Good vibrations Whistler selected as test site for Sonocur, pain-relieving shock wave therapy By Andrew Mitchell Hockey's Mark Messier used it to treat the pain in his shoulder and arm. Jim Jackson, a forward for the Atlanta Hawks, used it to treat the tendinitis in his knees. And PGA tour golfer Fred Funk has used it successfully on both his shoulders and knees. Nobody knows exactly how it works, but according to Sonocur vice-president Dave Lowy, it works — 400,000 Germans can't be wrong. "With this machine, we can offer people a proven way to get rid of a nagging, chronic tendon pain, and get them back out doing the things they love to do without drugs, without invasive surgery, without needing to be anaesthetised," says Lowy. Sonocur technology, which is already used in Canada to eliminate kidney stones, emits highly concentrated sonic audio waves 5 millimetres wide and up to 5 centimetres deep, to the core of a tendon injury or calcium deposit. At four sonic pulses per second, a typical 2000-shock treatment lasts just over eight minutes, and a typical patient requires at least three treatment sessions. The machine is commonly used to treat tendinitis of the shoulder, elbow, knee or foot, and to break up the calcium deposits that cause heel spurs. The only things a patient needs to qualify for treatment are a doctor's referral, to have had the pain for three months, and to be able to put a finger on the exact spot where it hurts. Although the technology was approved for use in Germany seven years ago, it wasn't approved in Canada until 18 months ago. One was installed in Toronto, one in Vancouver, and, just a few weeks ago, one in Whistler. "We're breaking new ground here, locally, nationally and internationally," says Dr. Tom DeMarco, who will be watching the machine very closely with his partner, Dr. Adam Kendall, for the next few months from the Creekside Medical Clinic. The Sonocur will be housed next door at Whistler Physiotherapy. "The potential is very exciting to help people that up until now haven't had any success with conventional therapies. They have tried physiotherapy, massage, cortisone injections, but the pain still persists. Indications from Germany for the treatment of chronic tendinitis point to an 80 per cent permanent cure rate for people suffering." Why Whistler? "Of all places to test this machine, Whistler has probably the highest per capita incidence of acute and chronic tendon and ligament injury in all of Canada," says DeMarco. "That's among locals, tourists from all over the world and the professional athletes who pass through here regularly." With a price tag of $250,000 and a $750 charge for three sessions, the population of Whistler is too small to support a Sonocur machine on its own. But with an estimated 2.14 million skier visits last season and a record-breaking summer, Lowy is betting that there are more than enough tourists passing through to make it profitable. Some tourists may even come to Whistler to receive treatment on their vacations. "Right now we're very interested in popularizing this technology," says Lowy. "Whistler is a very unique place to do that. The German tourists are familiar with the technology, and Americans are starting to find out about it as more and more professional athletes are coming north of the border to receive this treatment." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still in the process of reviewing Sonocur, and Lowy expects that he will get approval in about 18 months. In the meantime, Canada will be used as a proving ground for the technology, generating studies and collecting anecdotal evidence. By the time it is approved, he would like to see Sonocur established as a proven and effective therapy for the treatment of chronic tendinitis. Whistler is also the perfect place to study the effects of Sonocur shock waves on acute tendinitis (a new injury to a tendon). If early indications are correct, Sonocur may be able to get people back on the hill or trail faster than ever before. To date, Sonocur has treated 15 professional athletes with over a 90 per cent success rate. "Mark Messier was so thrilled with the treatment he turned to his doctor and said 'My arm hasn't felt like this in five years'," says Lowy. "He had lost 70 per cent of his strength in one arm, and now he's considerably better. "Lee Mayberry, a guard for the Grizzlies, had patella (knee cap) tendinitis. We gave him three treatments in three days and two weeks later he had no pain in his knees. No pain." In addition to professional athletes, Lowy has another powerful supporter in the Workers’ Compensation Board, which is on the verge of adopting Sonocur as a "first line of treatment." "This is a very big step for us in terms of making Sonocur a mainstream therapy here in Canada, and eventually, around the world." Although the $750 price tag may seem a little steep in a country that offers free physiotherapy and rehabilitation services as part of provincial health care programs, price has not been an issue in either Toronto or Vancouver, according to Lowy. In the early days after the installation, between three and four people would be treated every day. Now that the word is out, that number has increased to between 25 and 30 people, many of whom have flown in from the U.S. or elsewhere in Canada to receive treatment. "Most people would pay anything for the opportunity to rid themselves of a nagging, chronic pain, and this is what it costs. I don't think price is any deterrent whatsoever." He puts it on the same level as laser eye surgery, which has become hugely popular in Canada, although a treatment can cost as much as $5,000. "Right now the machine is here on loan," says DeMarco. "Adam and I are not making a cent out of it. Patty and Marilyn (Whistler Physiotherapy) aren't making any more money from this treatment. We are offering it as another potential therapy for rehabilitating patients, one that has a lot of promise for helping people with chronic tendon pain. Profits are not a motivation." In the next few months, Lowy will be installing Sonocur machines across Canada, organizing studies and collecting data. To date six Whistler patients have been tested with Sonocur, according to DeMarco, all of whom have positive preliminary results.