By Cynthia Toussaint.
It’s no secret - when it comes to pain care, I dig the three-legged integrative model. Besides using conventional medicine, it just makes darn good sense to use complementary and self-care as well. More menu and delivery options equal more chances for better wellness.
Over my 35 years of CRPSy-ness and a dozen other auto-immune conditions, I’ve dabbled in my fair share of complementary therapies. WARNING - while many have helped me, like western medicine, some have done me harm. It’s true that complementary care is generally non-invasive, but I’ve learned the hard way that I still need to be super protective of where I go and who treats me.
Physical therapy is one of my favorite complementary methods – and no wonder because I love movement. Even during my bedridden years, I got exercises to do while lying down. If it was just core crunches, I did a ton and that bit of movement helped me maintain sanity.
These days, besides swimming and walking in a heated pool, I do ballet Pilates and Feldenkrais. These movement therapies keep me trim, flexible and strong-hearted. The movement and exertion also helps lessen my anxiety, stress and depression. Hey, that’s better than winning the lotto!
After getting vulvodynia, it was a physical therapist who got me going with pelvic floor exercises, which is how I eventually regained my sex life. Can’t beat that with a stick! And let’s not forget the medieval-like traction. Hanging upside down with a belt and stirrups relieved my pain and stretched my body, which took me from torture to heaven. Only trouble was I couldn’t get much done head over heels.
Having a trusted psychologist remains a lifeline for me. Debra understands the scope of my pain and loss. She’s my memory when I don’t think it’s possible to feel hope again – and is forever in my corner. Turning over those hot, steaming rocks of grief is sometimes excruciating, yet necessary. During lighter periods of life, I can’t tell you how many sessions Debra and I have spent laughing while trying to solve the world’s problems. Heck, when I remodeled my condo, she even helped with paint swatches. One-stop counseling here! Most importantly, Debra’s a sounding board, even if I fall apart mid-week and need a pep talk.
I treasure my monthly acupuncture treatments with my wonderful UCLA integrative doctor. The ritual is heavenly. After looking and listening to the ocean on a screen in the waiting room (yes, I’ve put in my suggestion for a Hawaiian island retreat!), I’m escorted to a room of relaxation-inducement. Soothing music, heat lamps, dimmed lights. Ahhh… My doctor listens carefully, giving me the time and advice I need. He then literally lowers the stress in my shoulders with trigger point injections before inserting the needles. Soon I’m off to meditation-ville for half an hour. Bliss follows, with the only bummer being the session inevitably comes to an end.
Biofeedback is an amazing tool that literally taught me how to relax my body using my mind. After being pummeled with pain for fifteen rounds, I need both to throw up the gloves and make peace. Several years ago I had sessions with a USC pain psychologist to learn this practice. Using wires that connected my body to a machine, I witnessed in real time on a screen my unhealthy reaction to stress. I was then taught relaxation techniques that caused the screen marker to descend. This was better than Ms. PacMan.
On a less conventional and successful complementary care note, I once tried Reiki. While it didn’t give me lasting pain relief, the kindness and energy of the two healers felt good and I kept the dreamy CD despite the technique being a bit woo-hoo. Also, I tried aromatherapy when my fibromyalgia began robbing me of restorative zzz’s. The lavender oil smelled swell and was relaxing, but I didn’t get off to sandman land until I was prescribed medication.
On the “failed to launch” front, I saw a chiropractor about 33 years ago just as my CRPS was spreading into my back. I was desperate for pain relief as I was about to leave for a seven-night-a-week dance gig in Vegas. The chiropractor assured me all would be well with a few manipulations, but I had far more pain with every twist and turn - which turned into twist and SHOUT! The flight to Vegas was pure hell as I couldn’t move my neck without moaning.
On a darker note, a physical therapist once insisted on trying to straighten my severe right arm contracture. I didn’t want to do this range-of-motion therapy because I felt there was too much to lose and little to gain. I finally agreed to let the PT work on my head, neck and back. But when she cheated and yanked, she broke my right arm. I’ll save you the fractured details of the disaster that followed.
On balance, I’ve done pretty darn well using complementary care for chronic pain management and its accompanying mental and mood challenges. For the most part, these out-of-the-box techniques have sparked better quality of life – and for that I am grateful.
I urge all women in pain to get a bit fringy as I think we often focus too much on pills, procedures and surgeries. Of course, like all healthcare decisions, we need to be sure to do our research and know our practitioners before the healing begins.
Take a walk on the wild side…
Cynthia Toussaint founded For Grace in 2002. It is a Los Angeles-based non-profit organization dedicated to bringing awareness to gender disparity in the treatment of pain. She is also a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.