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Extreme skiers go for extreme treatment

February 10, 2006 By Rex Dalton This article courtesy of Nature News.

Will dextrose injections in a Mexican hotel lead to Olympic golds?

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Four US skiers have gone to unusual extremes to ensure they are on form for this year’s winter Olympics: they have gone to Mexico to visit a doctor with a history of unorthodox techniques.

Athletes have long sought unconventional ways to overcome aches and pains before competitions. But this year’s sojourn to the Mexican coast takes that to the limit.

In recent weeks, US skiers, including top-ranked Bode Miller, have admitted to being treated at the Ensenada clinic of Milne Ongley.

Ongley inject patients with what he calls the ‘Ongley solution’, described as a solution of dextrose, phenol and glycerine. Few details are known about the substance. Ongley has called his technique ‘prolotherapy’ or ‘proliferant therapy’. He contends the solution alleviates pain and improves joints or tissue.

Promised solution

Prolotherapy is a technique that is more than a century old; it purports to stimulate cell growth that can repair an injury by triggering inflammation of surrounding tissue or joints. A review of the literature shows some 200 articles on the concept, with about 30 clinical trials involving spinal pain.

Although the therapy has shown promise in some studies, it has not been widely accepted because of great variation in the injections and solutions, which sometimes contain an anaesthetic. A number of the solutions studied are similar to those that Ongley says he uses.

There is no indication that the US athletes were trying to use banned substances or have violated any Olympic drug policies. The athletes couldn’t be reached for comment, but a spokesman for the US ski team says they do not answer questions on medical issues. Ongley also declined to comment.

Eventful past

Now aged 80, Ongley's website says that he earned a medical degree in 1953 in Ireland. But his questionable techniques have seen him move around considerably. He left his native New Zealand after he was fined $80,000 for malpractice in 1973, and moved through Africa to the United States, where he ran afoul of authorities in four states.

His California acupuncture licence was revoked in 1989 for illegally practising medicine, harming patients and committing perjury. In 1992, he was convicted of practising medicine without a licence in California and New Mexico.

Before these difficulties, Ongley earned a strong reputation among athletes who were drawn to him by testimonials in muscle magazines. In the 1980s, he treated some US Olympic medal winners including pole-vaulter Mike Tully and high jumper Dwight Stones; the latter subsequently sued Ongley for malpractice.

After leaving California, Ongley moved to an office at a beachfront hotel in Mexico. From Tijuana on the border to Ensenada 100 kilometres south, there are numerous facilities where practitioners locked out of the United States offer therapies that are considered unproven.

Psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, who runs a Pennsylvania-based consumer agency called Quackwatch, says people who venture south to such clinics “hope for an easy answer, but aren’t suspicious enough.”

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