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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.
I saw kids, from infants to teens, in Dr. Stussy's waiting room. Some parents consider chiropractic on par with dental care and bring their kids in for regular adjustments to maintain their good health. Care can begin as early as infancy.
According to Dr. Stussy, serious spinal problems can result from birth trauma. "Kids fall at least 3,000 times before they walk," he added. These potential injuries to the spine can result in a wide range of childhood and adult ailments, including colds, rashes, flu, and "growing pains." In addition, colic, bedwetting, hyperactivity, asthma, and upset stomachs can be remedied by chiropractic care, according to Dr. Stussy and his colleagues.
The main reason parents should look into chiropractic care for their kids is to ensure that they "have the best possible nervous system for whatever life might bring about" says Stussy, who adds that there is a lot of research on the benefits of having a healthy nervous system. Like many chiropractors, he's an advocate of giving children fewer drugs. "For a long time, chiropractors have said we should not be using antibiotics so freely with children. Now we're seeing the incidence of superbugs, since the strains of some illnesses have become much stronger." He added that there is evidence in medical journals that ear tubes to alleviate ear infections in children are worthless.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Stussy has provided chiropractic care to his own children, daughters now ages twenty-two and fourteen. And his wife has benefited from his care as well. He attributes his daughters' health and wife's miraculous deliveries, 2.0 and 1.15 hours respectively, to regular chiropractic care. He treated his youngest daughter minutes after her birth. The oldest was a gymnast who never missed an event due to injury. "Others would miss meets, even kids of traditional doctors," he says a bit smugly.
Benefits of chiropractic
care for moms
A former aerobic trainer, who's appeared on videos with the well-known Cathy Smith, Dr. Heidi Olson's career as a chiropractor began with a sprained ankle. Such an injury is an inconvenience for anyone, but it threatened Olson's livelihood. A visit with Dr. Stussy had Olson back on her feet in a day. This and a trip to China, where alternative medicine is revered but chiropractic healing is unavailable, convinced Olson that she wanted to dedicate her own life to chiropractic healing. She obtained her degree from Northwestern College of Chiropractic, which is located in Bloomington and schools healers from all over the world. Olson practiced with Dr. Stussy for several years and is in the process of opening her own clinic in Excelsior, specializing in care for women and children.
She's convinced that chiropractic care can ease pregnancy and delivery. Unfortunately, the birth of her now 2 1/2-year-old daughter Lily, wasn't without complications. She had thirty hours of back labor, which she attributes to the physical demands of her profession. "Women chiropractors have challenging births due to the torsion required in performing treatments," she says. She suspects that the reason women who have difficult births have daughters who experience similar problems is that babies affected by such births have physical/structural complications from the way they were born. Chiropractic treatment over time can diminish these complications, she says.
Her training has led her to believe that children in the United States are generally over-medicated, and Olson is unconvinced of the need for vaccinations for children with strong immune systems. "Half of the chiropractors I know are for vaccinations, and half aren't," she says. Her daughter is not vaccinated at all, and Olson may look into homeschooling. "Lily gets sick when she's in a group setting," she says, adding that her daughter's immune system needs a chance to build without being exposed to super viruses that are spreading as a result of over dependence on antibiotics and vaccinations.
A remedy for stresses of modern life
Another chiropractor who believes in the advantages of chiropractic care prior to delivery is Dr. Christine Grams who operates a practice called Morning Star Healing Arts in South Minneapolis. She says treatment can shorten labor by doing pelvic release work and can help with the positioning of the baby before birth. She recently treated a mom who came to see her due to severe lower back pain. Dr. Grams "opened up more space for food, her bladder, and the baby." Later the mom called to report that labor and delivery lasted only four hours. Dr. Grams says she loves working with moms right after delivery to address maternal physical complications resulting from the birth process.
A former nurse at St. Mary's Rehabilitation Center, Grams was injured while lifting a patient who was having a seizure. She calls it "synchronicity" that she, too, was initially treated by Dr. Stussy. "The chiropractic care I received made such a change in my health," Grams says. "I didn't get sick any more." A nursing strike in the mid-'80s gave her pause to reevaluate her career options, and she decided to attend chiropractic college. Today, she operates a family practice across from Fuller Park. Her partner, Nancy Lindgren, is not a chiropractor; she offers spiritual guidance and energy balancing.
Adults, children, and animals are welcome in their offices where a white and black (formerly stray) cat roams freely. Grams has noticed that if one or more of a child's parents aren't taking good care of themselves, the kids will act it out. When she meets with child patients, she'll often start with the parent. "Moms' necks and shoulders are like rocks; they often pick up the slack for other family members, and they set the tone for the family dynamic," she reports.
"Too many people are running on vapors (caffeine and other stimulants). This shows your kids nonverbally how to operate. This stress makes it difficult to digest food properly, makes us short-tempered and irritable and more prone to injury due to lack of balance. We can do anything we want in life--we just can't do everything. We have to say 'no' to some things, but it shouldn't be to our health and body care."
The most common reasons kids come in for treatment by Dr. Grams is that they're overwhelmed or anxious, suffering headache and neck pain from orthodontics, or they've had a major fall or car accident. Like Drs. Stussy and Olson, Dr. Grams is a strong advocate of a holistic approach to health care. She encourages her patients to do spiritual work, massage work, and to work with a nutrition counselor. "I can adjust the spine every day, but it won't hold without a holistic approach," she says. Many of her patients have high-stress, demanding jobs: artists, executives, teachers, attorneys, and moms. "Being under high pressure demands high maintenance. If you're not doing yoga or meditation, you need more aggressive care such as chiropractic," Dr.Grams advises.
While it's often a pain or symptom that "kicks patients in the door," Dr. Grams encourages her patients to be personally responsible for their emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing. "If parents keep themselves in better shape, their kids don't have to come as often," she says. "Teaching kids to take cues from their nervous system and body can be very empowering. I've got kids who say, 'I need to see Dr. Chris.' This shows that they're tuned into their own bodies."
Thomas Edison had the right idea
A quote from Thomas Edison on Dr. Stussy's letterhead makes a lot of sense: "The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his (sic) patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease."
More than 100 years later, it's tough to argue with that common-sense prescription. While there's a time and place for medical intervention, it shouldn't be the first and only kind of care we consider for ourselves or our kids. While my son and my injuries from the January car accident have mended, I intend to incorporate a "maintenance level" of chiropractic care into our monthly schedule. Illnesses in our household have been almost nonexistent during the past year. I'd like to keep it that way.
Lynn Ingrid Nelson is a freelance editor and writer, with a fragile spine and strong skepticism of drugs and surgery, who lives in South Minneapolis.