Health and Responsibility
I decided to start a blog today to celebrate the fact that I can type. That may seem like an odd thing to celebrate but the fact is, for over the past year, there were many days when I couldn’t. There were days when opening a jar or moving my hand up and down caused shockwaves of pain; or days when typing for two minutes was too exhausting and I needed a break until my hand recovered. I was diagnosed with tendonitis and carpal tunnel in my right hand when I was 17 and as flare-ups became more frequent over the last year, I began to doubt I could ever hold down a job that required any form of typing or writing. Some days, I couldn’t work at all and fell into anger and depression. Recently, I discovered the book “Pain Free,” by Pete Egoscue and as I began to follow the exercises, I finally got my hand back. Within a few days of starting the exercises, I felt strength and stabilization increasing in my back and shoulders and I experienced strength and dexterity in my right hand that I hadn’t felt in years. I’m still not completely 100%, but I’m back to improving and feeling optimistic.
What makes this medical recovery striking is that it occurred in spite of the medical establishment- I went to one of the best hand doctors in NYC, to three highly rated physical therapy facilities, two chiropractors, two occupational therapists, saw an ergonomics specialist at my company, did yoga, acupuncture, pilates, and various other therapies, and yet my hand did not improve. In fact, during that time, I felt over-charged, misinformed, and often insulted. I was given statements like, “take an ibuprofen and rest,” and when I asked what I could do to prevent the symptoms from getting worse or recurring, told again “take ibuprofen.” A physical therapist told me, when his exercises were having little effect, “I don’t believe that you’re doing them.” An occupational therapist told me my problems were from “overuse,” and when I informed her that I actually didn’t use my right hand all that much compared to most athletes and musicians, she responded, “everyone has different thresholds for problems.” Another physical therapist, and perhaps the most telling case of all, spoke with the massage therapist right outside my room to ask, “Who am I seeing now? Katherine, that’s right…what’s her issue again?” It was our fifth session together.
The moment I felt some hope again was when I read this exchange in Pete Egoscue’s book, between him and a patient: ‘“You took responsibility for your own health- not me.” She got herself into that condition and she got herself out of it. So can you.’ What I so loved about this idea was, first of all, the responsibility (and therefore, power) given to the patient regarding his or her own health. That doesn’t mean the physician has no role- Egoscue provides an incredible manual on functional anatomy and biomechanics, filled with education and exercises. Secondly, I appreciated an idea implicit in the statement, “she got herself into that condition and she got herself out of it.” The idea is that the body heals itself and when it is not able to function, it can be traced back to a human behavior or environmental factor that is stopping it from doing so. The body is intelligent and powerful.
Combined with my carpal tunnel, another set of symptoms ultimately taught me about the power I have over my own health: I was diagnosed with arthritis in my right hand this past year (it was a bad year). I awoke one stressful day to find my wrist swollen and moving with crackling pain. When I went to my physical therapist, he did an examination and then asked, “Do you have a family history of arthritis?” I thought it a strange question, given that my swelling had appeared suddenly and that I’m only 26. “Not that I know of. Why do you ask about arthritis?” “Because you have inflammation.” “What causes inflammation?” “*Shrug*” As I googled causes of inflammation (left-handed) that evening, I explored every website with curiosity. One Ayurvedic medicine page jumped out at me: “all inflammation stems from the gut,” it claimed, showing the colors and symbol of the third chakra. Curious and with nothing to lose, I began an experiment, cutting out all potential “inflammatory” foods from my diet: alcohol, grains, refined sugar, dairy, and eventually coffee. I took digestive enzymes with meals and an intestinal support supplement and cut down on my portion sizes. Within a day, I noticed something fascinating: my skin was improving. Not only on my hand, where the swelling was decreasing and the dry, scaly skin was getting life back, but in my face, where bumps on my skin that had persisted for years suddenly were flattening and disappearing. When I went back to the physical therapist three days later, the symptoms of “arthritis” had disappeared. The doctor showed almost no interest and continued to absently massage the hand and ask where I felt tenderness.
No doctor I saw has ever been curious to ask “why did this happen?” which to me is the fundamental question. Perhaps that’s not surprising; it’s hard to build a medical practice around patients who are already well and happy. A few months ago, a stranger in a café struck up a conversation with me and asked, “If you studied neuroscience, why didn’t you go to med school?” The answer hit me later that night: I’m not interested in health from the perspective of dysfunction; I’m interested in it from the perspective of education and wellness.
All of these experiences sparked a desire in me: if I have the power to heal my hand and gut through small lifestyle changes, in what other ways can I improve my health? In what other ways am I asleep, not knowing that with a conscious change, I could feel not just okay, but great? This blog is my open experiment in pursuing wellness of all types- physical and muscular, dietary, psychological, social, spiritual, everything- with a different theme each week. It’s open to anyone who’s interested to follow my experiment and share his or her own experiences as well.