Sunday, October 01, 2006

Alternative Medicine

There's been a lot of neck and upper back stiffness in the last year or two. Some have chalked it up to stress. Sure, there were a lot of sleepless nights while on call. Even if you're not paged, there's always the awful feeling that you could get woken up at any time, which puts all five senses on perma-alert. Sure, there are long days, on your feet from early morning until late evening. Very little upper body exercise at work too, unless you count the half lift of arms to type on a keyboard. Sure, you're stressed, trying to do good by the patient, learn as much as you can, and not seem like a complete doodle to your attendings. But EVERYONE has stress. Not everyone (at least that I'm aware of) has neck and upper back stiffness.

So, you say, maybe it's a function of age and aging. Perhaps. But is it? Many people may develop these and other problems as they age, but is it truly a normal part of aging, or are we all using our bodies the wrong way, and thus developing these problems? Can chronic misuse be the confounder? I've seen enough healthy, vibrant 90 year old people to say that this cannot be normal aging.

Deep-tissue massage really loosens up the neck/back muscles. It allows one to feel how a back truly should feel, and in contrast, it becomes clear that the stiff back that we always live with is pathologic. So if I were to get a massage once a week, I'd probably be able to prevent worsening of the neck/shoulder tightness. Heck, if I could get it once a day, it'd be even easier to prevent worsening. But the key is prevent worsening. Massage doesn't get to the root of the problem. Whatever I'm unconsciously doing on a day to day basis is causing the problem, and getting massages are like applying little band-aids to a wound. Sure, it temporarily feels better, but the band-aid falls off soon, and will need to be reapplied. Meanwhile, the wound festers away because it was never truly treated.

Some might say I need to go see a doctor. I can tell you exactly what would happen - there's nothing medically wrong with me that allopathic medicine can treat. I've got tight, stressed muscles. I don't even have pain. If I did, I'd get the usual - take ibuprofen, rest, heat, relax. Again, all band-aids. And perhaps some people would be content with band-aids. After all, if you had pain, applying them in quick enough succession, you might even forget that the problem was there. Until it worsened because you never treated the problem. I want to know why this is happening. How I can correct it. I've seen enough chronic pain patients to want to do something about it now. I'd never wish chronic pain on the worst enemy.

So here's a documented foray into alternative medicine. Mind you, my bias is that I'm very open to this field, probably more so than some medical colleagues would like. I think medicine should be complementary, with alternative methods working hand in hand with allopathic means. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to use both of them means one is a more trained physician, one that is better equiped to help their patients heal. Allopathic physicians are often taught that only the hard-core, scientifically proven data is worth knowing and using. And while I agree that this kind of data is wonderful, I'd like to venture that there are plenty of things in every day allopathic medicine that are FAR from evidence-based. And that while some of the explanations of how alternative medicine works may sound like a crock of excrement, I say that you shouldn't toss the method because one practitioner, or even a group of them, gives an inplausible theory of how it works.

All scientists have been wrong at one time or another in their hypotheses and theories. It is human nature to want to try to explain how something works, and the explanation itself may be wrong until the day we know enough to correct the explanation, but if it works, it works. J.J. Thompson, the discoverer of the electron, theorized the plum-pudding model of the atom, which we now know is incorrect. But though his explanation was wrong, it provided the stepping stone for further scientific thought about the actual state of an atom. Would you have wanted to be the one to throw away the atom because Thompson "obviously" didn't know what he was talking about? Probably not.

If you have neck/back stiffness or pain, my hope is that some of the methods I'm looking for can become useful for you.

photo credit


Blogger Kate said...


Yoga, yoga, yoga.

It does wonders.

It also, however, is still a bandaid. But, if you do it regularly (um...perhaps I should?!), you develop a better posture and a deep-seated sense of being-ness/relaxation that helps a great deal with the underlying problems.

My problems are specifically related to sitting at a computer all day in a turtle-like pose. There was a stretch of months when I worked at the IT support desk when we had five--count 'em--five people on disability because of carpal tunnel and various other problems. Mine was pinched nerves in the neck due to the turtle posture.

Have you gotten an ergo check ofyour computer workstation? Some folks like to have their computer up on a podium to work at, it helps them. Two people I know sit on balance balls when they're working at the computer.

There's an excercise my PT gave me (once again, maybe I should do it more regularly??), where you put your upper torso against a wall, knees only slightly bent, feet out about a foot. Take your arms, stretch them out to the side at shoulder height, press the BACK of your hands against the wall, and the remainder of your arm. Count to 10. Move the arms up about 10%, elbows slightly bent. Do the same thing there. Keep moving the arms up in increments.

This helps with the knot in the lower spine-side quadrant of your shoulder blade that so many people have.

12:18 PM  
Blogger always learning said...

Hi Kate, thanks for the tips! I LOVE yoga :). It's great for stretching most muscle groups, balance, and flexibility, and helps the shoulders somewhat, but there are days AFTER yoga class where the tightness is still there.

Computers are definitely part of the cause, but my posture could probably use some work. And sometimes I realize that my neck/shoulders are tensed, which means I'm probably doing most of the time and not even realizing it. I just started Alexander technique and love it - will post about it soon.

5:42 PM  

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