Rozee Benavides, an intern at Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine, treats a patient last month. While treatment looks like gentle stretching, it is supposed to relieve nerve sensitivity. Luis Sánchez Saturno The New Mexican
Author: Jessica Pollard
Southwest University of Naprapathic Medicine and Health Sciences in Santa Fe recently became the first accredited naprapathic school in the U.S.
It’s a win for the school’s co-founders, a couple from Chicago, and the thousands of New Mexico patients seeking pain relief through the manual, tissue-focused approach of naprapathic medicine.
“As [Richard] Nixon brought acupuncture to the United States in the ’70s, I feel like this accreditation is going to launch this profession for millions to benefit from,” said Dr. Kirsten LaVista, who founded the school with Dr. Patrick Nuzzo.
Naprapathic medicine was pioneered by a Chicago-area doctor named Oakley Smith in 1907. He studied under D.D. Palmer, who founded modern chiropractic medicine.
Like chiropractors, naprapaths look to alleviate pain through bodywork rather than medication. While chiropractors focus on spine alignment, naprapaths focus on the body’s soft tissues and use “chartology” to mark individual vertebrae before treating the muscle and tissue around them.
The treatment looks like gentle, guided stretching, but Nuzzo and LaVista say it’s more than that and that naprapathy relieves pain and hyperesthesia, or nerve sensitivity.
“We don’t use high-velocity force, but it’s specific and it’s very deep,” Nuzzo said. “We really train people to identify tension, treat into tension, and increase circulation and range of motion.”
Illinois is the only other place in the U.S. that licenses naprapaths. Nuzzo’s uncle studied under Smith in Chicago.
Nuzzo said Smith was skeptical of modern medicine and more interested in spinal alignment and nutrition, effectively scaring off the American Medical Association.
“I really believe his science was held back by his arrogance,” Nuzzo said. “He was as extreme to the health side as they were to the medical side. I believe he just irked the wrong people.”
LaVista came to naprapathic medicine from the corporate world. She was seeking a career path with more independence 24 years ago.
The pair met at a Christmas party and eventually started dating before coming to New Mexico.
LaVista acknowledges that even today, the practice is not well known and is sometimes dismissed.
“What you have to adjust to, if you have any ego at all, is being made fun of, of being looked at as completely alternative and not effective,” she said. “I think what kept me going was how much I helped people every single day.”
Many people, including medical practitioners, remain unaware of the field, which Nuzzo and LaVista call complementary medicine — akin to acupuncture and chiropractic. Most insurers in New Mexico, Nuzzo said, cover naprapathy.
“There are people in my practice, and maybe in Santa Fe, who want something that is a little gentler,” said Dr. Seth Friedman, a local chiropractor.
He, like other practitioners contacted by The New Mexican, admitted to knowing little about naprapathy beyond that it is a manual therapy like chiropractic or osteopathy. He said the accreditation could give people more options to treat their pain. He added that since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020, some chiropractors have shuttered their practices while others have retired, putting extra demand for services on remaining area clinics.
In Scandinavia, naprapathy is a more commonplace pain therapy, like massage therapy is in the United States. But worldwide, research on the field remains scant.
In 2010, peer-reviewed journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders published a study of the impact of naprapathy as compared to evidence-based spinal manipulation therapies. It found participants receiving naprapathic treatment for nonspecific neck and back pain saw greater improvement.
Students at Southwest University must contribute to the pool of literature through their studies and a final research project.
“We need to put naprapathic research and medicine on the map, and the best way to do that is to prove our science,” Nuzzo said.
Southwest University has graduated 30 local doctors since it opened its doors in 2010. The first class finished their schooling in 2014, allowing the school to petition the federally approved Distance Education Accrediting Commission — the school is 80 percent online — the following year. It would be more than five more years before the school was approved.
Next, the school will pursue qualification for federal financial aid and veteran benefits.
“That’s another six to eight months,” Nuzzo said.
Nuzzo estimates that between the school’s intern clinic, and his and LaVista’s own clinic, they see nearly 25,000 patients in New Mexico. The school has 22 students.
Margarita Armijo, 66, of Santa Fe, was elated to learn the school was accredited. She first sought naprapathic treatment for compressed discs in her neck eight years ago. At times, she could hardly turn her head at all and got regular medical injections to help cope with the pain. She didn’t want to have to do that forever. By the time she saw a naprapath, she felt she had nothing to lose.
“I was hooked,” she said. “It brought me a lot of pain relief and movement in my neck and arms I didn’t have before.”
Now she sees Nuzzo twice a month. And she hopes the accreditation will bring more naprapaths into the world.
“I think it’s something people should at least try. Just try it, and it just brings relief,” she said.