Over the last few days, a story has appeared in the news of a young All Black rugby player who, only a few weeks ago, fractured his leg in a game. The story is newsworthy for two reasons: (a) the Rugby World Cup starts in a few days time, and (b) he is only being considered to be fit to play because of a rather unusual remedy.
Waisake Naholo’s recovery from a fractured fibula has been reported widely around the world, because he chose to return to Fiji to be treated by his local doctor, Isei Naiova, who had helped him recover from two previous orthopaedic injuries (more on this story here).
Naiova’s technique is a closely guarded secret, but it basically involves setting the bone, and the use of massage with some locally-known herbs to speed the recovery. Naturally, reports of his early return to the All Black squad generated quite a bit of interest, and questions were asked about the ‘miracle cure.’ An orthopaedic surgeon was consulted, who put the remedy down to placebo, but acknowledged that all the surgical advice was that he would be fit to play in mid-October, so even the surgeons have been a little confounded by the speed of his recovery.
The veracity of claims that herbs can heal fractures is not the point of this blogpost. Rather, it is to remind ourselves that treatments like massage, hydrotherapy, movement and exercise have been, and will likely always be, a critically important part of people’s health and wellbeing, and no amount of evidence seems to stop people wanting to use them.
Historical research into the healing practices of Māori before colonisation by Europeans in the early 19th century, suggests that Māori were particularly adept at treating fractures using herbs, incantations, steam baths drawn from hot springs and massage. Skeletal remains suggest that only people with very complex fractures suffered any long term impairment, and early settlers were surprised at how much faster Māori recovered from orthopaedic injuries than Europeans (Houghton, 1980). Despite this, many of the traditional Māori healing practices have been overwhelmed by modern medicine.
Physical therapies have waxed and waned in popularity no more so that over the 100 years, not helped by professions like physiotherapy, which seems to struggle to make its mind up whether it likes massage or not. But that doesn’t stop some of the more tactile physical therapies being some of the most popular treatments used in luxury spas, health clinics and high-street practices throughout the world.
In some ways, physical therapies act as a radical resistance to our cultural over-emphasis on expensive, seemingly indulgent, medicalization of health care, which has resulted in the over-diagnosis and over-treatment of thousands of health issues that people once felt much more in control of. It seems the public is becoming sensitive to the kinds of Western paternalism that see doctors claiming that non-traditional (and especially indigenous) healing therapies are only ‘psychological faith’ healing (see earlier linked story).
No-one is advocating for a laissez-faire approach to health care where anything goes, and we all want to know that our health professionals are informed by the best evidence, but sometimes some of the oldest remedies are bypassed simply because they are old. Thankfully, some people are keeping them alive.
Houghton, P. 1980. The first New Zealanders. Hodder & Stoughton, Auckland.