Looking for Joint Pain Relief in All the Wrong Places
I Got Joint Pain -- Now What?
If you've ever wondered about the effectiveness of alternative, holistic or naturopathic medicine, this story is for you. It's a cautionary tale about how conventional medical care differs dramatically from holistic practices when addressing a relatively simple problem.
During my first twenty years of adulthood, I rarely thought about my healthcare needs or how they should be met. Other than a few broken bones and minor procedures, I had no major health issues and was naïvely confident that if I got sick or injured, my employer’s health plan would take care of everything.
My detached attitude began its radical change on a spring day in 1989 when I felt a mild burning pain across the top of my right elbow. The pain mysteriously faded after a few minutes so I forgot about it. However, it came back in spasms throughout the day as a disturbing reminder that something wasn't quite right. A few days later, the soreness went from sporadic to constant. Fortunately, it was never severe or disabling – just annoying, puzzling and always there.
At the time, I was working as a quality control manager in a small telecommunications company. I used my engineering background and troubleshooting skills every day to solve other types of problems, so I was naturally inclined to figure out why my elbow hurt so I could take the proper steps to relieve it. My inability to solve the mystery became as frustrating as the pain itself – I was stumped. My desk job demanded very little of me physically, and I engaged in no activities outside of work that would cause such a problem. I ultimately let go of my quest for a solution and accepted the possibility that it was probably arthritis or some other symptom of aging (I was only 40!).
Am I Having A Heart Attack?
After a few weeks of this annoyance pain in the right elbow, I began to feel a similar burning sensation in my left elbow. These new flare-ups occurred several times a day, each lasting only a few minutes, but they were noticeably more intense than the mild, constant soreness in the right elbow. In spite of feeling fine otherwise, I grew concerned because I knew that pain in the left arm is a common heart attack symptom.
I was further unsettled by the fact that heart disease and circulatory problems are often hereditary – my dad had three heart attacks starting at age 42 and died from a stroke at 57; his dad had followed a similar path. After a few uneasy days of contemplating a potentially ugly future for myself, I decided to have the pains checked out. My employer provided health insurance through a large, well-established health maintenance organization (HMO), and I hoped that relief was imminent after I made a doctor’s appointment through their Patient Services office.
The local HMO facility was a sprawling array of multi-story buildings comprised of a hospital, emergency room, administrative and medical offices, laboratories, dining facilities, parking structures and temporary construction offices for managing the organization’s ongoing expansion. As impressive as it was, the complex’s massive size, slick architecture and artful décor couldn’t hide its cold institutional atmosphere and the impersonal attitude of the personnel I interacted with.
The (Dis)Appointment – I arrived at the doctor’s office a few minutes early for my 10 AM appointment; I had taken time off work and was anxious to get back, so I was hoping for a short, productive visit with the doctor. The unsmiling, no-nonsense receptionist greeted me with a monotone “G’morning. Sign in here”, pointing to a form on the counter. After I did so, she pulled a file folder from a drawer, got up from her chair and motioned for me to follow her. She led me down a hall into a small, chilly examination room. She said, “The doctor will be with you shortly.” as she closed the door from the outside. While waiting, I tried to get interested in a four-month-old People magazine that had been left in the room. By 10:10, I was becoming irritated by the doctor’s increasing tardiness.
Finally at 10:25, a grim-faced middle-aged man in a wrinkled white coat entered the room. Offering no apology or explanation for keeping me waiting, he just grunted, “You’re Steve, right?” I said yes and started to tell him about my elbow pains, but he held his hand up and said, “Hang on a sec.” He silently studied my medical records, exhibiting the inhospitable aura that seemed to permeate the place.
Tennis elbow, anyone?
After a few minutes of reading my chart, he said, “OK, what’s up?” I described the constant mild burning in my right elbow and the more intense but intermittent pain in the left. He took hold of my left hand, bent it downward gently at the wrist and asked if that position hurt my elbow. “No”, I replied. Then he moved it upward and asked if that hurt. “A little”, I said. He let go of my hand and proclaimed, “You have tennis elbow.”
Right away, this didn’t make any sense to me. ”How can that be?” I asked. “I don’t play tennis, and if I did, it seems the other elbow would be worse because I’m right-handed.”
The doctor seemed perturbed that I challenged his expertise. He stoically stated, “Tennis elbow is a generic term that describes a condition where the tendon in the elbow becomes irritated through overuse. It’s basically tendonitis.” This explanation, plus my own knowledge of how little I used my arms, compounded my confusion. I was in the unfortunate position of any patient with no medical training – I felt that my only choices were to accept his diagnosis and submit to his treatment plan, or do nothing and live with the pain.
Here, have some drugs.
In an effort to move past my state of befuddlement, I asked, “OK, so what can we do about this?” He said that the pain could be relieved with medication. He gave me a ten-day prescription of high-dosage Motrin, an ibuprofen anti-inflammatory normally available over the counter in lower dosages.
I asked what happens if the Motrin doesn’t clear it up. He was shockingly blasé as he said, “Oh, just call us back and we’ll schedule you for a CAT scan to get a closer look. We may have to go in and snip a nerve.”
“WHAT?!?! Snip a nerve?” was the response in my head, but I was too stunned and intimidated to voice any protests so I sheepishly kept quiet. During our ten minute visit (about half as long I as I spent waiting for him!), I got the feeling that he didn't really care about my opinions, desires and emotional state. He never smiled during our meeting, and when we made eye contact, it was only for a brief moment. I left with the impression that this arrogant, impatient doctor’s priorities were to expend as little time and effort as possible to minimize the cost to the HMO.
My disillusionment was further deepened by the high-dosage Motrin pills. They noticeably diminished the pain in each elbow, but never completely relieved it. They also had a side effect: as long as I took them, I felt like I was thinking and moving slower than normal. After a few days of living with this treatment regimen, I seriously considered just living with the pain for the rest of my life rather than spending more time with that gloomy, unsympathetic physician and going through whatever kind of hell he had in mind for me.
The Turnaround - Fortunately, relief came quickly, and in the most unlikely form. About a week after the HMO visit, I attended a business seminar at a local conference center. The first activity was to stand and introduce ourselves by name, company and position. I couldn’t believe my luck when the woman next to me presented herself as a holistic chiropractor! When she sat down, I leaned over and whispered that I’d like to ask her a question during the break. She nodded and said, “Sure, no problem.”
I told her about my elbow problem and how the HMO doctor had treated me. She smiled and asked me a question that revolutionized the way I look at health care: “Does your doctor really think you have a Motrin deficiency?” Her question dumbfounded me, but I felt like I was about to learn a profound lesson. When I asked her to elaborate, she chuckled at my naivete and said, “Without even examining you, I can guarantee you don’t have a Motrin deficiency. Nobody does.”
She explained, “The Motrin might provide temporary relief, but the only true cure is to correct the problem at its source, which is unlikely to be a nerve in your arm that needs to be snipped. In holistic, or natural health practice, symptoms like yours usually indicate an imbalance, and the cause can be easily determined through proper diagnostic procedures.”
Well, that just made all the sense in the world! I felt hopeful for the first time since the pain began. I was sorry to learn that her practice was about 70 miles from my home – an impractical distance for office visits. She suggested finding a local natural health practitioner. After telling this story to a friend, he recommended an acupuncture clinic in the area.
When I called to make an appointment, the office manager said she’d send me a health history questionnaire to fill out and return a few days before the appointment so the doctor would have a chance to review it. This was a far cry from the institutional indifference I’d experienced at the HMO, and I actually looked forward to my upcoming “alternative” experience.
As I walked into the clinic’s waiting room on the day of my appointment, I was immediately struck by the friendly, jovial atmosphere - children were quietly playing with toys in a corner that was clearly designated for that purpose, the people behind the counter wore casual street clothes (no uniforms), and the sounds of barely audible conversations and laughter emanated from offices and exam rooms in the back.
When I checked in with the office manager, she said that Majid (pronounced mah-jeed’) would be with me shortly. Expecting a Middle Eastern or Indian fellow, I was surprised when Majid turned out to be a vibrant African-American man a few years younger than me, and was even more surprised when he greeted me a few minutes before our designated appointment time. We went to his office and I told him the story about my elbow pain.
As we reviewed my health history questionnaire, Majid said “Aha!” when he got to the part about substance abuse – I indicated on the form that I was a recovering alcoholic, and had gotten clean and sober a year and a half earlier through Alcoholics Anonymous. He said, “A number of my patients are in recovery, and it’s common for symptoms like yours to materialize during the first few years of sobriety.”
Through a complicated diagnostic procedure that seemed like some kind of magic, he discovered that my elbow pains were the result of a formaldehyde build-up near the spinal chord in my neck that put pressure on the nerves going down each arm, similar to sciatic pain caused by a pinched nerve in the lower back. He went on to explain that the formaldehyde was a by-product of my body’s metabolization of the alcohol I drank on a daily basis for twenty years. I asked him the same question I asked the other doctor: “OK, so what can we do about this?”
To my delight, Majid said, “Oh, that’s easy. You should start feeling better after about a week of herbal detoxing. After we get rid of the formaldehyde, we can use herbs to detox and re-balance all your organ systems and repair the damage done by the substance abuse.”
Feeling like I’d just been reborn, I happily and faithfully took the herbs that Majid had given me. I was thrilled with the complete joint pain relief that came within a few weeks. Although I had virtually free health care coverage through my employer’s HMO, I chose to pay for Majid’s treatments out of my own pocket, mainly because he took a genuine interest in my well-being and in me as a person.
After achieving the goal of complete joint pain relief, Majid guided me through the fifteen-month process of herbally rehabilitating my organs systems. During that time, I lost my job due to downsizing, and cross-trained into the massage therapy field. Since graduating from massage school in 1990, I’ve studied and incorporated other natural healing and stress reduction methods into my practice.