How I Healed My Chronic Pain: An Acupuncturist’s Story

August 20, 2014

Back in November of last year a few things happened. I started taking a couple of supplements (Vitamin D and methylated folate), I treated 2 patients in 1 week with significant plantar fasciitis/foot and heel pain (what do you mean you have pain on the bottom of your heel??), and I walked about 11 miles one day in NYC carrying a heavy shoulder bag wearing Ugg boots.

Over the next few weeks, I developed an increased frequency of foot and heel pain (oh, so this is what they meant) with burning, achy arches, tired feet and legs, and bilateral heel pain. I didn’t take it too seriously at first. I needled myself, and waited for it to pass. It didn’t. I continued to exercise. I traveled to Thailand in January, walked around all day in flip-flops, and did ok. Shortly after I got back, I went for a run and felt something bad happen. And then the pain got really bad.

I took to the internet and started rolling my feet on a tennis ball (in the morning, at work, before bed), stretched my legs with a towel before getting out of bed each morning, got inserts for my shoes, and needled my legs and feet on occasion. I stopped running and playing tennis, but kept up with my other physical activities. Certain things started to feel better. Much of the initial pains eased, but I was left with 2 severe pains: on the bottom of my left heel, and the medial side of my calf (approximate location in the area between spleen 7 and spleen 8 for my fellow acupuncturists). I didn’t realize it at the time, but these 2 painful spots would persist for 7 more months.

I kept waiting, but the pains didn’t go away. They became more intense and more frequent. Both pains (left heel, right leg) always occurred at the same time, it was never just 1 of them. Spring approached, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to participate in all of my favorite activities (hiking, tennis, running, biking, WALKING). I quickly learned that wearing flat shoes aggravated my pain, so I began wearing only shoes with a heel (my Havaianas were so sad!).

In March I packed my tennis ball and went to Sedona with my boyfriend. We hiked 26 miles over 4 days and my feet actually did ok – still pain, but the activity didn’t seem to aggravate the injury. I rolled and stretched as much as possible.  We returned home, and the pain lingered and persisted. Sometimes it was worse after sitting. Sometimes it was worse after standing. My legs didn’t feel right to me. They felt weak and achy.

I started getting worried and down on myself. I was able to needle myself which I did about 1x/week. I didn’t particularly enjoy sinking needles deep into the bottom of my foot and other ashi (tender, sensitive, or knotted areas) points, but was grateful I could do so (low back pain, much harder to reach!).

The pain persisted.

Upon the advice of several whose opinions I seek and trust, I began physical therapy treatment. I was comforted by the various tests my PT performed and resulting exercise routine program that was suggested. I am a very compliant patient, and for 5 weeks I did my exercises EVERY DAY at home, and also went in 1x/week for updated and more advanced exercises and deep, deep (painful) massage. I  declined ice therapy in PT (Traditional Chinese Medicine suggests heat, not ice for chronic pain as cold contracts muscles and tendons and blood flow, and heat promotes circulation). After a particularly painful day, I tried icing my pain – and it felt worse. After 5 weeks I started to panic and asked my PT if this would ever go away? She said yes, but I’d have to keep up with my exercises. Forever. To me, that was not a satisfactory solution. I wanted to heal my pain, not modify the rest of my life.

A tight ropey band had emerged on my right calf. Was it a result of the deep manual therapy from my PT? Was it the underlying reason for my calf pain? It even hurt to shave my legs. In a moment of panic 1 Friday night, I called the nurse hotline number on the back of my insurance card, worried that maybe I had a deep vein thrombosis (blood clot). After answering a bunch of questions, it was determined that my condition was not urgent, but it was recommended that I seek the advice from a doctor within 48 hours.

I have a high deductible insurance plan and since I’m relatively healthy, never come close to reaching my deductible. I knew that if I started meeting with orthopedists and getting MRIs and other imaging, I’d be paying a lot of money – without guaranteed results. I had already started spending on PT, various pieces of equipment for the different exercises, shoe inserts, and was hesitant to go down another potentially expensive road.

I had treated 2 particular patients with foot and leg pain, similar in nature to mine, who had turned to surgery before coming to see me. Their surgeries weren’t completely successful, and they were seeking a deeper form of healing. The stories I heard scared me. Two years of pain followed by unsuccessful surgery? I did not want those outcomes at all! (One case received relief from acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine and no longer considers her leg pain “an issue.” The other case decided to have a follow up surgery, and has been using acupuncture and herbal medicine to support her underlying patterns and constitution to best promote the healing process.)

So I had a talk with myself. I had avoided cold therapy, but had I tried heat? I had stopped running and playing tennis, but was still walking, biking, and going to yoga. Was that ample rest? I’d been reading suggestions from colleagues looking to treat similar cases that included using electrical stimulation (eek – I don’t want to do that to myself!). I ate a healthy diet, but was I indulging more frequently than “on occasion?”   I had never tried taking ibuprofen because I didn’t feel like “that was for me,” but maybe there was something to the recommendation since it came up frequently in my desperate searches?

So I came up with a new plan. Whenever I have a plan, it comforts me. I am dedicated and compliant and can follow a set of instructions. It’s the unknown/no plan that I find much more stressful.

I decided to take 600 mg of ibuprofen every 6 hours for 2 weeks. Perhaps if I could reduce some of the inflammation, the healing process could occur?

I started seeing my acupuncturist again. She’s a petite Chinese practitioner, and I understand roughly 75% of what she says, but I love her, and she has helped me through several health conditions before. At our first meeting for this injury, she told me to stop exercising and stop stretching. Stop stretching? She kept repeating that my muscle tissue was damaged and that I needed to rest and let it heal. What a moment that was. I had been obsessively rolling, stretching, and having my pain massaged. If the tissue was damaged, might all these things actually be preventing the healing process? She used electrical stimulation on my feet and legs, did other body points to support my patterns and constitution, and let me rest. I started going weekly.

I committed to using moxabustion therapy daily. Moxa is an herb with warming and circulating qualities. I used pole moxa that I purchased in China. It’s somewhat like a big incense stick, and I used it over my areas of pain. I focused the moxa on various ashi points along my spleen channel, feet, and heels.

I committed to putting my legs up the wall daily. It was one of the first yoga exercises I ever learned, and figured it would help to promote circulation to my feet and legs after sitting/standing all day. It was my favorite of the healing therapies.

I only wore shoes with a slight heal. In fact for about 3 months I wore the same pair of shoes to work each day. While I was sad I couldn’t wear my flat (super cool) gold sandals, I was grateful that I had a very cute and comfortable pair of Clark’s to get me through my work day!

I had just read Mark Hyman’s The Blood Sugar Solution, and decided to try his basic 6-week plan. Clearly I had some inflammation going on, and those who know me know that whenever inflammation is present I consider the dietary factor. A lot of systemic inflammation begins in the gut. The plan was sort of a stricter version of my normal diet. It was a little hard not to drink at some social occasions, and I missed chocolate sometimes, but I knew it was just a temporary gesture to moderate my blood sugars and reduce systemic inflammation. Yes, it was a gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, artificial sweetener-free, flour-free program. But it wasn’t that hard. It just took planning and thoughtfulness and motivation.

I made a commitment to rest. Real rest. Not only did I stop all walking, running, hiking, biking, and yoga classes, but I stopped taking the stairs, stopped parking far away, stopped going places that required walking/standing. By far, this was the most challenging part of the process. I created an at-home yoga routine that I did 2-3x/week. It stayed away from using my legs and incorporated a lot of planks and pushups. It was a decent workout, but it was short due to my limited abilities. Spring was here, and I stayed at home on beautiful sunny weekends while my boyfriend went on runs and bike rides without me, and applied moxa, rested, and at times, sulked. The introvert in me actually liked some of the quiet, down time. But the athlete in me was quite sad and frustrated.

After about 1 week on the ibuprofen I still had the 2 pains and the tight ropey feeling on my right leg persisted. After about 2 weeks I had virtually no pain. I decided to add on an extra week of ibuprofen therapy, but began reducing my dosages from the 1800mg/day to 200mg/day. A big moment came when I stopped all ibuprofen. For 1 day I had zero pain and I was so encouraged. The day after that I had pain. It wasn’t severe, but I started to panic.  Did I need to change my plan or stay the course? I was doing everything that resonated with me, that honored the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine and looked to heal my pain, not just modify my life to accommodate for it.

One day, after walking around barefoot at home (with no pain), I put on my sneakers with inserts, and the pain started. It was so obvious that the pain started when I put on my shoes that I switched to an old pair or running shoes (with no inserts) to see what would happen. The pain went away. Were the inserts aggravating my pain/causing a compensatory pain/preventing the healing process? What another moment that was!

Then one day shortly after that I for real had no pain. It had been days since ibuprofen, 4-5 sessions of acupuncture, and 6-7 weeks of the eating plan. It was a remarkable day since every time I got up to walk around I was hit with the reminder that I wasn’t feeling pain.

The next 3-4 weeks were really neat. I started to feel movements in my legs and feet. Things were circulating and moving, and it was noticeable. My acupuncturist called them “qi sensations.” Moments where I did have pain were less frequent and less intense than in the past. I guess I had assumed that when I was cured I would just simply wake up 1 day with no pain. I hadn’t considered that it might be a process, which is funny since I’m always reminding my patients of that idea.

Three weeks ago I went on a 6-mile hike. And my first run. Two weeks ago I went back to my yoga studio.  Last weekend I went on a 40-mile bike ride. I’ve also been wearing the gold sandals. Of these, that first run was the most remarkable. I walked about 10 minutes to the start of the trail, and then very gingerly began a slow, gentle trot, like I was running on eggshells. After a few minutes I felt ok, so I continued on. I ran for 23 minutes, and the whole time I felt a big sense of gratitude. Gratitude for my body’s healing capabilities, gratitude for my efforts, and gratitude for the medicine of which I am a patient and practitioner. It had been awhile since I felt one, but that day I clearly had a runner’s high. It felt awesome.

Did I get the pain from walking all over Manhattan in my Uggs? Did I take on the condition as sympathy pains from my patients? Was I indulging in too many inflammatory foods? Did my supplements cause an imbalance resulting in the pain? Did my exercises and shoe inserts impede the healing process/cause compensatory pains? Which of my therapies resulted in my recovery? All of them?

My pain was scary-bad for about 8 months. While some may think that is a long time, I see my story as a healing success. It certainly could have been worse. Plus, I actually did enjoy some of the alone time, resting.

I won’t deny that other methods of healing might help others with similar conditions. Many specialists are trained with techniques to address the symptoms I presented with.  I realize success comes in different forms and from different efforts. This approach worked for me, and so I share my story with you.

You questions, comments, and feedback are appreciated and welcomed.

In good health,

Molly

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