Sunday, 20 January 2008

Pain, Me and the Voodoo Doctor

By M.D. Spenser

I lay face down on the treatment bed whilst a man I’d met only a few minutes before used his forefinger like a hammer to drive needles into my flesh.

He chatted all the while, trying to divert my attention.

“What do you do for a living?” (Thwack!) “Oh, that’s so interesting.” (Thwack!) “How long have you been doing that?” (Thwack!)

I’m a sceptic by nature and a bit of a traditionalist. I like things that have proven themselves over time, like old shirts, my favourite running shorts, and what some people refer to as “the germ theory of disease.” I shy away from change, the occult and medical treatments that smack to me of shamanism.

Yet here I was with my face lodged in a hole in the bed, letting some guy try to fix my hamstrings by using the pin cushion theory of treatment. How, I wondered, had it come to this?

The story began months earlier. Training with Julian Goater, a former world-class runner, I had gotten into my best shape in a dozen years. The training improved my mental toughness, too. In the Taunton Marathon on April 2, I flogged myself through the final six miles with what I realized in retrospect was not mere fatigue but genuine injury.

I took time off from running after the marathon, of course. But when I returned to the familiar routes around Frensham Ponds, I could not get my hamstrings sorted no matter what I did.

I rested. No luck. I tried to build back up. No luck. I saw a physiotherapist who inflicted painful deep tissue massage and prescribed stretches. (I had neglected flexibility in my training; by this time, I’d had a stiff neck for months.) But the pain persisted. Week by week, my hard-earned fitness left me.

One evening, as I ran through the woods with the club, a fellow member of Farnham Runners, the club to which I belong, came up behind me.

“Are you injured?” she asked out of the blue.

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“You’re running sideways,” came the reply.

It was a shock to realize I was sidling down the path looking more like a pretzel than an athlete. I had to do something.

Months earlier, Julian had recommended that I see David Reynolds, a registered osteopath, acupuncturist and Chinese medical herbalist with an office in Cranleigh, in southern England. The sceptical part of me had rejected the idea out of hand. But the just-in-case part of me had pocketed the card Julian handed me. I dug it out now.

And so it was that on Sept. 5, more than five months after my marathon, I found myself chatting with a man who was hammering needles into me.

“Had any interesting assignments recently?” Dave asked. (Thwack!) “Really? What did you think of the situation there?” (Thwack!)

When he had finished his hammering, he sat down to continue the conversation, leaving me lying there bristling like a porcupine. I asked how many needles were in me. The answer was 26 – 10 in my stiff neck and shoulder and another 16 in my right hamstring and buttock.

I tried to be polite, but inside I wondered grimly if I had handed myself over to a practitioner of voodoo. Forever after, when I told my wife that I had another appointment with the voodoo doctor, she knew who I meant.

Dave turned out to be an extraordinarily sharp, well-informed and engaging guy. He broke his leg when he was 17, and then spent the next nine months in hospital because his case was mismanaged.

“It put me off trying to go to medical school,” he said. And the episode also spurred his interest in alternatives to traditional Western medicine.

He qualified as an osteopath in 1983 and began his career in a practice in London where acupuncture was also used. He started his study of the technique there. In all, he studied acupuncture for five and a half years, learning from Chinese, Vietnamese and Western teachers.

Now 47, he has treated competitors in various sports, including rugby, football, golf, motocross, Formula 1 – and, of course, running.

“People you’d know, as well,” he said.

He did not just begin by sticking needles into me. He had me stand in front of a mirror. One of my shoulders sloped downward more steeply than the other. He had me lie down on the bed. My left leg, he said, was shorter than my right.

This problem he attacked by performing an adjustment on my pelvis. He wrapped his arms around me, then twisted me with a sudden, powerful jerk. My hips cracked with a noise so loud that people two doors down must have jumped out of their chairs. I let out an involuntary yell, not from pain but from surprise.

He cracked my back, as well, and popped my neck once to each side, making a noise that sounded like sniper fire coming from over the hill.

Having corrected my structural problems, he worked to heal my hamstrings with acupuncture. He used needles .25 millimetres in diameter, threading them through guide chutes before thwacking them in with his finger. The ones in my backside he was driving in to a depth of an inch an a half.

That, though, depends on the patient. “On a very large person from Florida, we could be using four-inch needles,” he said.

It seems odd that sticking a bunch of needles into someone could cure injury. But, according to Dave, the process is not that complicated.

“In acu-puncture, directly needling affects the injured tissue, which triggers a healing response,” he said. The effect, he said, is “biomedically measurable.”

None of it hurt. Not the pelvic adjustment, not the neck cracking, not the needles. Actually, I felt loosened up a bit.

In the following days, very gingerly, I began training again. When I returned to Dave a week later, I thought maybe I felt a little better, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe the effect was just psychological.

Over the ensuing weeks, as I continued my appointments with Dave, I increased my training and even ran a couple of races. Little by little, it became evident that I was getting better. In time, I even returned to training with Julian, which involves hard effort and speedwork.

Finally, I realized that I could train at any level I wanted to. After six months of injury, I was elated. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Dave said he occasionally sees people who have tried a raft of treatments first and come to him only as a last resort. But these days, as the benefits of acupuncture and osteopathy are more widely accepted, those cases are rare. Most people come sooner rather than later.

I’m just behind the times. And, the sceptic in me remembers, you can’t prove anything with a single case. Perhaps my hamstring was just ready to heal after a few months. And maybe my year-long stiff neck just decided to go away at the same time.

But I don’t think so. And you can bet that, the next time I’m hurt, I’m going to get my sceptical self into Dave’s office a lot quicker than five months.

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