Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Snake Oil

A few years ago, after a day of cross continental air travel, I had a spasm in my lower back. Being relatively healthy, active, and in my early thirties, I was shocked that this happened to me. The pain was excruciating and humbling.

I still have tension in my lower back on a fairly regular basis. I have come to believe that it is partly my own coddling of my body, fearful of reliving the experience. I've been reading too, lately, about the belly, which happens to be just opposite the lower back. The belly, the gut, is where we metaphorically hold our emotions. The abdomen is the core of the body, a source of strength and stability, but also a place where we need to foster flexibility for the betterment of our bodies and our minds. (Click here for an interesting read on this topic.)

Yoga and exercise help immensely, but I am not always diligent about one or both of these. In fact, some of the sports I participate in are not overly good for the health of my lower back
(like biking). During these times and any other time I can manage it, I find that a treasured remedy for the tension is a therapeutic massage.

A few months ago, I scheduled a massage to try and work out some tension caused by stress in my life. Very shortly into the massage, my back was worse, not better. Lying face down, my muscles began to seize up and Emily told me that every time she pushed on my muscles, the muscles pushed right back. "This isn't working," she said, "can we try something different?"

I laid face-up and Emily slid one hand under my back. The other hand she placed on top of my stomach. Afterwards, I tried to describe the sensation. I knew she wasn't moving her hands but I felt ripples of movement in the space between my stomach and back. It was as if there was a physical connection between her two hands--through my body. She made her way up my spine in this way until lastly she held my head in her hands. Halfway through this process, I could feel myself on the verge of tears. Have you ever thought about the fact that you are constantly holding your head up? The act of having someone else hold my head in their hands
so that I could simply rest was an overwhelming sense of relief, and, I guess, of release. Minutes later, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I got out of the office, into the car to drive home, but had to pull over because I could not see through my tears. I didn't know why I was crying. I pulled into the driveway, Jon came out the door to meet me and I started crying again. I couldn't speak to tell him that I was really okay, although in a way I wasn't. I know it totally freaked him out until I was able to tell him what happened.

So it was with casual aplomb that when yesterday, during a massage, Emily asked if she could do some cranio-sacral therapy on me and I replied, "Sure, do you want me to take my hair down?" Up to that point, I didn't have a name for it, but as soon as she slid her right hand under my back, I knew instantly where this was going and I became kind of scared. Would I totally freak out again? As it turns out, I didn't leave the office crying or even sad, just relaxed and free of discomfort. We talked about it later and she said, "I don't know how it works exactly, but I will tell you what I do know."

I did some research on my own and one of the top five Google returns was from a respected website run by former psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Barrett called Quackwatch. The website basically debunks cranio-sacral therapy as 'fanciful claims'. Dr. Barrett also seems to debunk the entire field of alternative medicine.

Perhaps the issue is that alternative medicine practitioners need to stop trying to measure their methodology in quantifiable terms. Do we really have to know how it works in order to believe that it does? For me, it was simply another undeniable example of the connection between the body and the mind. I still marvel at the way our emotions can elicit such physical responses in our bodies and vice versa. We smile when we are happy, our bodies bristle at an unkind word, and we feel loved by a hug. That a simple touch to the body is an elixir for a store of pent-up emotion should be no surprise, then, but it was both unexpected and marvelous. And now I know that when my back hurts, I need to listen to my heart.

1 comment:

Liz said...

Kate, you bring up such a good point. Why is it that our culture only values what it can count and measure? You remind me of how some doctors have noted that patients that have people pray for them tend to improve more rapidly. I know I always feel better when someone gives me a hug. :)