner.

After one treatment, McKee noted he was able to stop taking morphine for the pain and nerve medicine for the neuropathy.

"From the very beginning it helped," said McKee, who received a dozen ortho-bionomy treatments over the course of a year.

"You can feel it release the nerve. It took away the tingling and got progressively better," he said. "It's a weird feeling. You can actually feel that nerve come back to life. You can feel their hands getting warmer from your nerve firing back up."

Practitioners say the warmth that patients experience actually comes from inside themselves.

McKee said he's "99 percent" pain-free, and last year played soccer in the city men's league.

"I had given up on the fact that I would play again," McKee said.

Roots in osteopathy

For the past two years, certified ortho-bionomists Lori Parker, Barb Hampton, Tom Anson and Patty Nicolas have volunteered their services at St. Mary's Regional Cancer Center, Advanced Medicine Pavilion, 750 Wellington Ave. Practitioners come once a month to give three 30-minute sessions to patients who request it.

Advanced ortho-bionomy practitioner Sheri Covey has taught every one of those volunteer practitioners, Hesse said. "They come in and make a difference for someone with cancer."

Hesse supervises 50 volunteers who help in various ways, patients who come for radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Volunteers give massages, bring lunch, warm blankets or tea. Others teach art or yoga.

Hesse had gone to Covey for ortho-bionomy because of chronic shoulder pain. She said it has helped her live a more normal life with less pain.

So when a group of practitioners said they'd like to donate their services at the Pavilion, Hesse contacted her boss.

"We've had volunteer massage therapists in place for years," Hesse said.

Practitioners first worked on staff members at the pavilion who wanted to make sure they were comfortable recommending ortho-bionomy to patients. More than two years later, both staff and patients report positive results including pain relief and restoration of feeling in the body.

With roots in osteopathy, ortho-bionomy was developed and founded by British osteopath and Judo instructor Arthur Lincoln Pauls in the mid-1970s. Pauls discovered how to gently stimulate the body's reflexes for self-correction in a way to support a person's own healing mechanisms. The body is stimulated using gentle movements, comfortable positioning, brief compression and subtle contact.

Proponents say ortho-bionomy treatments promote relaxation and a sense of well-being,

Hesse remembered a former lung cancer patient with neuropathy who couldn't feel anything on the left side of his rib cage. During an ortho-bionomy session he began feeling warmth inside generated by the energy coming from the practitioner's hands, Hesse said.

His feeling sensation was restored, she said.

Before undergoing her own training, Nicolas visited Covey for chronic pain due to a ruptured disc. After six months of regular treatments, she realized she had stopped taking pain medication. The pain she'd lived with for three years was gone.

"I love ortho-bionomy," Nicolas said. "When I have a flare up I go and get a session. It gets everything relaxed and calmed down."

Nicolas said when she works on someone she looks for patterns of movement and lack of movement. By loosening tension surrounding the injured area, the muscles have a place to relax into, she said.

Pain relief

Covey, 52, has practiced ortho-bionomy since 1994. As a massage therapist in Santa Fe, Covey studied the unique bodywork and attended a comprehensive seven-week training. When clients were too injured to be massaged, she'd offer ortho-bionomy.

"They came back and asked for it," Covey said. "They called it voodoo, magic — they couldn't remember the name."

Impressed with its effectiveness in relieving pain, Covey began practicing ortho-bionomy full-time.

Grand Junction physician Kathleen Rieves said she has referred several patients with orthopedic issues to ortho-bionomy after standard procedures were not successful.

Much like micro-currents used in physical therapy, where cells or tissue trigger points stimulate the body's healing process, the energy transmitted during ortho-bionomy can also stimulate and affect tissue and the healing process, Rieves said.

Rieves said she has also seen cases where people's mental health was affected positively by ortho-bionomy.

Ortho-bionomy can also help people recover post-surgery, Covey said, who gave birth to her first child by C-section at age 46.

Covey called a fellow practitioner to the hospital for a treatment the day after her surgery.

"The doctor was shocked at the scar recovery," Covey said. "They tried to give me (pain) drugs — but I didn't want them in the baby's system. I also didn't need it. Ortho-bionomy reduces pain."

Covey recalled a female patient who came to see her after shoulder surgery and couldn't raise her arm.

"I worked on her three times," Covey said. "After the third visit, she could reach up and take dishes out of the cupboard. She hadn't realized what she'd done. Her husband noticed."

Covey said she's treated carpal tunnel syndrome, joint or hip problems, diverticulitis, foot injuries, twisted knees and other maladies. After 20 years, she's still passionate about the work and wants to train others, which is the reason she founded the Rocky Mountain Ortho-Bionomy Center in Grand Junction and Denver in 2012 (See sidebar).

One of Covey's patients, Terri Cavanagh, arrived for an appointment recently and shared why she comes for occasional treatments.

"She really promotes healing in a way that's inaccessible by other methods," Cavanagh said. "She works at such a deep level. It's truly beneficial to my well-being."