‘Reverse therapy' helped cure a champion canoeist's exhaustion. Christina Hopkinson reports
For Anna Hemmings, the Sydney and Athens Olympics tell two very different stories. In 2000, the professional canoeist was a member of the British team, but just four years later, she was in no position to compete against the world's best. Hemmings was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and was so exhausted that she slept for 15 hours a night and was sometimes too tired to wash her hair.
Anna Hemmings says her recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome is thanks to reverse therapy's ‘mind-body healing process'
A year later, and it's all change again. Last month, Hemmings won the 32km marathon in the European Championships in the Czech Republic, thanks, she believes, to a revolutionary treatment for her condition. She's now gearing up for the World Championships later this year, and the 2008 Olympics.
Things began to go wrong in April 2003. "I knew I didn't have a cold or flu," she says, "but I was exhausted and my muscles ached. I was sleeping lots and was generally fatigued." She went to see British Olympic doctor Richard Budgett, who diagnosed her condition as "unexplained underperformance syndrome", thought to affect between two and 10 per cent of elite endurance athletes.
"He didn't seem to think it was that serious, so he put me on a rehab programme which meant I went out on the water for low-intensity sessions for two weeks. But at the end of the fortnight, I was still tired. I couldn't perform at the British team trials and by June, I'd stopped training altogether."
Having assumed recovery would be quick, Hemmings began to panic. "It was coming up for the Olympic year and I was beginning to get desperate. And it wasn't like having a broken arm – I looked fine, so people didn't understand how I felt."
In September, Hemmings was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, the debilitating and little understood illness that affects between 120,000 and 250,000 people in Britain. She tried Oriental medicine, acupuncture and yoga, and consulted a nutritionist and an endocrinologist, but nothing helped ease the exhaustion. "It felt like I was searching for a needle in a haystack that might not even be there."
A chance conversation led her to explore a controversial treatment called reverse therapy. "It instantly made sense to me," she says, "because it was described as a ‘body-mind healing process', in recognition that the physical and the psychological were connected."
Practitioners of reverse therapy believe that emotional blockages in the mind cause the hypothalamus gland to overreact, leading to responses in the pituitary and adrenal glands that put the body into a state of red alert.
In her first session with the session's founder, Dr John Eaton, they analysed what Hemmings had done for six weeks before the symptoms developed. She had changed coaches and was living in Florida, away from her family and friends. "This told us that her illness had a lot to do with getting the balance right between work commitments and spending time with people who are emotionally supportive," says Dr Eaton.
Hemmings rated the severity of her symptoms on a scale of nought to 10, and kept a journal so she could relate them to other aspects of her life. "I didn't tend to get them 24/7, but certain activities and environments were triggers."
During her subsequent sessions with Dr Eaton, they studied the journal to identify those triggers. "We realised that my life was imbalanced and that I was bad at expressing emotions. Every time there was an unresolved emotional issue, it left behind an emotional discharge that built up.
Anna Hemmings paddles her canoe
‘And that's it… just conversation, a journal and some flash cards'
"Of course, you have to be dedicated to be a champion, but I went over the top," she says. "I was too single-minded and couldn't admit to any signs of weakness."
When the reverse therapy sessions came to an end, Dr Eaton gave Hemmings message cards to read every time she suffered the symptoms. "I'd read a card, which said something like, ‘My symptoms are with me now as a reminder to stop isolating myself', and it would encourage me to confide more in people close to me and to let them help me."
And that's it. No treatments, tablets or massages. Just conversation, a journal, and some flash cards. Yet Hemmings's recovery has been remarkable. In January, she began to train again. Having missed almost two years, her fitness returned quickly, and she has begun to win championships again.
Dr Basant Puri, an expert in chronic fatigue syndrome at Hammersmith Hospital, London, is sceptical that a therapy based on talking could reverse the effects of the illness. "This would refute all the powerful evidence to suggest that it's caused by a viral infection," he says. "The brain is full of mysteries, but I can't think of a mechanism by which talking through symptoms would ‘cure' someone."
Dr Puri has found that the most dramatic improvements occur when patients take a combination of EPA (Omega-3 fish oil) and virgin evening primrose oil. "This works with CFS sufferers, but often patients who are referred to me have another condition, such as, for example, depression."
But Hemmings is adamant that her illness was neither viral nor psychological. "Recognising that there's a mind element to it is different from thinking that it's all in the mind," she says. "That's what works with reverse therapy – it recognises that your emotional and physical health is so closely linked."
What is chronic fatigue syndrome?
Formerly referred to as ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), chronic fatigue syndrome is defined as a severe, disabling fatigue that usually lasts at least six months. Symptoms include an overwhelming feeling of tiredness, muscle aches and dizziness.
The condition has baffled scientists for years as there is no obvious medical explanation or diagnostic test, which has led some clinicians to dismiss it as purely psychological. However, recent research suggests that there is a biological cause for the illness. A team from Imperial College discovered that the white blood cells of sufferers behaved differently from those of non-sufferers. This would indicate that a continuing viral infection is the cause of the condition, and that drug treatments could be developed in the future.