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From Patient To Practitioner
Overcoming chronic pain
By Laura Sadler, CMT
In 1993, when I was in my mid-twenties, I attended a couple Step Aerobics classes at my gym. Shortly after my second class, I noticed that I had pain in my right knee. I didn't think much of it, I thought it would go away on its own. I quit taking the Step class, it wasn't my cup of tea, plus I didn't want to aggravate my knee. I continued my yoga practice, assuming that it wouldn't affect my injury. I had never experienced chronic pain and I had no idea that I was about to go down a very long and seemingly unending road. I was in denial about my injury, I continued to believe it would just go away, but not only did it not go away, it gradually got worse.
I had to stop practicing yoga because every time I went to class, my knee would hurt more. I finally told my dad (he's a radiologist) about it and he said I should see an Orthopedist. The doctor took an x-ray and examined my legs and feet. He determined that I had flat feet and that that was the cause of my pain. He prescribed physical therapy and custom arch supports. I never agreed with the doctors' diagnosis, I figured that if my feet were the problem, I would have had knee problems long before now.
The physical therapists put ice on it, made me exercise, fitted me for custom arch supports and after three weeks sent me on my way. The physical therapy gave me some relief, but once I finished treatment the pain came back. I couldn't stand to wear the arch supports, they were as hard as a rock and hurt my feet. So, I was back to square one. At this point, the pain had extended from my knee, up the side of my leg and into my low back. I was uncomfortable all of the time.
Several months later, I went to another Orthopedist and he said the same thing about my feet and recommended physical therapy. So, I called my dad again and asked him if he'd look at it. I went out to his office in Palm Springs and he took an x-ray of it. He didn't see anything wrong (of course), so he had me see his friend that does MRI's. A side note here: when the tech was preparing to take my x-ray at my dad's office, she me told me that I would probably never recover. She said that people who have my kind of knee injury usually have it their whole life. I was absolutely furious at her statement. I was already in a fragile state of mind. If you've ever experienced chronic pain, you know how depressing and frustrating it can be...anyway, I told my dad about it and his reaction was very nonchalant. I think he thought I was just being dramatic but that kind of talk can be detrimental to a patients' complete recovery.
The MRI, came back with somewhat inconclusive results. It showed that there was a minuscule tear in my ACL, not enough to warrant surgery. They recommended physical therapy. I was not going go through that again, I didn't believe it could help. There I was, I felt like I had run out of options. I was in so much pain all the time, I couldn't exercise or do yoga, I was becoming depressed. The pain made it difficult to fall asleep so, sometimes at night, I'd make a fist with my hand and put it in my low back to try to relieve the pain (I consider this the first time I did trigger point therapy). It helped, but I couldn't do it for very long. I wasn't convinced that I couldn't find the proper treatment, but I had no idea where to turn.
After two years into my injury, a friend of mine mentioned that he went to an acupuncturist when he hurt his knee in an ice skating accident. His injury was more acute, but acupuncture sounded good to me, so I decided to try it. I went once a week and it only took four months to relieve the pain. My acupuncturist told me to take a tennis ball and lean against a wall and place it in the spot where my back hurt. I tried it, but it was difficult to do, so I tried lying down on it on the floor. I started playing around with it, and by now I had been going for acupuncture for a while, so I could tell what the sore spots felt like (some of which are also trigger points). I learned how to treat myself with this technique for my back. I did this every night so that I would be able to fall asleep. Even after my knee healed I had to continue 'erasing' the trigger points in my low back for several months, but I was able to manage the pain.
Another issue that came up for me during treatment was that my knee felt very sore after my sessions. I had to climb a flight of stairs to get to work each day and it was difficult when my knee was sore. My acupuncturist told me to take an epsom salt bath after treatment to help alleviate the soreness. I tried it and it helped immensely.
I returned to my yoga practice to rehabilitate myself once my knee was completely healed. I also focused on my flat feet and used yoga to fix them too. Today I do not have any pain in my knee and I no longer have flat feet.
Unfortunately, my battle with pain does not end there. A couple years later, after I had been working on a computer full time, I developed Tendinitis. When it got really bad, I stopped using the mouse with my right hand and started using it with my left hand. I went back to acupuncture. It gave me some relief, but once I resigned myself to mousing with my left hand the pain was gone, so I didn't continue treatment. I found it interesting that many of the points where my acupuncturist placed needles were near my elbow. I would have never thought that my elbow would have anything to do with my wrists. Once in a while I'd try to use my right hand, but after a couple hours the pain would return, so I would massage the area near my elbow where I'd had needles and it would give me relief.
Meanwhile, I became a graphic artist and entered the exiting and stressful world of commercial art and I began working in the entertainment industry. I worked long hours and dealt with mean, abusive bosses. It was incredibly stressful and I was miserable. I was completely unaware that my bad computer posture was contributing to the immobilization of my spine from the base of my neck to my mid-back. I literally woke up one morning and my left shoulder was absolutely killing me. I thought I had just slept on it wrong and that it would go away on its own. Familiar story? I went into denial again, continued to practice yoga and eventually, I couldn't do that anymore because it made the pain worse. Doing menial tasks such as vacuum, even with my right hand, became painful because it would aggravate my shoulder.
I went to a massage therapist for my stress, but I mentioned my injury to my therapist. The first therapist I went to did some trigger point therapy and I felt a little better. Unfortunately, she quit, and I never found another therapist who did that kind of work again. At the time, I didn't know to ask for that type of therapy by name. I went back to acupuncture, but it didn't help. After nine months of this my husband begged me to see a doctor, so I finally went to an Orthopedist. The doctor thought I had bursitis and gave me a couple of cortisone shots. He also put me on Vioxx and a muscle relaxer, which I took for about 10 days. He prescribed physical therapy with a focus on swimming, doing the breaststroke. That actually sounded pretty good to me, so I went to physical therapy.
I learned that there are good physical therapists and great physical therapists. This time I was lucky, I found a group of people who loved their work and they did an in depth analysis of my injury. It was the therapist who discovered my frozen spine and treated it. They also found that I had a rotator cuff injury associated with it and I had what they called 'chicken wing'. My muscles had become so atrophied, my shoulder blade didn't sit against my back the way it should (gross!).
It took four months of physical therapy to recover, but after working with this group of therapists, I'd learned how ice is the best anti-inflammatory there is and how to use it in combination with heat. Along with the exercise program and swimming, they also gave me very targeted massages. A friend of mine told me about the benefits of MSM, so I tried it and also had good results. Once I completed treatment, I was able to see my way out of pain and deal with flare-ups on my own.
It was about this time, when I'd recovered from my injury that I'd reached my breaking point at my job. I decided that with all my knowledge about living with chronic pain, I was ready for a career change. I knew that the healing arts were my calling and I knew I could bring a compassion to it that not all therapists can since I've actually lived with chronic pain. I went back to school and studied Massage Therapy and Reiki Therapy.
Once I started my new career doing massage I almost immediately developed Tendinitis. I used my bag of tricks to ward it off so I could keep working. Eventually, I read some books on sports medicine when I wanted to learn more about frozen shoulder (for a client I was working with) and I learned how injuries can occur when supporting muscles compensate for weakness in major muscles. The bottom line was that I needed to strengthen what I thought were very strong arms. I started weight training, continued self-massage and I take MSM.
Today, I am proud to say that I live a generally pain free life. I learned how to use trigger point therapy before I even knew what it was and through my experience treating myself, I developed a talent of being able to find points of tension on others without much effort. During my training I also learned many other useful techniques for pain management. If you have chronic pain, I hope my story will inspire you to not give up. There are answers out there and plenty of practitioners. Finding the right modalities may be challenging but it is worth the effort.
Laura Sadler is a Certified Massage Therapist and Reiki Master in Los Angeles. She also has a B.A. in Psychology from UC Irvine. Laura became a healing arts practitioner after living with chronic pain due to sports injuries. It was through her experiences in healing herself that she learned she has a special gift and true compassion for those dealing with pain or stress.