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My Experience with "Alternative Medicine"

Updated on April 29, 2011

My Chronic Pain Problem

Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were visiting her family. Her brother and a couple of friends decided to go up to the nearby mountains in Big Bear to do a little sledding, and I, as I would later regret, decided to go with them. We rented an inner tube, and on my first run down the hill, we were spun around and got a little disoriented. Then, when we had spun back forward, we hit some kind of a bump, and I went flying into the air. After doing a forward somersault, I landed on the back of my neck and felt a twinge of pain shooting down my neck and left shoulder. Due to a serious creak in the neck, I decided that my inner tube adventure was over. My neck and shoulder were sore for a few days, but after a relatively short time, things seemed to be back to normal. I even remember playing tennis not too long after my accident. But then one night a week or two later, I woke up with a throbbing pain in my left shoulder. It was so bad that we ended up at the emergency room. Tests were negative, and they sent me away with some pain medication. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a long ordeal with chronic pain that modern medicine was unable to either alleviate or explain.

For the next year, the pain in my shoulder would fluctuate somewhat. The really weird thing, however, was that the pain would move to different parts of my body until it eventually settled in my lower back and right behind my left shoulder. Looking back, I don’t know how much of this could be attributed to my inner tube adventure and how much was the result of me not taking care of my body. I had always been a person who played lots of sports, and I had previously been playing outdoor basketball a few times a week. I wouldn’t stretch before or after playing, and my favorite way to sleep was flat on my stomach, two habits that will inevitably take their toll on your back. I was also teaching junior high full-time, which meant that I was on my feet for hours at a time. The stress of dealing with eighth graders, of course, could not have helped either.

For several reasons, one of which was this chronic pain, I decided to walk away from that teaching job. For the next year or so I would not work, and I spent a lot of time trying just about everything that our medical system has to offer. I took anti-inflammatory drugs, had an MRI exam, visited an orthopedist, went to physical therapy, and received a hydrocortisone shot. Nothing helped, and doctors could not offer any explanation. Eventually, one of the primary care doctors in my group plan said that I would just have to learn how to manage and live with the pain. He wanted to put me on some type of pain medication, possibly for life.

It was now time to try some so-called “alternative medicine.” First, I went to a couple of chiropractors. They popped my neck and back, stuck me on some kind of a rolling machine, and used some sort of electrical stimulation devices. (They also took my cash since insurance would only cover a few visits.) There was still no significant improvement. We tried magnet therapy, used a combination of a heating pad and castor oil, and took extra magnesium because we heard that it could alleviate pain, but still no luck.

 So there I was, a twenty-seven year old semi-invalid. I could no longer play sports, although I was getting in the habit of swimming and walking to try to loosen up the muscles. The most annoying thing, however, was that I could not even sit still for extended periods without constant pain. My wife was remarkably patient through all of this. She carried the load by working full-time, doing much of the housework, and doing almost all of the driving. Looking back, I wonder if she (and her family) felt that she had married damaged goods.

Precision Cervical Correction (& Alternative Medicine)

Then a funny and somewhat life-saving thing happened. My wife met a guy whose son had faced a similar situation to mine, only worse. But then, his son found a unique kind of chiropractor who basically solved his problem. He gave my wife his son’s phone number, and I immediately called him up. This guy then described the interesting technique that this chiropractor used and recommended that I see this doctor as soon as possible. Apparently, all that this chiropractor did was a simple neck adjustment in which he used some instrument to tap a specific spot on the neck. After that, the doctor just checked periodically to see if the adjustment was “holding,” - a procedure carried out by checking the patient’s feet – and then waited for the pain to go away.

It sounded strange, but at this point, what the hell did I have to lose. Plus, I figured that if the procedure did not work, it was unlikely that a little neck tap would do any damage. So at my first appointment with this doctor, he described this technique that he called “Precision Cervical Correction.” The theory was that a bone at the top of the spinal chord called the “atlas” could easily be knocked out of alignment, disrupting proper nerve flow to the rest of the body. If this was corrected, the nervous system would be restored, and the body would eventually heal itself. The trick was getting the adjustment to stick. Over the next few months I went to this doctor multiple times and had multiple adjustments. (We probably spent thousands of dollars during these first few months.) In some cases, he said that the adjustment was holding, so no action was necessary. Gradually, the adjustments and visits become more rare, and I noticed something strange happening. At first, the pain would move to different parts of my body. Then one day, I noticed that there wasn’t any pain at all.

Eight months after starting treatment, I started working again at a private high school. Within a few months, I became famous at the school for being the teacher who could actually play basketball. Over the many years since then, I have had several relapses where pain would suddenly appear in some part of my body for no apparent reason. So I would head back to the chiropractor for the little adjustment, and in most cases, the problem would quickly correct itself, and I would not be back at that doctor for months. On a couple of occasions, however, the pain came back and the adjustments did not hold properly for several months. (I still have a constant “knot” on the right side of my neck that is left over from one of these periods.) Eventually, however, things would basically go back to normal. And through all of this time, I have been able to work full-time – often on my feet for several hours a day – and I’ve been lucky enough again to both play sports and chase my kids around without significant pain. (The only time that my neck seriously hurts today is when I sit around too much.)

I learned a couple of simple things through this experience. First, I learned why so many people use the cliché, “Well, at least you have your health.” When your health is bad, you realize the insignificance of most of life’s concerns. Good health, in fact, is something that you only notice and fully appreciate when it is taken away. I may have also gained more empathy for those who suffer from various types of physical disabilities. In some ways, the impact on self-esteem is almost greater than the effects of the physical pain. I, like many others in this situation, felt like a failure.

I also developed an aversion to the term, “alternative medicine.” The term is based on the assumption that there is something called “mainstream, legitimate medicine,“ and “alternative medicine” represents a deviation from this norm. As a history teacher, I can understand why this distinction has developed. Before about a century ago, there was no clearly defined standard laying out what constituted legitimate medical practice. Until modern times, a so-called doctor was as likely to kill you as to heal you. Beginning at about the turn of the twentieth century, however, as medical knowledge finally started to advance, the medical establishment laid out the treatments considered to be “real” medicine - drugs, surgery, and physical therapy – and the training process that doctors would be required to fulfill. Like most people, I am comforted to know that a doctor must go through a rigorous process before he or she is allowed to poke me, prod me, or implant me with pills.

However, it is important to note that some traditional, currently labeled “alternative” medical practices have been used for centuries. Scientists have found that many of the various herbal therapies developed by ancient societies actually worked. And for chronic conditions, acupuncture and other pain therapies may be more effective than mainstream, modern medical techniques. Some present day doctors are starting to recognize this. I have a medical doctor friend who also practices acupuncture, and he often finds it more effective on chronic pain than surgery or anti-inflammatory drugs. Others, however, are more skeptical of alternative therapies and have attitudes similar to my primary care doctor mentioned earlier. According to him, if modern medicine could not explain my problem, then it was either in my head or it was something that I just had to learn to tolerate. In my case, thankfully, that modern medical mind was wrong.

Today, I weigh about 150 pounds, ten pounds lighter than I was ten years ago. I typically swim three times a week and play racquetball, sometimes for two or three hours at a time, three days a week. I do stretching exercises every day, especially before and after playing racquetball. I am almost as quick as I was twenty years ago, and my racquetball opponents often shake their heads and say, “how the hell did you get to that one.” Hopefully, I’ll still be out on the court for many years to come. I also imagine, however, that I will be back in that chiropractor’s office at some point in the future, and I will hopefully have the same success as in the past. I can tell you one thing for sure. I won’t be getting on an inner tube any time soon.


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