Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


A shorter history of alternative medicine.

One day in 1982 I picked up a heavy table at work and my life changed.

It wasn't the weight; it was the spread. The table was six feet long. I had it overhead, but it moved. I tried to move with it, but my feet held the ground and something shifted in my back. I thought someone had shot me.

They used to call it a slipped disc. An uncle of mine in the 1960s had a 'slipped disc' and couldn't walk. The term was graphic: it made me think he had a lopsided 45rpm record inside his torso.

I carried the virtual bullet around in my back for ten long agony-filled weeks. Doctors gave me painkillers. A chiropractor fussed delicately over my back with spindly fingers and then, without warning, folded me in two; the biggest mood swing I have ever experienced in a medical specialist, if that's what chiropractors are. Nothing worked.

It was worst after sitting. If you have back trouble, throw out your chairs. The chair is to the back sufferer what the wheel was to a medieval London felon. It will break you.

Time went by. I racked up the medical visits. I saw someone in Caulfield who put a metal gadget like a miniature car jack under my back, propped little wedges like door-stoppers adjacent to L5 and L6, and then released the jack. Part of my spine would suddenly drop half an inch or so.

I moved on to a chiropractor in Moonee Ponds. He was good. We used to have great chats. He told me he was always going off to chiropractors' conferences. I visited him for so long that I saw him through three phases. He learnt these at the conferences. His first phase was standard chiropractic, so he just worked on my back. In his next phase, he believed everything came from the feet, so he adjusted my ankles. The last time I saw him he was into Zoroastrianism and chanted while treating me. My back pain outlasted all these phases.

Years later I moved house and found another chiropractor. The first one hadn't bothered with x-rays, but the new one wanted to know what was going on in there. He pinned the x-rays on the light box with great drama and pointed to the murky bits of the image with a long stick, nodding tellingly. What a shock. It was a mess. I was surprised I could even walk. But the chiropractor had the answer: he put me down for two visits a week for twelve weeks, dropping to once a week after that.

Later, a running coach recommended an osteopath. The osteopath was a long way away. But that was good. It made every journey a pilgrimage. When you go a long way for a cure, it helps you believe. I had to go to East Kew, or Far Kew as it is known colloquially. It was a lovely practice, with flowers and soft music and new magazines and comfortable chairs in the waiting room. The osteopath had a certificate on his surgery wall saying he was immediate past president of the osteopath's society, so that meant he was good. It was certainly hard to get an appointment. Most of his clients were well-dressed East Kew ladies of that typical affluent upper middle class demographic. I wondered how they did their backs. It probably wasn't through lifting heavy tables, but that was none of my business. The things you think of when sitting in a waiting room.

The osteopath's technique was to open up energy paths. They were blocked through my ankles, right hip and right knee. How he knew, I have no idea. But he knew. In the past, I had had injuries to those precise locations. A broken right ankle, several severe sprains of the left, right hip damaged in a heavy fall, and bad knees. He got the energy flowing like the Merri Creek after a deluge.

I should point out here the pain was not continuous or even continual. It was random, and separated by periods of good health in which I lived normally, lifted heavy objects, broke up old driveways, dug up tree stumps, and competed in national level athletics. Back pain episodes were never triggered by major physical trauma, but a small movement like twisting slightly to adjust a picture on a wall, that kind of thing.

One cash-strapped day at the height of the GFC, my back popped out when I bent over to pick up a piece of Lego.

I did a calculation and decided I couldn't afford to go to the osteo that week. Or the next week. I would get through this episode without a pilgrimage.

A week later, when my back was considerably better without intervention, I did another calculation. I arrived at $60,000. It's not really that much when you consider that was almost thirty years' worth. $20,000 a decade. $2,000 a year. $1,000 every six months; an average of about two chiropractor, physio or osteopath visits a month, cost-averaging the fee from $40 to the current $100.

But still, I could have bought a house with it then.

I decided to adopt a new strategy, not that I now had any real choice. I would go cold turkey.

I haven't seen a chiropractor for six years. Back pain episode frequency has gradually diminished, and the recovery periods are getting shorter. I had long been aware that the kind of x-rays that showed the 'damage' in my back all those years ago will also reveal similar 'damage' in people with no symptoms. Conversely, x-rays of those with symptoms may not show any evidence of injury. So we can forget that piece of outright patient recruiting.

But it seems it goes further. The other day I was jogging (on grass - only ever on grass these days - at St Bernard's oval) with some running friends. One, a GP, was telling me she had been present at a physiotherapists' conference at which a delegate had given a speech suggesting that in some circumstances physiotherapy actually delayed recovery in some patients experiencing back pain. Apparently, the speech brought the house down. And not in a nice way.


Dr. Alice said...

(sigh) Backs. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

My most frequent advice is to try exercise and stretching, but clearly you are already doing that. The good news is that you are not having constant pain and you've been able to stay really active - a lot more than most of my patients! If I had a miracle solution I would gladly share it but sadly there isn't one.

Martin Kennedy said...

I can sympathise with you. I also went to a certain Moonee Pond chiropractor about four years ago for headaches and neck pain. At first it seemed to do the trick but after a few visits the pain intensified to level 10, my neck seized up on an angle and I ended up in the care of a neurosurgeon/neck specialist. He was horrified I'd been seeing a chiropractor. Called them all sorts of expletives. He gave me a one page list of dos and donts and said in follow these and in twelve months you'll be completely pain free. He was right! I learnt more from two visits to the surgeon than multiple chiro, osteoporosis and physio visits.

paul kennedy said...

Yes, exercise does the trick, Dr. A. And there are plenty out there who promise miracle cures. They used to be called snake oil merchants.

Martin, I think we saw the same guy.