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After a professional massage six years ago my back began giving me major trouble. I'd always had a sensitive spine. So does my father, brother, sister--you get the picture. The masseur who provided the muscle therapy noticed a "knot" in the middle of my back just above the tailbone. He commented that it looked like my muscles had adapted to a curvature of the spine, holding me up even though my spine appeared to be "severely out of alignment." He kneaded the spot relentlessly. In trying to help, he actually disturbed the muscles that were anchoring my fragile spine, so that I could navigate in an upright position. By the next day, getting out of bed was a major chore. Soon walking was painful.
Giving birth to a 9 1/2-pound baby boy and struggling to get him (then a strapping thirty-pound toddler) in and out of a car seat in the back of a two-door Honda had taken their toll. Pure pain and fear of immobility drove me to my first encounter with a chiropractor. My next stop was the family doctor. I was hoping he'd certify that seeing a chiropractor was a medical necessity. Instead, he gave me a bag of muscle-relaxer pills strong enough to put me to sleep in ten minutes and a cushion for the back of my chair. That was all he could do for me. Since my lifestyle didn't offer the luxury of immobility, I signed up for a twelve-week stint with the chiropractor and paid for it out of my own pocket. Within a week I felt better; I discarded the back brace (a modern version of the whale-bone corset) my chiropractor had given me on my first visit, and with the exercises prescribed by the chiropractor, my back and my energy level slowly returned to normal.
I didn't know what to expect during my first visit to the chiropractor. All I'd heard was that they "cracked backs," and most of the people I'd known who went to them were either desperately in pain or known to be a bit eccentric. When I began my own treatment, I found executives from the company where I worked were regular clients of my new chiropractor, as well as acquaintances and friends who I'd been unaware received regular chiropractic treatment to either maintain a healthy spine and nervous system or to remedy specific aches and pains.
The treatment itself was neither uncomfortable nor time consuming. Each time, the doctor checked my posture, had me lie on a table and then adjusted my neck by turning and pulling it simultaneously, then rolling me over to apply quick direct pressure to my back and shoulder areas. The first adjustment made me feel as if a spring in my neck had been sprung. Suddenly, I felt a much fuller range of motion in my neck, which made looking for cars behind me while I was driving much easier, and my shoulders no longer felt as if they were invisibly connected to my ears.
Chiropractic care's bad rap from the medical community
The reason many consumers are suspicious of chiropractors is that they aren't fully endorsed by the medical community, still the primary source of health-care information for most Americans. According to Dr. David Stussy, the chiropractor who treated me, chiropractic care was popular before the early 1900s, when there were no drugs. "Then came the magic bullet, penicillin," he said. And health care based on the use of medicine became the norm, spurred in part by a powerful pharmaceutical industry and the education system for medical doctors. In the 1950s, says Stussy, the American Medical Association sponsored a blackmail campaign to destroy the chiropractic profession. Ultimately, the chiropractic community won a lawsuit against the AMA. Today, says Stussy, younger patients are "really open to chiropractic care." So are citizens from other cultures, such as Africa, where physical medicine is more of the norm.
In January of this year, my ten-year-old son and I were in a car accident, rear-ended on an icy city road. When I got out to check the damage to my rear bumper, I felt a sharp pain at the bottom of my spine. I immediately remembered all the jokes and stories about whiplash victims and recognized that my pain could be construed as "all in my head" or a ruse to obtain insurance coverage. Despite these concerns, I headed in for a checkup with my chiropractor and called my insurance company. Within a few days, my son, Nick, started asking me to crack his back or to walk on it. I was afraid I'd hurt him, so I asked Dr. Stussy to assess him too. As it turns out, we'd both sustained injuries when our heads snapped back and forth between our car seats and seat belts when we were hit.
Kids are patients too
Although I recognized immediately after the accident that I'd probably benefit from a chiropractic checkup, it didn't occur to me right away that Nick might be injured also. Kids are so resilient and their bodies don't seem as susceptible to injuries, I thought. Through Nick's treatment, I recognized that chiropractic care is an important alternative for children.