I have long been suspicious of chiropractors. Why? One reason is that the practice has a wobbly foundation. In 1895, D.D. Palmer declared that “95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrate, the remainder by luck stations of other joints.” His conclusion is that most diseases could be cured by adjusting vertebrae that interfere with nerve vibrations flowing from the brain through the vertebrae. Recent studies have shown that while spinal manipulation can be helpful to treating some back pain, “there appears to be little evidence to support the value of spinal manipulation for non-musculoskeletal conditions.” (Shekelle, P.G. “What role for chiropractic and healthcare?” New England Journal of Medicine 339:1074-1075.)
Another reason for my skepticism regarding chiropractors is that I’ve heard too many tales of highly suspicious sounding chiropractors. I’ve heard, for instance, about the “need” to be treated two to three times per week for years on end for nebulous sounding conditions.
I’ve never before been to a chiropractor. Five weeks ago I would’ve assure you that I would not likely ever go to a chiropractor. That was before my pain got bad, however. For the past five weeks, I’ve been suffering from a pain on the left side of my upper back. It comes and goes during the day, ranging from a dull ache to a severe stabbing pain that makes it hard for me to concentrate anything else. The pain sometimes borders on disabling. Sometimes, lying down is the only thing that settles down the intense stabbing pain. I’ve tried working out more, resting more and stretching more. I’ve tried ibuprofen and, later, Naprosyn in various doses.
I arranged for a massage last week, from a woman who has given me massages a few times over the past few years. She exclaimed that I was holding my left shoulder much higher than my right and that she had never before seen such an extreme case. After working on my back for almost 2 hours, she gave me the business card of a chiropractor who did acupuncture. The massage gave me some relief, but most of the pain returned a day later. My medical doctor gave me a prescription to a double dose of Naprosyn (he diagnosed me over the phone). I considered that if I pursued my problem with a medical doctor, he or she would probably refer me to physical therapy. It occurred to me, however, that I’ve had two rounds of treatment from physical therapists in the past and that both of them were unimpressive due to the nonchalance of the therapists.
It was time to do something about my problem, because I was losing valuable hours of productive time because of the pain in my back. To make things worse, ibuprofen has been hard on the stomach, causing something bordering on nausea. Therefore, I picked up the phone and I called the chiropractor/acupuncturist to set up a visit.
Two days ago (Monday), I visited the chiropractor/acupuncturist. I felt it was worth a try given several discussions I’ve had with people who claimed that acupuncture brought substantial relief to them. Further, this particular chiropractor is well known for treating quite a few professional athletes, including Olympic athletes and members of the St. Louis Rams and St. Louis Blues.
I was impressed with this chiropractor during my first visit. He took a lot of time trying to determine what was causing the condition. This is in direct contrast to my own experience (and the experiences of others) regarding medical doctors, who typically try to treat symptoms with drugs or cortisone, without taking a detailed history to determine the root cause.
Not that the root cause was hard to determine in my case. My chiropractor quickly determined that I was locked over a computer keyboard many hours every day. And after I’m finished hovering over a keyboard at the office, locked like a statue, 10 or 12 hours per day at work, I do more of this hunching over a keyboard at home while writing for this blog. He explained that this unvarying posture is hard on the body and that the sort of pain that I was experiencing was common among people who spend many hours sitting in front of a computer. It was his theory that my pain emanated from my pelvis (even though my pelvis doesn’t hurt) which is fixed in a locked position on a chair hour after hour without relief.
He recommended two or three sessions of acupuncture a series of simple exercises that I could do at home or at the office. Then he would be done with me. His simple exercises don’t require any equipment and can be done in a couple of minutes every hour or so. He also urged me to take periodic breaks from sitting in front of the computer. I have been directed to stand up and do some simple stretches while at the computer (these one-minute breaks are to be taken every 15 minutes or so). I have carefully complied with the chiropractor’s instructions ever since I received them two days ago.
What is modern acupuncture? It’s quite different than traditional acupuncture in that it involves not only needles, but slight pulsing electrical current that is run through the affected tissue through the needles. The purpose of acupuncture is to relax the overwrought muscles and thereby reduce the pain. My chiropractor readily admitted that the mechanism for pain relief is not well understood, though it often works. He made it clear that others have lots of detailed ancient hocus-pocus theories for why acupuncture works, but he doesn’t rely on those teachings (many acupuncturists still do, however).
A modern acupuncture treatment lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The acupuncture was not painful, although it was a just a bit uncomfortable. It is done without any anesthesia. After receiving the acupuncture treatment on Monday, I thought that I felt some good relief from the sharp pains I have been experiencing in my back. At the same time, however, I was well aware of the placebo effect and I wanted to make sure that I was not simply psyching myself out.
I went back for a second acupuncture treatment today. My wife (Anne) attended with me because she is interested in knowing more about acupuncture. She brought a camera and took a couple of pictures so that I could show what acupuncture looks like. This first picture shows the chiropractor inserting a needle into my back.
He used a short straw looking sleeve, which he taps along with the needle, which distributes the sensation of the insertion so that it is not sharp or painful. For the first treatment, the doctor used eight needles. For the second treatment the chiropractor used six needles. It seems like I have also experienced some relief from the pain today, following today’s acupuncture treatment. I’m not certain of this, however.
Here’s a picture of the needles that were placed on my back today.
Here’s a picture of the needles hooked up (with alligator clips) to the current generator.
When that current is flowing, it flows in tiny pulses. You can actually feel these pulses, about one pulse per second. It’s almost like someone is slightly tapping all of the needles on your back, in unison, throughout the entire treatment, but the tapping sensation is caused by the electric current.
Here’s a picture of the current control box that was attached to the needles.
The jury is still out on whether this alternative treatment will be effective in the long run. I have to admit, however, that it seems that the treatment is working (the treatment consists of both acupuncture and various stretches and exercises). I’ve been struggling with this pain for over a month without anything working to relieve the pain. Also keep in mind that over the past two weeks, I’ve been taking fairly heavy doses of pain relievers, without much effect. Over the past two days, however, I’ve reduced my intake of ibuprofen from about eight tablets per day to two tablets per day. I have found that I am having many fewer episodes of sharp pain.
There are many traditional chiropractors that rely mostly upon spinal manipulation. The chiropractor treating me is not one of those chiropractors. His forte is strength and conditioning and his tools include nutrition, stretching, exercise and acupuncture. If his approach works, one big benefit would be that it doesn’t require me to pour any potentially dangerous drugs through my liver. As suggested above, if this treatment works, it would address the root cause of my problem, which would allow me to prevent future episodes by doing these simple stretches and exercises as a matter of course, even when I’m not feeling any pain.
I will continue to update this post to let you know what I’m experiencing. In case anyone is interested, here is the website of the chiropractor who is treating me (James R. Neuwirth).