Neurologist Sarah Mulukutla, MD, MPH, says her path to integrative neurology began with a search to cure her own debilitating headaches. “When I was 25 years old, I developed chronic migraine, seemingly out of nowhere.” Her tests were all negative and she says, “the physicians I went to said everything seemed alright.” But there she was, in pain and frustrated by a lack of answers, so she decided to become a neurologist.

Although med school was tough, I made it through with the help of an acupuncturist. Medications just weren’t working. I had tried everything. I’m not saying that acupuncture alone cured my migraines, but it opened my eyes to what I can do as a person, to cure myself. And really that involved completely changing my lifestyle and focusing on myself and my health and rest.”

Today, Mulukutla is a solo practitioner in New York City and Chair of the American Academy of Neurology’s Section on Neurohealth & Integrative Neurology. This section is relatively new to the Academy, and its existence is representative of the movement of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) into the mainstream.

At this year’s meeting (2018) of the Academy, she was invited to run an introductory CME-accredited course on Integrative Neurology with neurologists Laurence Kinsella, MD, and Vanessa Baute, MD. To the fully packed (standing-room-only) audience, Mulukutla said, “We’re pretty confident that integrative neurology is going to be a really promising new direction for our field in the coming years.”

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Here’s why:

1. More patients than answers

Twenty-five million Americans suffer from a neurologic disease and that number is growing across all age groups. “We see the range of chronic diseases increasing across the spectrum, but neurology seems to be rising rapidly—more than other diseases,” says Mulukutla. “And as we know, therapies are limited. This amounts to a large burden of disability, and a societal impact from loss of work and the economic cost of caring for neurologic disability.”

Mulukutla isn’t suggesting that alternative treatments should replace conventional therapy. Instead, she says, “We’re broadening our toolbox, our framework, and we’re seeing what other types of therapies may be helpful for our disorders.” And in doing so, she and her colleagues are taking a decidedly evidence-based approach.

2. The evidence is growing

During their talks on Integrative Neurology, Mulukutla and her colleagues presented a wide array of evidence in support of complementary therapies like mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise. The body of evidence is growing fast in these three areas as well as others.

So much so that groups like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control are taking them seriously. “In that same realm, you have academic institutions coming together to form the Academic Consortium of Integrative Health and Medicine,” says Mulukutla. The NIH has also created the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which states:

“Researchers are currently exploring the potential benefits of integrative health in a variety of situations, including pain management for military personnel and veterans, relief of symptoms in cancer patients and survivors, and programs to promote healthy behaviors.”

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3. Patients are already on board

The wellness industry is exploding. According to this report, in one year Americans spent $30.2 billion out-of-pocket on complementary health approaches. “And patients with neurologic disorders, actually turn to complementary therapies more than the average US adult,” says Mulukutla.

She also points out that a large number of these patients aren’t talking with their neurologists about their alternative treatments. This effectively creates two separate healthcare models: one focused on disease and the other focused on wellness. Integrative neurology is the integration of these two models.

The broader purpose of integrative neurology is to be aware of and make use of the tools that are available. Understanding what is out there will also enable practitioners to help patients distinguish what is helpful or benign from what is truly harmful. “The conversation that we’re going to be starting today is how you can approach your patient as a whole individual and evaluate all aspects of their health. And in doing so,” says Mulukutla, “we have found remarkable results and improvement in their neurologic disease.”

You can learn more about integrative neurology in our past posts:

If you want to get some of your patients on board, you can send them this free, ready-made newsletter on the Mind-Muscle Connection. It includes a patient-facing video on how exercise can help stave off dementia.