An approach to health and healing from inside and outside the Western Medicine box

Claire was seeing me for what I determined to be a frozen shoulder, also known as adhesive capsulitis. Her condition was apparently instigated by a flu vaccine.  In her case, a severe inflammatory reaction ensued, rendering her shoulder terribly painful and restricted in motion. When she first visited me, she could barely raise her arm in front of her. She was miserable. That is, her arm was. As a person, Claire was delightful, engaging, and very attuned to her body and how it worked, and eager to do what was needed to bring healing to her shoulder. She was a former Craniosacral therapist and Reiki practitioner and accustomed to working outside the box of the Western Medicine (aka allopathic) model. She came to me expecting the latter approach and was pleasantly surprised by the weaving together of allopathic care with a bio-psycho-social process. Her shoulder freezing and the subsequent psycho-social-emotional challenges that it presented created a unique situation to address.

The Problem

But first, adhesive capsulitis is an inflammatory process that creates fibroses in the shoulder joint. Fibrosing is a process in which an area that has been injured gets replaced with connective tissue rather the normal tissue. Connective tissue is tough stuff that is found in a variety of forms, including collagen fibers, as well as some other specific chemicals that aid in healing. It requires special enzymes to be broken down so that the tissues they occupy can be strong and stable. Fibrosing inhibits motion and creates problematic motor programs that jump in to protect the shoulder while significantly reducing function. Not what you want in a highly fluid and elegantly mobile joint like the shoulder.

The Solution

Together, we designed her program of recovery. I taught her correct stretching of her joint, re-learning functional motions, and strengthening the muscles associated with those motor programs, along with encouraging the fibrosed tissue to give way to normal tissue through manual techniques. She was very dedicated to her program, and we both worked hard at regaining her mobility and subsequently her life. A fully functioning shoulder is a necessity for anyone, and as a hospice nurse, her quality of work was certainly being affected.

When the unconscious weighs in, pay attention. One day she mentioned that upon arriving at work, she could feel her shoulder begin to tighten up and retreat into its protective positioning: hunched up and curled forward. She would then spend the remainder of her workday trying to activate the correct muscles while quieting the compensating ones. This requires a great deal of attention and energy. It was exhausting. She also mentioned she had yet another dream in which she could reach with her arm with the full range of motion. Both dreams were so real that after upon wakening she would check to see if she did in fact have all of that motion back. Alas, she didn’t. But the dreams gave her hope.

I considered her dreams, and what neuroscience tells us about how the brain continues to work while we’re still sleeping. “Perhaps your brain is recognizing the presence of the range of motion and motor programs and reminding you that they are there. They haven’t entirely disappeared. Your brain is reminding you that your ability will return.” She smiled and nodded.This resonated within her.

I also mentioned that her work environment was where she received her vaccine, and therefore was the site where she was “injured.” Perhaps a subconscious reaction occurred, whereby she automatically protected herself. But, here’s the thing: I hypothesize that a part of our body can react to an experience, while the rest of us may not be quite engaged or aware. A reflexive loop occurs, and the body part and brain get busy processing and re-processing it, while all we know is we are in pain yet again and without an apparent reason.

What I recommend then, is what I told her. “Here’s what I suggest, Claire. Treat your shoulder like a beloved child or beloved friend, whichever resonates with you, and pat it gently, and then flick, kinda like you are flicking away the pain while telling your shoulder, ‘You’re okay. Everything is okay. You are healing, and it’s good to be in this place. This is a safe and good place. We’re doing good stuff here.’ Encourage it. I think there may be a subconscious dread of your work environment and your body is responding with protection.”

Claire’s eyes widened. She understood that our bodies can hold memory and emotions. We had several conversations that addressed this idea previously. Now it was time to really test drive it. She knew her injured shoulder in a way, had taken on a life of its own. While we were retraining its motor programs, the emotional and psychological piece of healing was now demanding to be integrated, and it clearly affected her shoulder’s ability to function in an environment where it had initially been injured. This psycho-social component, as we call it, can be a “switch flipper” in the healing process.

Now, I know this “flicking and telling your body everything will be okay technique” may sound “hokey,” even ridiculous, but believe me, it works. And I believe it works in part for a number of reasons. First, we are distracting the brain from concentrating on the offending body part and giving it something else to think about. Second, the soothing patting and flicking are being processed by sensory fibers, further sending information to the brain, which likes the soothing sensation, and in turn, sends a calming response back down to the body part, at least temporarily. Finally, the internal messaging and outward speaking “You are fine, you are healing, everything is going to be okay,” is both soothing and also requires processing by the brain. It is now focused on a new message, that of safety and healing, and works with that, again, at least temporarily.

I worked on her shoulder and afterward, she thanked me. She reflected on our conversation and considered again the concept that our bodies can hold emotions, this time turning it to her shoulder. Claire said, “It’s interesting: every time I leave here, my shoulder feels not just comfortable again, but it literally feels happy, even joyful. It is a very happy shoulder. Thank you for that.”

The enigma of health and healing

There were at least two implications of what this was. One was not only was I doing something helpful for the shoulder but that in fact, the joy in me, was flowing from my heart and hands into her shoulder. Another possibility was, in her words, her shoulder was able to relax and release in the presence of skilled technique combined with compassionate care. It felt safe, hopeful, and therefore joyful. And of course, it could be that she was feeling safe and relaxed, which allowed her shoulder to respond accordingly.

Whatever the explanation, it demonstrates that health and healing have some enigma attached, and I am comfortable with that, Westerner that I am. We do not know everything. We cannot explain everything, as much as we’d like to. Art is still wrapped inside our medical approach, and with it, mystery. With the mystery there is beauty, and recognizing that requires a mindset to welcome it. And in welcoming it, we really can go forward with health and healing.

I smile, as I again recognize there is such a thing as the gift of healing. And this healing can have many components, requiring more time than we expect. If indeed a body part can “feel” then perhaps our very cells know what they are programmed to do, want to get back there as soon as possible, and will try their darndest to do so. And then we help along that healing as we treat our parts and ourselves with respect, openness, and compassion. And that is when Health and Healing occur both inside and outside of the box.

As Claire was leaving my office, she whirled around to ask, “Hey! Will I be able to resume my handstands in yoga again?” I chuckled. “Of course you will.”

And she did.