An Alternative to the Unacceptable

Waiting on the bench in an 8’x10’ white-walled box was not exactly how I’d planned on spending my Friday afternoon—least of all in a gown that made me feel more naked than if I hadn’t been wearing anything at all.

I’d been having some back pain for the few months leading up to this appointment, and this was supposed to be the solution to my sleepless nights, spent tossing and turning—looking for sleep but nagged by a persistent tightness across my shoulders and my lower back. It was supposed to be an in-and-out, “here’s how you fix this,” with a laundry list of things that I should and shouldn’t do, followed by no more pain. Instead, I was told “we’re going to fuse your spine, and that should stop this from getting any worse.” What kind of a solution is that?! “Oh, no big deal, we’re just going to severely limit your mobility for the rest of your life by performing a surgery that will impact most of the rest of your senior year of high school with a flat-on-your-back recovery.” How about  no, thank you.

Of course, I was very polite to the doctor at the time, as was my shell-shocked mother. Scoliosis runs in my family so it wasn’t exactly a huge surprise, but the severity of my scoliosis and the solution described by the doctor (and the urgency with which he described our next step of the recovery journey) caught both of us flat-footed. We said that we would call back in the coming weeks to set up a surgical consultation, but my mind was racing to find any other viable solution. Up until this point, to say that I was a firm believer in Western medicine would be an understatement: I used to laugh at all of those people who would go to accupuncture, who would rely on massage, who would change their spiritual lives to impact their physical selves. Well, at that point I was just praying for the chance to eat my words and find some alternative treatment plan that wouldn’t involve inserting surgical steel into the central support of my nervous system.

I started out with Google. After reading 20-30 pages of life-changing stories, I was no more ready to take the plunge than I was in the office. So I called up my aunt, who had worn a back brace for years in order to deal with her own scoliosis, but the  outcome of that conversation led me no closer to believing in the all-powerful solution of major surgery. So when my sister woke up for work that evening, I talked to her, defeated, unsure of what to do.  She had recently gone through a series of chiropractic visits to deal with a lasting whiplash injury after doing a 360° kickflip in a Camaro at 75 MPH on the freeway. So, of course, shetold me to give chiropractic a try. Considering how horrified I was at the prospect of becoming a cyborg at the ripe old age of 17, I thought “why not?” and set up my first appointment for later that same week.

I had brought my x-rays from the doctor’s visit with me to the chiropractor, and he outlined a plan that would free me of pain and arrest the progression of my spinal deterioriation. He could tell that I was skeptical (and terrified), but what did I have to lose other than some time and some money? If it worked, then I would be able to avoid some life-changing surgery. And if it didn’t, then I was no worse off than I was before. So, here we go on a whirlwind chiropractic adventure! Pop-crack-snap!

Ow, was my thought the following day, and after the next appointment just a week later. The chiropractor had shown me what he was going to be doing: how the different decompression techniques he was using would limit the pressure on my slightly bulging discs and alleviate the strain on my lower back that had been plaguing me for quite some time.  He gave me some exercises (which I dutifully took to), some recommendations for maintaining better posture, and activities that I could do that would be beneficial for my spinal health, and my well-being overall. Once again, the skeptic in me couldn’t overpower how much sense he was making. I had horrible posture, thanks to my habits of gaming too much and studying too late. While I regularly ran and tried to lift weights, I had never targeted any areas that might actually help my back (like my core). So, I gave it all a try.

While the western medicine approach of throwing a few nuts and bolts at the problem would likely have been effective, it was lacking in some key areas. The doctor didn’t even talk to me about changing my habits to make things better—the first and only option was to make with the choppy-choppy. The chiropractor worked through my daily habits and routines to come up with a total life-routine makeover that would mitigate my pain, improve my well-being, and help me develop the habits that would keep my condition from getting any worse.

Within three months, my pain was receding and we could tell that the treatment was working. I continued some regular appointments, just to keep tabs on things, but within the year almost all of my pain was gone. I still have the curvature in my spine, but it hasn’t progressed in the last couple of years, and I’m hoping that it will keep me going until some other alternative medicines are available. (Nanites? Stem cell therapy? Who knows what the future holds!) Sure, trying to do a backwards somersault still hurts (and I was never good at those to begin with), but doing the things I love—like sleeping!—didn’t hurt any more, and I could run, jump, swim (until I got mono… but that’s an entirely different story), and play to my heart’s content.

Even though it took me weeks of going through the treatment before I truly began to accept that it could be worthwhile (and not merely a method of procrastinating the inevitable surgery), I eventually came to understand that non-conventional methods of treatment for chronic pain and illness can be effective. Growing up in the holy halls of western medicine, I never gave alternative treatments like accupuncture and chiropracture the time of day. What could any solution not founded in science offer me that studied, peer-reviewed, proven-to-work solutions couldn’t? Well, it turns out that this particular solution offered me more control in my life and an option to mitigate my pain while preventing further degeneration without the risks of major orthopedic surgery. Not too shabby!

Photo by Meggyn Watkins
Photo by Meggyn Watkins
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