Errant Injuries

From 1990 to 1992, I went to MIT. From ’90-91, I shared a dorm room and slept in the top bunk. The floor was linoleum over concrete. One morning I happened to fall from the top bunk and landed on my ass. From then on, I have always had mild problems with my tailbone and my neck. In ’92, someone hit me on the side of my head—just in front of my right ear—during an argument, hard enough to knock me over. That sent the neck pain from mild (and almost negligible as long as I didn’t sleep with a pillow) to killer. There were times when it hurt so much that I’d lie on my back with my eyes closed, and the tiniest movement made me sick to my stomach.

I got physical therapy; the first physical therapist helped, but when she left the hospital and I got a different one, she wasn’t able to do much. I was told that the occipital nerve at the base of my skull was pinched and inflamed; that I held my head forward of where I should which was causing stress on the muscles in my shoulders, neck, and head. A doctor put me on oxycodone for a short while; it didn’t help a whole lot, so I took it once a week to at least give me a short break from the pain. Kind of, a little time to recharge and recoup my ability to handle the pain. The doctor tried injecting some stuff in the back of my head, but it burned like hell and didn’t help.

Then my mother sent me a video she bought at Kripalu. It was called yoga for pain relief, or release, or something like that. I tried it. And little by little, the pain got better. I came to understand from talking to a physical therapist that this made a lot of sense—the pinched nerve was being released as the yoga stretches lengthened and stretched out my vertebrae, so the inflammation reduced. I was learning to hold my head back where it should be again (yoga teaches proper posture), so the muscles in my shoulders, neck, and head weren’t being stressed. However, I made the mistake of telling the doctor I was seeing that yoga had made a huge improvement, and I got shunted into the category of hypochondriac and shown the door. He was an older guy, white, male, heavily steeped in traditional American medicine. Never mind that the yoga stretches were simply an ideal form of at-home physical therapy—it wasn’t within the tools of the American doctor, therefore it was bunk.

That’s okay though—it helped far more than the doctor had, so I didn’t mind that I wasn’t seeing him any more. Eventually I got to the point where, although I still have to be a bit careful with my head and neck, they don’t hurt from day to day. I have to make sure to buy living room furniture that has good support; no people-eating soft couches and cushions. I find that plain wooden chairs, particularly those found in restaurants, often give me headaches and hurt my sacrum.

Nowadays, my sacrum is the real problem—that point at the base of my spine that I landed on when I fell out of that bunk bed almost 20 years ago. It has all the earmarks of sciatica. My last doctor just said “get exercise” when I asked him about it, which wasn’t entirely useful, but this last week I was reading a review copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stretching Illustrated. It has a stretching course to use if you suffer from sciatica, so I’m working with that now in addition to going to the gym most nights.

A lot of people who haven’t worked with yoga think that it’s something hard. This isn’t surprising—photographers love to show us the most complex and fascinating-looking poses that leave us saying, ‘I could never do that!’ Yoga instructors love to show those stretches too, because it shows how accomplished they are, and it’s an implicit promise: ‘I can show you how to do this too!’

Truthfully, however, yoga can be one of the gentlest, easiest exercises you’ll find. Sure, there are some tough, impressive yoga stretches out there, but those are something that you work up to, if you do them at all. Many yoga stretches are designed to nurture the body, and can be adapted easily to injuries, weight issues, etc. Yoga: the Iyengar Way is one of my favorite resources; it includes detailed photos and hints, as well as ratings of each pose’s difficulty so you can find the easy or hard ones. Yoga for Wellness is another good find, since it is designed entirely around the idea of using yoga to heal an injured body. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga, Fourth Edition will also give you a good place to start; it includes many variations to help make the poses easier or more challenging as necessary.

Luckily many new doctors these days are open to such ‘alternative’ and natural treatments as yoga. They recognize it for what it is: a legitimate form of stretch therapy that can be practiced at home or with a teacher, that doesn’t require the expense of a physical therapist (many health insurance plans cover a very limited amount of physical therapy, and that’s assuming you’re insured). Look around, and find a yoga instructor who has experience with injured clients. If your instructor insists that there are no detrimental yoga poses, keep looking—a good instructor, like those books I list above, will know the limits of the poses and how to determine your body’s limits as well.

A doctor’s input is important, and you should absolutely see one first to find out the limits of what you can safely do. But then it’s time to take charge of your own health, and stop waiting for a pill, surgery, or injection to solve everything that ails you. I was lucky to have a great mother who thought of me when she saw that video and sent it along, probably saving me years of pain. Now that you know about this stuff, you can get what you need for yourself.

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10 comments on “Errant Injuries
  1. ScottM says:

    Sounds like exactly the right book at the right time. I’m glad you found something that helps so much.

    It’s a little strange to think that two quick events can lead to a lifetime of pain; I suppose all I can do is thank my lucky stars, since any living would expose me to either of your events. Ad a bubble’s just not the way to spend life…

  2. heather says:

    Scott: I’m amazed both at how easy it is to injure one’s self, and at how little it can take (sometimes) to make improvements. It can be tough to remember to put in time regularly on something like yoga, qigong, or stretching, but it’s surprising how much of a difference it can make. I’ve never broken a bone and only needed stitches twice in my life because I’ve never been overly athletic or risk-taking, particularly as a child. But yeah, if you don’t live in a bubble there’s always that chance, and I refuse to hole up inside!

  3. Reiki says:

    There is no doubt that yoga, as well as other types of relaxation methods (reiki, meditation) can be directly related to actual pain relief. The big argument in the Reiki community is whether Ki actually exists or whether pain relief is soley caused by relaxation techniques in general. I am a long time fan of yoga and agree that it does help in many ways.

  4. Robin Johns says:

    Since getting the internet several years ago, I always self-diagnose before I go to a doctor. It annoys me no end if the doctor dismisses my opinion of my ailment or it’s remedy. I would like to think that the doctor would consider my opinion then maybe tell me why I am wrong or right, not just leave me with the feeling he (or she) considers me an idiot.

  5. Cian says:

    Congratulations on finding something that helped and having the courage to go ahead and do it. It is a shame that your doctor decided it was all in your head as if that were truly separate from your body. I have learned a lot from the writings of Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Deepak Chopra about the value of medical systems in addition to the allopathic / Western system. Just before I got out of the Army I fell (from a swingset, mandatory community beautification project) and landed on my right hip. I tore some of the muscles in my back and have the occasional stab of sciatica.

    I went through a period where I was doing some of Baron Baptiste’s yoga workouts. It was great for me, and for my back. We have a friend who hurt her back as well. We got her Rodney Yee’s back-centric Yoga workout, though I think she liked more than the exercises, and IIRC it helped her as well. There are lots of right ways.

    Next time we get together I will rub your back / neck if you like. With some of Cathy’s tension related headaches I find they start as far down as the hips. I try to work those muscles when in preventive mode. If I am working on a current headache starting between the shoulder blades and going up to the scalp seems to work best.

  6. heather says:

    Reiki: Even in cases where practices like yoga and meditation can’t directly do something, they can definitely help a person to handle pain, or to relax muscles (which almost invariably helps, since pain causes us to tense muscles which then in turn often aggravates things or causes additional problems). That’s why I tend to feel that as long as you’re being careful and aren’t doing things that will cause more damage, there’s little reason not to try such things. There isn’t much too lose, and there’s a lot to potentially gain.

    Robin: I try to avoid ‘self-diagnosing’ as such, just because there are so many symptoms that overlap between things, and I certainly don’t have a doctor’s experience in teasing apart those knots. The internet, I’ve found, is often only semi-helpful in giving you an idea of where to start. And since correct diagnosis really does require a lot of experience and training, it’s almost guaranteed to make a doctor ignore your results if you try it, since you can end up biasing the information you give them due to your assumptions about what you might have. I think there is a dividing line between being an informed consumer of medicine and trying to do a doctor’s job for them and tell them how to treat you. The former is very important, but if you go over the line into the latter you can end up harming your health.

    Cian: Ouch, amazing how you can do so much in the military and it ends up being a beautification project that injures you long-term! Luckily my lower back is actually hardly hurting at all lately, I think due to the stretching and my increased physical activity lately. I’m hoping this time to keep up with the physical activity rather than get distracted by other things! 😀

  7. Reiki says:

    There is nothing worse than a back (tailbone) injury. It can linger for years and lead to further back problems. I think that when Heather says that yoga or reiki can’t directly do something, I disagree. I think that yoga and reiki (among other options) are not just for pain management, but have been proven to effecttively do plenty of good.

  8. heather says:

    I believe you misread my reply to you. I said, “even in cases where practices like yoga and meditation can’t directly do something”, which is certainly not the same as saying that it cannot directly do something in general. I do not believe in making blanket statements about yoga or any other practice being able to sort out any physical/medical issue, which is why I included that caveat—to me that’s just as foolish as saying a visit to the doctor can cure all ills. Every injury and person is a bit different.

  9. Jade Borg says:

    That’s pretty cool
    I went through a period where I was doing some of Baron Baptiste’s yoga workouts. It was great for me, and for my back. We have a friend who hurt her back as well. We got her Rodney Yee’s back-centric Yoga workout, though I think she liked more than the exercises, and IIRC it helped her as well. There are lots of right ways.

    Nice blog

    Jade Borg

  10. Among most complaints in medical field, lower back pain is the most common. Often, physical therapy is one of the treatments when it comes to this matter, but new research shows that pain management and behavioral approach will just work as well. Exercise and movement in a natural flow for healing process is widely appropriate approach in treating back problems. Most often, gradual, controlled and increasing exercise often provides long-term solution rather than sedentary actions and bed rests. And in addition, stretching is also good for the back. Stress on the lower back can be lessen when hamstring muscles are properly stretched, giving you comfort and helps you lubricate symptomatic joints. Realistically, fitness programs and proper exercise routine should be incorporated during treatments of pain at most phases to improve your overall health. Just always remember to consult your physician, or therapist for exercises that are good and beneficial to your self to prevent injury.

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