New Back Fixes
In the evolutionary scheme of things, it was probably a good idea for us humans to walk on our hind legs. It enabled us to develop the fine hand coordination to make tools, play the piano and do surgery. This last skill comes in handy because walking upright ultimately causes so much back pain that half a million Americans submit to the surgical knife every year. Fifty percent of all working-age people have some sort of back symptoms during the course of a year. But back care is evolving, too, and surgery is no longer the only treatment recognized by Western medicine. The spinal manipulations practiced by chiropractors are increasingly accepted by the medical establishment. And in the last decade or so, some chiropractors have been coming up with exotic new techniques. The new kids on the block are viewed in turn by the newly respectable chiropractic establishment with great skepticism.Ever since Daniel David Palmer invented the practice in 1895, some chiropractors have claimed to cure everything from acne to hemorrhoids. The very first spinal manipulation performed by Palmer supposedly restored the hearing in a man who had been deaf for 17 years. Other such logic-defying miracle cures have prompted many doctors to dismiss all chiropractors as quacks.But when it comes to treating back pain, Western physicians are virtually stumped. All they can offer is pain medication for temporary relief, or in severe cases some sort of surgical procedure -- which can leave the patent permanently disabled. So they've come around to conceding that chiropractors can be useful, as long as they cut out the grandiose claims and stick to treating back pain.But now these new practices purport to promote not just better overall physical health, but emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being, too. And Jerome McAndrews, spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association, resents it. "To say that we are chasing emotional devils out of people's lives, almost to the point of exorcism, and surfacing these emotion al problems with some form of chiropractic technique is harmful, first of all, to our profession -- and secondly, to prospective patients," says McAndrews. "It maintains some of the bias that's been in the system against us." The best known of the new practices is Network Chiropractic, developed in the early eighties by Donald Epstein, a New York chiropractor. Like other chiropractic techniques, it is based on the principle that if you correct misalignments in the spine, the body will heal itself naturally. But where the Palmer method involves hands-on manipulations of the spine (with accompanying crunching sound effects), the Network chiropractor uses a feather-light touch. San Anselmo, Calif. chiropractor Michael De Fino became a Network convert six years ago at a professional seminar. Lying on the table after receiving an adjustment, he found himself crying inexplicably. "I have no idea why that was," he says. "It's some kind of release." And he felt great. "It felt like the first time I was ever truly adjusted. I felt lighter, my whole spine opened up. And I was much straighter afterwards. When I got back in my car that night to drive away, I had to reposition my mirrors. It felt like my body was being pushed back against my seat."With my interest piqued because my own lower back has been bothering me for the last several weeks, I asked De Fino for a demonstration. Sure, he said, but it won't necessarily make your pain go away. "The way that most chiropractors work is to try and fix somebody's pain. But most of the time, people's pains go away even though I don't focus on the area of pain. I'm looking for the greatest areas of interference in the nervous system and try to unlock those areas so the energy can flow in the body and heal whatever it needs to heal."De Fino showed me to a small room almost filled by a padded table with an oval hole at one end. As I sat turned away from him, he made some observations and took some notes. Then I lay on my stomach with my face in the hole while he stood at my feet, lifted them, put them back down, touched a couple of my vertebrae and left the room. I was pleased to note that the room was silent, free of the usual New Age music that many practitioner s pipe into their offices to help their patients relax. After awhile, De Fino came back in, made some similar minor adjustments and left again. He must have repeated the process three or four times until he announced we were finished. I sat up and sure enough, De Fino was right -- he didn't fix my pain. He told me that my head and my pelvis were tilted, the muscles to the right of my spine were pulling downward, my head was too far forward, my body weight was too far backward and one leg was shorter than the other. And here I thought I was in pretty good shape. It's a wonder I can even walk around in this condition, let alone get through ballet class three times a week.But De Fino assured me that as I lay on the table, my body had already made several adjustments and that the changes, imperceptible to me, would continue. However, it takes a long time for the body to change its ways. "You can't put braces on a kid and just take them off in two weeks," he says. "Even after you take them off, you have to maintain that with retainers. There's memory in all the tissues. You're trying to get the body's memory to change and hold it in a different pattern."De Fino usually recommends that patients come in three times a week. For $250 a month, they get an unlimited number of adjustments. If they want a private room, as I had, they need an appointment. But for his "group room," they can drop in any time the office is open. There are eight tables in the group room, four of which were occupied when I walked in. Two men and two women lay face down, arms at their sides. One man snored softly. One woman moaned and flipped onto her back. De Fino went from one to the other, checking their heels to see if they lined up properly. If one leg appeared longer than the other, he'd check to see where the misalignment originated, then touched a vertebra or crossed the feet.Doesn't sound like much, does it? Yet De Fino's patients swear by him. Colleen McDougall, a marriage and family counselor, says it's the most profound therapy she has ever done. She's been going regularly for three years.McDougall originally saw De Fino because she had a sore neck and her regular chiropractor was on vacation. Her pain didn't go away on the first visit, either, but she came back anyway. "I don't know why," she says, "I just felt better."But after awhile, the changes became more dramatic. "In the first year, I had a lot of physical stuff happen. I don't have chronic pain, but I'd be in there and have this pain move through my body. And if you hang in there and breathe with it and let it move through, it just passes. Now it's pretty much just emotional. Like I'll have this crying, and it's like a baby crying. I don't know where it came from. I really don't get any information. In the beginning, I was wondering, what is this? And now I just figure it's old stuff moving through. I feel like I'm releasing a lot of stuff that I'm not even aware of."And physically, McDougall feels younger. Now 44, she says she had been aware of slowing down before she started seeing De Fino. But no more. "I can feel how light my body is, I can just bounce up steps. I don't even remember being this loose when I was a kid."The idea that the body and the emotions are congruent makes most Western doctors uncomfortable, at best. But in Chinese medicine, the idea that the two are divided seems equally peculiar. Some chiropractors have been incorporating Chinese medical principles into their own practice. One result is Neuro-Emotional Technique, originated seven years ago by a Southern California chiropractor, Scott Walker. Oakland chiropractor Jean-Paul Martinet has been using the method in his practice for two years.I heard about Martinet from a friend who was suffering for months with a completely incapacitating back pain. Rolling over in bed was excruciating, tying her shoes was impossible. Eventually, when she had recovered enough to leave the house for therapy, she began a program that included NET. While she doesn't give Martinet full credit for the progress she's making, she is certain that the work he's doing with her is speeding things along. But beyond her back therapy, she believes that NET is healing her psyche as well.Judith (not her real name) was married to a viciously abusive man when she first started having back trouble, some 20 years ago. She went to a doctor who told her she had a ruptured disk and needed surgery immediately. He warned her there was a 50-50 chance she'd never walk again. She dumped the doctor -- and the husband -- and started seeing a chiropractor. Her back pain became nothing more than a minor nuisance until six months ago, when it suddenly returned and flattened her.When Judith started seeing Martinet, he began a process that is supposedly clearing out the emotional blockages -- including the years of abuse -- that impede her healing. The theory is that the old emotional problems are stored in the spine. Once Martinet locates the problem area, he has the patient visualize an event, the first time this feeling arose. Then he gently taps the corresponding vertebrae and presto! The troublesome thorn is removed from the psyche.It took Judith five office visits to clear out all the emotional charge she had about abuse. Since then, she's been working on other issues. "A lot of times, it's stuff that you would never in the world come up with," she says. "It's stuff you forgot or maybe never knew. You don't sit there and think about it. It's stored in your body and the body is what answers." Judith has no rational explanation for the process. "If I weren't seeing what's happening to me, I'd just go, hey, why don't we just burn incense, blow bubbles and say a prayer? I don't know, it works."The method by which the NET practitioner "communicates" with the body is muscle testing, an extension of the principles of applied kinesiology. The patient holds out her arm, and as the doctor makes a statement and presses downward, she tries to resist. If his statement reflects a problem stored in the body, the patient's muscle goes weak and the arm drops. If it's not a problem, the arm stays strong. By making a series of statements, the doctor can home in on the age at which the patient first experienced the problem and then identify the original event.Don't even try this at home. I did, and it doesn't work. But in the offices of one of these practitioners, my arm seemed to have a mind of its own. There's a kind of ouija-board effect, in which it's impossible to tell if the other guy is engineering the outcome.Before I met with Martinet, I went to see Peter Fairfield, a San Rafael acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner who had taken one of Scott Walker's NET seminars. Although it isn't his area of expertise, Fairfield believes the method has some merit. "The only problem I have with it is that the training is very short," he says. "You do it in a very intense weekend. The guy that invented it is a helluva salesman, and it seems like you really have it and then when you leave, you go, hmmm, what was that again?"Still, Fairfield obliged me by showing me how it works. But before he did, I told him I'd been having some lower back pain. " Been worried about money lately?" he asked. No, I told him, I haven't. He informed me that in the Chinese system, lower back pain is associated with money troubles. Then he had me hold out my arm for some NET-type muscle testing, and through a series of statements, he determined that the origins of my back pain were rooted in an argument I'd had with my mother when I was 15. Fairfield did the appropriate tapping and clearing, and just for good measure he gave me a treatment of his true specialty, acupuncture.The following week, when I went to see Martinet, I still had the back pain. Martinet says NET is just one of the tools he uses, and it isn't always appropriate. "If your problem is strictly physical, like the result of a car accident, it wouldn't change the healing rate." In that case, he would use a more traditional chiropractic technique to correct the problem -- he'd take an x-ray, analyze the misalignment and calculate the angle of force required to correct it. "But if there's an emotion involved along with that which is restricting the normal healing process, then I can use [ NET] to clear it off."I held out my arm for muscle testing and he determined that I did have an emotional blockage related to my back pain. And it did have something to do with money. But nothing about an argument with my mother came up. And it's not my own money troubles causing the pain. It's the present and mostly past financial problems of other people -- my boyfriend, a young woman I worked with back in my days as a youth counselor, a guy I dated when I was 19, my father. I don't recall being gravely troubled about the finances of any of these people. But I was happy to give the method a try. Martinet did all the tapping and clearing, none of which had any apparent effect on either my back pain or my state of mind. If I had been a paying customer, it would have cost me $50 for the first visit, and $38 for each additional treatment. And I probably would have found that painful.I tried one more esoteric technique -- an alignment method called alphabiotics, practiced by William LaVelle in Mill Valley. It was invented about 70 years ago by Virgil Chrane, a young man with no medical training of any kind. He later went to chiropractic school. But his practice grew, and he now has a small group of followers. LaVelle, who learned the method from Chrane's son in Texas, says he's one of 30 specialists in the U.S. Trained in Chinese bodywork, acupuncture, homeopathy and hypnotherapy, LaVelle chucked his old practice and started over when he learned alphabiotics.Like some chiropractic methods, alphabiotics focuses on the top two vertebrae. The idea is to open the occipital area to maximize the energy flow from the brain to the rest of the body. "I've never met anyone who's getting appropriate flow of their electrical impulses," says LaVelle. "We lock into a fight or flight brain lock and we lateralize into one hemisphere of the brain at an early age and we never seem to get out of that."Unlike the chiropractor, the alphabiotics practitioner uses no x-rays. La Velle just eyeballs his patient, turns the head, wraps his arm around it and yanks. Then he turns the head the other way and does it again. That's it. You're done. LaVelle has three padded tables lined up in his office. Like De Fino, LaVelle also has a monthly payment program -- $200 buys you unlimited drop-in visits. When I was there, a steady stream of patients came in and laid on the tables, sometimes several of them waiting their turn. Most of them were in and out in less than 10 minutes.LaVelle's office is right behind Whole Foods, and during the hour I spent there I'd guess half the produce department came in for alignments. One of these patients, Scott Hertrick, says he's been coming to LaVelle for three years. "I lift boxes quite a bit, and I'd been having problems with my lower back from constant lifting." His back improved, but then last year he pinched a sciatica nerve in yoga class. "I was seeing a chiropractor and didn't really notice much difference. I saw a regular physician and all he wanted to do was give me pills to ease the pain rather than try to cure it." So he started seeing LaVelle twice a day, and in six months the pain was gone. Hertrick is pleased -- a friend who had sciatica trouble told him it would take a year.During a lull, LaVelle invited me to try an alignment for myself. Not without some trepidation, I stretched out on a table. LaVelle stood at my feet and told me my right leg was shorter than my left, and that I was stuck in my left brain hemisphere. Then he walked around the table and bracing himself, wrapped one arm under my chin and around my head. I prayed. He yanked. Crunch! It felt as if my entire spine was cracked like a whip. He came around the other side and did it again. I was relieved to find I could still wiggle my toes. He walked back to my feet and announced that now my legs were even.Well, my back still hurts. But after all the poking and prodding and cracking, at least it isn't any worse. And like most pains, this one will probably go away by itself eventually.SIDEBAR: Standard treatmentsSome people swear by chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, back exercises or bed rest. But since each back problem is different, with pain emanating from joints or muscles and ligaments or disks, no one technique works for everyone. Most cases of lower back pain improve within 30 days, regardless of treatment. The latest research indicates you'll improve faster by staying up and active rather than taking to your bed for days at a time, as long as you avoid activities that further stress your back.During the initial acute period of pain, bed rest often is unavoidable. Use an ice pack for 10 minutes at a time, twice an hour. Frozen peas work great.Take pain relievers. You can opt for an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, a stronger prescription drug like Darvon, or your doctor may advise a shot of cortisone or a nerve blocker. Get a massage. Chance are it will feel good. See a physical therapist for an exercise program and treatments with ultrasound or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. You'll also learn the proper way to sit, stand, lift and bend. [Pilates work, a therapy developed for dancers, is the one treatment that has worked for this reporter.]If your pain seems unrelated to a specific physical stress -- heavy lifting or improper bending, for example -- get a diagnosis from an orthopedic specialist. In rare instances, back pain can be a symptom of disease such as cancer, kidney ailments or rheumatoid arthritis.