When Dr. Vince Sferra was rushed into surgery for a ruptured appendix 30 years ago, he assumed that all he had to do afterward was heal. However, a few weeks later, his knees, then other joints started to flare up. “It was complex: That initial, massive infection triggered a new immune response to my joint tissue resulting in autoimmune arthritis. My rheumatologist helped me with the massive inflammation in my joints. As the months rolled on, though, I started realizing the impact that the massive infection of my ruptured appendix had on my immune system,” he says.
Intrigued by the body’s interconnectivity, Dr. Sferra, a chiropractor, embarked on postgraduate education, studying autoimmunity and clinical nutrition. “Going through this, I knew that there was more to helping people with chronic illness get well than just giving them spinal adjustments and telling them to take vitamins,” he says.
Today, Dr. Sferra, the founder of Natural Medicine & Rehabilitation in Somerset, treats patients using functional medicine. The practice — which Dr. Sferra prefers to call “process-oriented medicine” — looks to determine how and why illness occurs and restores health by addressing the mechanisms that cause the disease or disorder.
“In conventional medicine, there’s a disease classification, identification of the one cause and the one treatment. However, with chronic diseases, that rule almost never applies. You cannot just patch up a symptom and solve the problem,” he says. “Take gastrointestinal reflux for example. Conventional medicine will prescribe a specific medication in order to reduce the pain and get the person comfortable, which may be important initially. A skilled functional medicine doctor will look at the person's constitution, habits, diet, blood sugar, and ability to temper stress — so many different things — in order to understand why the problem was created in the first place. We spend a lot of time with patients, assessing their condition, educating them, reviewing tests with them and developing a treatment plan that encompasses many different factors.”
When a person visits a doctor who practices real functional medicine, they can expect a comprehensive intake and assessment, followed probably by lab work to investigate the different mechanisms that could be driving their chronic problems. “If a person has an autoimmune flare-up, that can be treated with corticosteroids and immunosuppressive medications — which many times is necessary — but underneath that, we need to know what's driving the immune system to attack its own tissue. The functional medicine doctor will start peeling that apart to identify triggers that can be managed and addressed through things like lifestyle changes, nutrition, physical activity and stress management,” he says.
Although comprehensive functional medicine is generally not an insurance-based model of healthcare, it could be the solution for those who have visited dozens of doctors who have not been able to uncover the driving forces behind their chronic condition. “So many people feel they have no other place to go,” he says.
Dr. Sferra notes that people don’t need to wait until they have symptoms to start investigating potential underlying conditions that could become chronic. “Perhaps they feel their energy is lower than usual or are experiencing brain fog or gastrointestinal issues,” he says. “This allows us to preemptively identify those issues and make recommendations that give you the upper hand on managing a condition such as low blood sugar. However, once the condition is under control you can’t just dust off your hands and go back to your old ways. The new habits that have helped restore your health will be the ones that will keep you there.”
Functional medicine relies on teamwork between the patient and the doctor. “Patients need to understand why they need to make changes, not make changes because a doctor told them,” says Dr. Sferra, who requests that patients send him email updates between appointments to ask questions, and describe what is working and not working and what they are doing consistently. “Those emails help patients stay accountable and keep us engaged in dialogue. They have to stay the course. The ones that stick with it will start seeing change.”
Learn more about healthy lifestyles at nmrnj.com.