Monthly Archives: March 2014

Exploring pain: Chemicals, health practitioners and inner wisdom

Every body has a story nestled in its muscles and bones, fascia and skin.  Every body makes its own compromises on its journey through this world.  Marie’s is soft and compact, its stride short and confident.  A round face with sparkly, inviting eyes sits atop a short neck, framed by flowing gray hair.

Every body makes its own compromises on its journey through this world.

I imagine she had the same sparkly energy emanating from her eyes thirty years ago as she raced down a glitteringly snow-covered hillside.  Perhaps the sparkle in her eyes gleamed a hotter shade of red as the toboggan and her tail bone flew into the air and came crashing down onto the glistening ice of a northern Ohio pond.  And I imagine, too, after an initial yelp of pain, she transformed her vocalization to laughter, the sound of strength.  The idea of going to the doctor flitted briefly through her mind over the next couple days, as pain seared her hips and, some mornings, she was unable to get out of bed; but she found she could take care of it all by herself with the help of the then-new pain killer, ibuprofen.

The pain in her hips flirted with her over the next few decades, as did strain in her neck.  It flared up when she was, in her words, “fighting herself” as a middle school science teacher.  But in general, this farm girl from northern Ohio was tough enough to stave off its advances with the help of ibuprofen.

This farm girl from northern Ohio was tough enough to stave off the pain’s advances with the help of ibuprofen.

Marie’s first plunge into seeking human, rather than chemical, help for her pain was during her 30’s.  She was married by then, and although she and her husband had good health insurance, they had not sought out a family doctor.  Her husband was seeing a chiropractor for low back pain, though, so she went in as well to see what she could do to help balance out the stress of teaching that rendered her neck close to immobile.

She went to the chiropractor to see what she could do to help balance out the stress of teaching that rendered her neck close to immobile.

She had mixed feelings about her relationship with the chiropractor and the treatment.  On the one hand, it sure did seem to help – her neck regained mobility and the sciatic pain in her leg from her hip problems vanished.  On the other, she had some doubts regarding the validity of chiropractors, though she strove to be open to these alternative health practices.  Additionally, she did not like the sense of dependency and lack of control it instilled her.  “The human body should be designed so it doesn’t need help,” she thought.  And “anything that helps me shouldn’t hook me in.” Yet here she was feeling dependent on visits to this chiropractor every couple of weeks just to remain pain free.  She continued to see him for three years.  When she stopped teaching so she would have time to tend to her growing family, her body regained balance and she no longer needed external forces – chemical or human – to maintain it.

“The human body should be designed so it doesn’t need help,” she thought.  And “anything that helps me shouldn’t hook me in.”

Ten years later, she got back on the toboggan, and again her hip was a disaster.  Her chiropractor suggested a PT, so she started jumping through the hoops to see one.  She found a doctor, who gave her a prescription for a PT, a pain killer (flexoral), and a back specialist.  She tried the pain killer and PT for a couple weeks and started feeling better.  “The initial influence of the drug turned things the other way,” she told me.  “But it looped me out, made me depressed.  I would tell my husband, ‘I feel like a big pile of person.’”  By the time she got to see the specialist, her pain had subsided and the doctor had little to tell her.  She left feeling like “a stupid head, costing money, when there’s nothing wrong with you.”

Zoom ahead another ten years.  The kids are leaving the house, heading off to college instilled with the same work ethic Marie grew up with, cared for in a loving home tended by a mother and wife who chose to be just those things.  And Marie?  Well, she is on a new adventure of her own, still learning what fits — massage school!

A few years ago, she was training for a mini triathlon when her shoulder gave out during a swim.  Just reaching up caused pain and caused her to quit swimming.  Unlike tobogganing, which she was just as happy to go through life without, she was wistful about no longer being able to swim, and her entrance into massage school seemed just the time to check out what might be underlying the swimming-induced pain.  She bravely set off to investigate. “If I ask for help, where will it take me?  Now I understand,” she said with a chuckle, “why people don’t go to the doctor. … They don’t want to know.”

“If I ask for help, where will it take me?  Now I understand,” she said with a chuckle, “why people don’t go to the doctor. … They don’t want to know.”

She decided to start with her primary care physician (PCP) this time.  “I don’t trust a chiropractor to be able to assess [my condition] with only a bad x-ray machine and just one technique.”  And by this time, she had established a relationship with a PCP, Denise, who was also a family friend — someone she knew cared about her as a person.  Denise sent her to a PT, another family friend.  At least this time, Marie felt cared for by the health professionals with whom she was working.

She established a relationship with a PCP, Denise, who was also a family friend.

After a small but incredibly frustrating SNAFU which made Marie’s blood run hot as she told me about it months later (mixed communications between the PT and doctor’s office when Denise wasn’t in), she had X-rays taken of the same area of her neck that the chiropractor had looked at decades before using his antiquated technology and low quality images.  Technology aside, the assessment was the same — kyphotic curve in the neck — only this time, it was coated with a layer of mild to moderate arthritis.  When the PT showed her X-ray to an orthopedist, they marvelled at it. Marie believes she’s in good hands, but feels out of control, like someone else knows more about her body than she does.  “I don’t know how dire the situation is.  It challenges my idea of ‘I’ll be fine.’”

“I don’t know how dire the situation is.  It challenges my idea of ‘I’ll be fine.’”

Her goal now: See the PT intensively for the next few months.  Start doing exercises.  And in the long run, keep caring for herself (which will require some lifestyle changes) check in with Denise and see a massage therapist for relaxation.  She expressed some regret that she had been told about the underlying problem twenty years ago and not done anything.  But her strength and perseverance shone as she finished by saying “Thankfully, every day I wake up and get to live another day and see what happens.  It’s not over yet!”

Marie’s story touches on many of the important questions that arise over and over again as people make decisions about how to tend to their own bodies and minds in pain.  Is dependency okay — chemical, human? Do we want someone else to understand our bodies, our being, better than we ourselves do?  How do we form a connection that allows deep understanding to be mutual and not invasive?  How do we find a lifestyle that fits us?  What compromises must we make in order to lead the life we choose?  Is ignorance, in the end, bliss?

How do we form a connection that allows deep understanding to be mutual and not invasive?  How do we find a lifestyle that fits us?  What compromises must we make in order to lead the life we choose?

In the next few posts, I will explore the technology vs. humanity question that Marie touched on. Ibuprofen or a chiropractor?  Big data or an acupuncturist?  I will also be exploring the role of a healer — what makes a therapist’s work successful? Is it specific learned techniques or an ineffable presence?

Tune in again soon!

Advertisements