Most of us with back problems see our treatment options as a continuum, ranging from low-impact remedies like heating pads to the last resort of surgery, which is the nuclear option. Surgery does more harm than good and changes your life, for the worse, forever. Many doctors seem to have this opinion and share it with their patients.
My back problems began when I was 29. Only, because the pain ran down my butt and into my legs, I had no idea it was related to my back. Even though the pain was brutal, I thought it was just something an aging distance runner had to deal with. And then when the other symptoms began—tingling, cramping and noticeable weakness in one of my legs—and started to interfere with my ability to run, I finally took the signs seriously enough to see a doctor.
It took years, 10 different doctors, five different kinds of tests/imaging, and even with good insurance, it was about $10,000 just to get diagnosed. (Your results may vary, but mine certainly weren’t atypical.) I spent another $5,000 on chiro and physical therapy without getting any relief. Cortisone epidurals screwed up my hormones, giving me splitting, brittle hair, dramatic mood swings, sleep problems, and periods that lasted 28 days. Doctors offered me medications like Norco®, Percocet® and OxyContin®, but because there’s a long history of substance abuse and addiction in my family, drugs were not an option for me.
Another thing there’s a long history of in my family: sick people wanting to try experimental measures. There was an aunt with late-stage cancer who managed to get her 70-something parents arrested by sending them on a hunt for a particular strain of marijuana, found only in Mexico. It was, reportedly, good for chemo side effects. My maternal grandma had an array of health issues and didn’t get a lot of satisfaction from conventional medicine, so she turned to non-traditional methods—acupuncture, herbs, biofeedback and yoga (which was fairly non-traditional back in the 70s). When I was 24, I broke my collarbone; because I can’t take meds stronger than Tylenol, I turned to reiki for relief and was mostly pleased with the results. If there was some weird-ass, fringe, pseudo-scientific fix, there was a sick person in my family who was willing to try it and then attempt to convince the rest of us of its medical merits.
On March 30, 2012, I was told I’d need major surgery on my back (to be all sciencey about it, my doctor recommended a 360-degree instrumented lumbar spinal fusion to repair two levels of spondylolithesis, caused by a pars defect. Or in more descriptive terms, my doctor wanted to slice through my stomach and move my guts around so he could install titanium cages, rods and screws to stabilize vertebrae that had slipped from their fixed positions and were crushing my discs and spinal nerves). Fueled by equal parts desperation, disillusionment with Western medicine and that weird, inherited drive to be a guinea pig, I embarked on a quest to try as many alternatives as I could to avoid surgery.
May 2012: Prolotherapy shots, $1,210 (plus mileage)
In recent years, prolotherapy has been given serious discussion in non-fringy news sources like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. According to the lore, the treatment harnesses the body’s own powers to fix itself. It’s used to heal tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues (like the ligamentum flavum, which holds the spine together); it’s non-surgical so it requires no downtime, which is important if you’re Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant.
Here’s how it (allegedly) works: say you get tendonitis. At first, the tendon is inflamed, which means it’s trying to generate new cells to fix the old ones. In the case of a chronic injury, the inflammation stops, shutting down the tendon’s ability to heal. With prolotherapy, doctors try to trick the body into re-starting the healing process by irritating the damaged tendon with a long sharp needle, filled with a sugar-based solution, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
It sounds reasonable, right? Even former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Coop is into it. But there’s little scientific evidence that it works. It’s not FDA approved, so it’s not covered by insurance. Which means it’s pricey. As in, “$800 for a consultation and $410 per injection” pricey. For large areas like your back, you’re supposed to get at least six or eight shots.
On the upside, it’s harmless: no side effects, no anesthesia required. Even though the scientific community is iffy on it, there’s tons of anecdotal support for it on the Internet.
Because there’s no official licensing/training board and getting certified to perform prolotherpy is even less rigorous than getting certified to cut hair, there are many charlatans, kooks and shysters in the field. I found a practitioner with strong Western medicine cred, and booked an appointment. The injections hurt much worse than a spinal epidural. The pain took a day to fade, and after it did, my back felt a little better—probably because the injections contained a small dose of lidocaine. The relief lasted two days, and then I felt as crappy as ever.
Three weeks later, I went back for my second batch, with the exact same results (none).
I didn’t go back. I’m not normally a quitter, but I’m not ever a person who enjoys throwing thousands of dollars after blind faith.
June 2012—November 2012: Strengthened my core, $625 ($150 for Pilates classes, $110 for swimming lessons, $300 for a pool membership, $40 for a bathing suit, $5 cap, $20 goggles)
If you go to a doctor with even a twinge of a backache, you’ll be told that you need to work on your core. It’s not about getting a six-pack; you’re supposed to work the muscles in your lower abdominal area to build a “corset” that holds everything in place and acts as a shock-absorber. But the thing is, doing planks, sit-ups, crunches, etc, is boring and the total opposite of pleasurable.
Getting motivated about an exercise I hate requires two things: an investment of money (to keep me accountable), and gadgets. So I purchased a month’s worth of Pilates at a studio that uses reformers, which are basically big, torture-chamber-looking gadgets you use for the exercises. I went and gave it an honest effort, but I found Pilates to be only marginally more effective than doing sit-ups in the living room. At least doing sit-ups in the living room was free and never made me want to go out and purchase $100 yoga pants. Maybe if I’d started the classes five years earlier, they would have helped.
My doctors also recommended swimming. One of the great things about swimming is how democratizing the wardrobe is. My basic, one-piece Speedo swimsuit looked just as “serious” as anyone else’s, and in it, I looked just as accomplished as anyone else—at least until I got in the water and started moving.
As an adult, learning to swim is insanely difficult, but that was actually a good thing: Working to acquire a new skill, even a decidedly non-intellectual one, engages your brain and makes you (temporarily) forget about how awful you feel. Plus, vigorously flailing around in the water for an hour releases endorphins, which are surprisingly potent pain relievers.
Because of the cost/benefit ratio, I dumped the Pilates classes but continued to swim, which provided fleeting relief and much-needed distraction.
June 2012—September 2012: Psychic consultation, healing and guided meditation, $865 (includes prayer services, one purple crystal, several half-filled bottles of tap water)
In a way, turning to psychics was totally logical for me: I grew up in a household where the occult was just as normal as the PTA, ballet practice and PB&J sandwiches—my grandmother was a professional astrologer, her brother was into mysticism, and I went to my first psychic fair when I was 5. It’s not really part of my adult life, but I can’t deny that I instinctively seek it out when I need comfort (especially in situations beyond my control).
Altogether, I went to three psychics. The first reading started off as a joke with friends, but made me think, “Hmm I need this right now.” So the next day, I located a kick-ass psychic (at least, according to Yelp) and saw her. She read my cards and took me through a guided meditation in which I pictured my spine as straight and steely, and imagined my body glowing with colors that correspond to the chakras. I did this on my own for about a week. I tried to stick with it, but dealing with 24/7 pain and anxiety can be exhausting: I’d close my eyes and ready myself for meditation, but I’d soon fall asleep.
The third psychic had stalked her way into my life the year before (long story), but in August of 2012, I was desperate (and a little bored), so I called her. My first reading was $50, which lead to a $100 analysis which lead to her offering me more intensive services: She would spend three days praying for me, and procure talismans so I could perform some healing rituals. She did this for me twice. Tthe first time, she gave me a beautiful purple quartz, which I figured had to be worth/at least sort of justify the $300 price tag. The next time, the talismans were common household objects (e.g., plastic bottles filled with tap water, a shoebox).
Then she put the big squeeze on me, telling me I needed her to pray for my back right then—she’d need to spend two weeks praying on it, and she would need $800. And she told me that if I didn’t DO THIS NOW, really bad things would happen … up to, and including, that within five years, I would no longer be able to walk and I would eventually die alone and unloved. She laid that on me and I’m like, “I AM OUTTA HERE.”
This is the first time I’ve told anyone about this, or detailed how much I spent. It made me feel weak and stupid at a time when I didn’t think it was possible for me to feel any worse. I’m pretty sure there’s a special place in hell for people who exploit sick people.
Incidentally, all three psychics told me they were confident I would not have the surgery.
November 2012: Sound bath at the Integratron, $40 admission (for me and my boyfriend)
I’d heard about the Integratron and its amazing healing properties a few years earlier. It’s a magic, domed structure built atop a geomagnetic vortex in the Mojave Desert, about 20 miles outside of Joshua Tree. The dome was designed to amplify and purposefully direct the earth’s magnetic field. I’m taking this next bit from the Integratron website: “This one-of-a-kind, 38-foot high, 55-foot diameter, all-wood dome was designed to be an electrostatic generator for the purpose of rejuvenation and time travel.” Well, hells yes, sign me up!
We planned our trip around doing a “sound bath,” a ritual where you climb to the top of the dome and lay in meditative repose for an hour while someone plays a series of crystal bowls that produce notes that are supposed to stimulate the body’s energy centers. Did I really think this was going to heal me, or that when I opened my eyes, it would be 2007 and I would relive my life so as not to need the surgery? Um, no, but I did meditate very hard on it.
Out of everything, my Integratron sound bath made the biggest impact: When I left, I was calmer than I’d been in months. “Optimistic” isn’t the right word, but I could finally accept that having surgery was the best choice I could make.
November 29, 2012—present: Surgery and recovery (@ $2,000 for surgery, physical therapy, follow-up doctor visits)
In the end, none of these things worked. Not at all. My back was in such bad shape that surgery was the only viable remedy. So I had my spinal fusion on November 29, 2012.
And it turned out great! Today, I’m relatively pain-free, my life is almost back to normal … my biggest regret is not having the surgery sooner.
My second-biggest regret is spending so much money on surgery alternatives. (Well, learning to swim wasn’t a total waste. And the Integratron was awesome; highly recommended AS ENTERTAINMENT, NOT MEDICINE.) But I can’t go back and do anything differently, and I can’t spend too much time beating myself up. Chronic health issues really mess with your brain, and hey, the story had a happy ending
But if I ever have other significant health problems, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of non-traditional remedies.
Just, no more psychics.
Lisa Boosin is a full-time copywriter and frequent essayist who has been working on a memoir since she was four. She lives in Los Angeles.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons