By Cynthia Miller
The New Mexican
Medicine and Health Sciences during a recent night class. “Only here,” he says, pointing to his head.
Brain science is “soft,” particularly when it comes to traumatic brain injury, the practitioner tells the students, some still dressed in scrubs from their day jobs at medical clinics.
He demonstrates a series of walking styles his students might one day see in patients with brain or spinal cord injuries — slow shuffling, unsteady lurching, limping — and asks them to identify the disorder associated with each gait and to name the area of injury.
Hightower straightens up. “Anybody can get better,” he tells his students at the small but growing school, where they are becoming experts in anatomy, particularly fascia — the connective tissues surrounding and weaving together the body’s bones, organs and muscles.
Patrick Nuzzo and his wife, Kirsten LaVista, both doctors of naprapathic medicine, opened the school in 2010 so they could train more people to offer the drug-free pain therapy in New Mexico, a state wracked with a deadly opioid epidemic that’s tied, in large part, to a growing pain-management industry. Some of the patients at their clinic, Naprapathic Medicine of New Mexico, are people trying to wean themselves from addictive painkillers prescribed by doctors after surgical procedures or sports injuries, or to ease chronic pain.
The school graduated its first class of three students in 2014, and another three students in 2015.
Now, with 19 students studying at the Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine, only the second such school in the United States, Nuzzo and LaVista are working with a national accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to achieve accreditation as the nation’s first doctoral-level degree program in naprapathic medicine. This wouldn’t just attest to the quality of the program, Nuzzo said. It also would allow students to apply for federal financial aid and student loans, opening access to a wider pool of potential students.
The for-profit school, owned by Nuzzo and LaVista, currently works with a private lender to help students finance tuition and fees, totaling more than $54,000 for the intensive, three-year program. Students graduate with a Doctorate of Naprapathic Medicine.
After a long and cumbersome application process that was completed at the end of April, Nuzzo and LaVista are hoping accreditors will visit their school in the fall and issue a decision in January.
Naprapathy isn’t well-known in the U.S., but it isn’t new. It’s a century-old, hands-on musculoskeletal treatment akin to chiropractic that focuses, instead, on manipulating connective tissues to ease tension and bring bone structure back into alignment. Nuzzo has been practicing it for decades to treat a range of disorders, from anxiety to chronic back pain to migraines to veterans’ combat-related PTSD. He lobbied the Legislature for several years to create a licensing program in the state for naprapaths and finally was successful in 2004.
Then he and LaVista, who both were trained at the decades-old National College of Naprapathic Medicine in Chicago, turned their attention to starting a school in Santa Fe, a city Nuzzo calls a “mecca” of alternative medicine.
Students are required to have a bachelor’s degree to enroll in the school, which has condensed a four-year health sciences curriculum into a three-year doctoral program, including two years in the classroom and then a one-year internship at the naprapathy clinic. Students offer treatments at steeply discounted rates.
For now, both the clinic and school are housed in the same building on Botulph Road, surrounded by other medical practices and close to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
Dr. Caroline Kingston’s Alma Family Medicine is one of those nearby medical clinics. Kingston and her staff at the primary care practice send many of their pain patients to Naprapathic Medicine for an alternative therapy that’s also covered by most major insurance plans in the state — easing the financial burden on patients who are opting to avoid narcotic painkillers.
Anne Hinton, a physician assistant at Alma, said naprapathy “can feel like an amazing massage. … Half of our office goes there.”
Manuel Martinez, a safety analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a regular patient at the clinic — “If you exhaust your insurance visits, you can go to the interns there for the same cost as your copay,” he said — and an advocate for the therapy. He discovered naprapathy a few years ago, just as he had begun preparing to leave his lab job and go on full-time disability benefits.
For years, Martinez had suffered from carpal tunnel in both arms, and increasing pain in his elbows, shoulders and neck. And in 2009, he was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal pain disorder. By late 2012, he was taking the maximum dose of the opioid painkiller tramadol that was permitted for lab workers.
He had tried acupuncture, massage and chiropractic, Martinez said, who said he “was afraid” to seek another form of treatment.
His first few naprapathy sessions “hurt,” he said. But eventually, “that pain is replaced with a positive flow of energy.”
Nuzzo said the therapy aims to open up the fascia between layers of muscle, allowing fluids to flow through those connective tissues, which often have “dried out” and hardened, causing painful tension.
Within less than a year of the treatments, Martinez was able to wean himself off tramadol, Ambien and muscle relaxants, he said. Without battling the “fibro-fog,” as Martinez refers to the combined effects of his disease and his pain medication, he was again able to concentrate. He enrolled in a doctoral program of his own — the former special education teacher said he is hoping to get back in the classroom.
In the classroom at the Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine, students pored over charts and diagrams as Hightower discussed sciatica, carpal tunnel, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, stroke, hemiplegia — conditions the students may one day treat. They have to learn to recognize the signs and “know where to work on the body,” Hightower said.
Naprapaths can’t prescribe drugs or perform surgeries. But, Hightower said, “We can do so much good work with the fascia.”
Martinez agrees. He still has some pain, but it’s manageable now with continued naprapathy treatments and moderate doses of Tylenol or ibuprofen.
“My whole quality of life — the time I spend with my family now — it’s so much better,” Martinez said. “I got my life back, basically.”