FORUM: Alternative Therapies

The choices I made in my initial 30 years of life exposed my right shoulder to chronic over-use and sporadic injury trauma resulting from my participation in sports (archery, baseball, tennis, bowling, volleyball, golf, mountain biking); job activities (restocking shelves, pressure-cooking chicken, moving to a new residence); sustenance fishing (pier, jetty, boat); and accidents (rafting, hiking).

With the exception of only one (at that time) permanently mutilated finger, I always seemed to “recover” from acute episodes of muscular, joint, organ and bone pain, so I didn’t notice subtle changes taking place in my body as I aged.

Over the next two decades of life I allowed myself to be too consumed by work as a Research Professor of Medicine, and of Emergency Medicine, at Northwestern University Medical School, and with my duties at home (I was blessed with a daughter), to be aware of my health. A poor diet, insufficient sleep, copious stress, and absence of exercise constituted my way of “life.”

Nearing half a century, attending Sunday mass with my family, I felt “something” in my right shoulder. I manipulated my arm in an effort to make the feeling vanish, but my shoulder wouldn’t cooperate. I had a feeling I’d never experienced there before: a dull, steady pain whenever I extended my right arm too far or too rapidly away from my body in any direction. It reminded me of the old joke:

            Patient: “Doctor it hurts when I do this!”

            Doctor: “Don’t do that.”

I thought it might simply be the interaction of aging and relative absence of exercise, so I minimized activities which caused notable discomfort.

As they say, “life happened” and I relocated alone to a tiny apartment, walking distance from the fishing docks in San Diego. The name of the neighborhood was Point Loma, but locally it was called “Tunaville.”

The Star Spangled Banner was broadcast from Center Island (home to a USN F-18 Super Hornet wing) every morning at 8AM. In my neighborhood, older locals walking outside would stop when the National Anthem was played, turn to face Stars and Stripes, put their hand over their heart and sing.

Taps was played at sundown at the USMC base adjacent to the docks. When Taps was played, older locals walking outside would stop, removed their hat, turn to face the US flag at the USMC base, the cross on St. Agnes’ bell tower, or the National Cemetery up the hill, and say a prayer for loved ones.

Neighborhood musicians would gather on the patio of the corner house after dinner and play instrumental ballads. The concert would end with Sea World’s fireworks finale, easily seen from our neighborhood.

Tunaville was a Heavenly old community, then.

Many sport and commercial fisherman, mates, and private boaters lived there, and many businesses provided everything that seafarers require.

Four memorials which I visited name a flotilla of captains and mates in the San Diego Commercial Fishing Fleet who died while fishing. A striking memorial to submarines which lost sailors in WWII is about a mile away. I participated in the flotilla of sport fishing boats which sailed in honor of Bill Poole, who I’m told made it all possible.

Tunaville remembers and honors the past.

But it was my “present” that was worrying me. My solitude was being ever-more-frequently interrupted by increasingly poignant pain produced by my right shoulder. The pain began to interfere with my typing (I conducted research in my apartment, at least 90 hours per week). If I stood or walked more than just a little, I’d have to use a sling to reduce the pressure of the weight of my arm upon my shoulder.

In time the situation became debilitating, so I initiated a mission to conquer “it” which was causing the pain within my right shoulder.

I first tried the classic route to well-being pursued in my profession, when one is in my situation—rehabilitation medicine.

As a Professor of Medicine at Northwestern I collaborated for several years with clinical Professors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC)—the birth place and flag ship of the field of rehabilitation medicine. RIC is now called the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab.

After sufficient time it was clear the therapy I was receiving wasn’t helping: my shoulder was getting weaker. The only recourse I could think of was to investigate the potential benefit of what is known in the field of medicine as “alternative therapies.”

I was well-aware of the documented efficacy of alternative clinical therapies.

  • A clinical psychologist trained at the University of Chicago, Mom had many amazing success stories working as the Psychologist and Crisis Worker in the Chicago Mental Health Center located in arguably one of the toughest-ever housing projects located in Chicago, named the Cabrini-Green Homes.
  • Some of my best friends (Head, Kim, Steve, Shirley, and my advisor Larry) earned their PhD in clinical psychology.
  • I had rudimentary classroom and laboratory knowledge of clinical psychology, and I often co-published (as the experimental design and statistics expert) articles with clinical colleagues. We evaluated relative efficacy of alternative therapies—some established, others experimental. We still do.

However, I didn’t have personal experience with alternative therapies—as a patient.

In my view, the distinction between standard vs. alternative therapies is not necessarily about data quality, or about the strength or reliability of comparative associated benefit.

In fact, I believe this distinction is relative at best, artificial at worst. In my experience working at RIC, at a VA Medical Center, and at a private hospital, with many specialists (surgeons, internists, nurses, geriatricians, emergency room physicians, paramedics, fire fighters), “standard therapy” often consists of one or more “alternative therapies,” which in reality are routinely used in medical, emergency, and grief-counseling situations…

The next logical step in my journey was investigating sports massage. A clinic in my neighborhood featured a masseuse who had worked for the San Diego Chargers NFL football team. When we met I told Carolyn I imagined she must have been paid well (yes, but she still has to work), and that it must have been exciting (it was long and hard work). She told me her job was physically demanding: the players were large, required extensive work everywhere on their bodies, and had enormous muscles. She needed a massage after massaging the team.

Working on my right shoulder, Carolyn was a painful magician. In an hour-long session she found the root of my pain and determined how to relax the various muscles working to keep the damaged musculature stable. When a session was over I’d carefully get off the table, get dressed, and go about my life—relatively pain free.

But, the first time I made a move which distressed the damaged muscle it was back to the past. I’d schedule a deep muscle massage session each time I discovered another behavior that antagonizes my petulant shoulder muscle.

I asked what could I do to make the relief from massage last longer. Carolyn told me that acupuncture is an excellent co-therapy: massage readjusts the muscles following acute injury; acupuncture retrains the affected muscular system, restoring chi.

I had seen a clinic advertising an acupuncturist in Ocean Beach—a quiet surfing village about a four-mile round-trip hike over the hill from Tunaville. I made an appointment to have my first acupuncture session.

The day I’d scheduled my appointment was rare in Point Loma: it was raining. It was a heavy, persistent rain—a perturbed storm system was hemmed-in over our peninsula. The peninsula is thin and long, highest in the center, sloping down to the ocean to the south (Point Loma & San Diego Bay), and to the north (Ocean Beach & Pacific Ocean).

On either side of the hill, all rain between the crest and the beach or bay roars downhill in endless whitewater rapids. When this deluge hits a solid structure such as a fire hydrant or parked car, a giant wave is created with water spraying high into the air.

I thought to myself how fortunate that I am a big-game fisherman, because I have fishing boots, rubberized pants that go up to my chest, and a jacket just like the one “Gordon the Fisherman” wears—except mine is blue. I put chemistry lab safety goggles over my glasses to ensure I would be able to see where I was hiking, and headed out.

I walked up a mile of whitewater rapids threatening to wash me off the hill into the Bay. Cresting the hill I walked towards Ocean Beach, down a mile of whitewater rapids threatening to wash me off the hill into the Pacific. It was one thing and then the other!

I staggered to the acupuncture office, flung open the door, and stepped inside. My ears were ringing from the deluge. Water soaked me through the rubberized garments. My glasses were fogged-over, so I could barely see.

I undressed in the opposite order that I dressed. First I struggled out of the Gordon the Fisherman straightjacket, and it fell to the floor. Next I removed my Big Foot fishing boots. Finally, I extricated the bibbed pants which make me move like a mummy. I still had on a bathing suit and tee shirt—check! Off with the goggles and I could start to see again…

As I gathered my wits, and my glasses de-fogged, I was surprised to see that the waiting room had a dozen patients sitting in chairs, and several workers behind the front desk.

These folks silently observed my surprise entrance, and were now staring at me and the garments spread around me on the floor. Holding my goggles I said: “I am a fisherman.” Some laughed, more joined in, then we all had a good laugh on a stormy day.

The therapy room was ready for me, so I gathered my foul weather gear and went inside.

The doctor knocked and entered, and we introduced ourselves. He asked if I had any questions. I had plenty.

The most memorable thing, mechanically-speaking, were the various Japanese-made needles which he would soon use on me. I was worried that they might break-off, but I learned that they are true engineering marvels.

  • To my astonishment, I didn’t feel a SINGLE needle enter me! Doc gently but firmly drove them in—using force as necessary to get the needles sufficiently secure so they wouldn’t fall out. I thought about how, when I accidentally stab myself with a needle or a fishing hook, it hurts immediately, profoundly! So, this made no sense.
  • I also considered it strange that I didn’t bleed where and when Doc inserted needles into me—not a single drop!
  • Also weird was where he put needles into me—they were all over! Some were placed in clumps, and others were by themselves far away from other needles.

Doc tried to explain what he was doing, how and why it worked. I was too dumbfounded to understand what he was saying—nothing that I was observing was making sense. I had no idea that things were soon going to become truly out-of-this-world.

He checked me over one last time on his way out and said that most patients fall asleep: he suggested I relax and close my eyes. That was the last thing which I recall: I don’t even remember the door closing. I immediately fell into deep sleep.

Suddenly jolted awake I was incredulously confused!

I was suspended in the air, weightless and slowly rotating—someplace. Everything was white like the inside of a cloud. I only saw white.

Feeling as though I was descending, I began to see slivers of silver and spots of red in the white fog. Whiteness continued clearing and it became obvious that I was inside a room.

Lower still I saw a figure—a person with shoeless feet lying on a table. Floating just a foot above the figure I circled around until we became parallel—and my motion stopped.

Astonished, I realized the figure is I! At that precise moment I (the one in the air) was “sucked” into the body of the figure on the table, and—I am I again!

Sitting-up like a switch-blade opening, I loudly exclaimed: “Woah!”

Doc entered the room immediately. I stared at him, silently. He prompted me: “Out-of-body experience?”

I replied, “Woah!”

He said that my experience wasn’t unusual for the first treatment.

It certainly WAS unusual, if you ask me!

The procedure worked and I had zero right shoulder pain until I later stubbed the front of my boot on a broken curb when crossing a street. The stub was sufficiently strong that I needed a massage and needle reboot.

Then disaster struck!

My acupuncturist took a dreamy business opportunity in Florida, and my massage therapist moved miles down the road, closer to luxury motels and wealthy travelers.

As “luck” would have it, next to my family doctor in my neighborhood was a “Doctor” from China with a degree in acupuncture. I’d seen his office before but never met him. I made an appointment. He was difficult to understand as he described his acupuncture theory to me: I got lost around when he told me that red represents fire. I wasn’t worried: he specialized in massage as well, so I thought this may work out.

He told me that the treatment would be much better if he stuck one needle into each of my buttocks, and then connected the needles to a machine that would deliver an electric shock to me every five seconds, alternating between the left and right needles. The treatment would last twelve minutes, and it would “fix” my right shoulder pain.

Ordinarily I’d have been suspicious. However, my decision-making ability was hampered by nearly constant pain in my right shoulder. I imagine that, as in water-drop torture, it is the inability to escape an annoyance which is maddening.

In hopeful desperation I approved the double-buttock-electro procedure: anything, no matter how idiotic it sounds, to make the right shoulder pain stop!

Can you imagine what it feels like to have a needle (which didn’t hurt or bleed when it was inserted) placed into each buttock, and then energized with electricity every five seconds, for a dozen minutes?

To me it felt like I’d been savagely beaten for a long time, in both of my buttocks.

I don’t recall my “walk” back home, but I clearly recall I didn’t feel my shoulder pain until sometime after my buttocks recovered.

Next, I tried magnesium salt baths.

The secret to effectively using bath salts is setting the correct water temperature. Too hot and sweat pores open and perspire, too cold and sweat pores close: in either situation the magnesium doesn’t get inside the pore. Warm water is the ticket to success!

The first time I felt so good I accidentally dozed off. When I awoke twenty minutes later, I sprung out of the bathtub barking like a seadog (sea lion—for any landlubbers): I could do anything! Then I did one thing too many—and my right shoulder was reinjured.

I took a second salt bath the following day. I didn’t fall asleep. I felt like a seadog, but didn’t bark. I took it easy. The pain stayed away until I insulted my back, yet again.

For the first time on this mission, my shoulder pain made me feel helpless and hopeless…

I arrived early for mass next morning (I attended daily mass). Alone, I looked at the alter and prayed:

  • “Lord, I know You love me. I believe my right shoulder hurts so as to teach me an important lesson. I don’t know if I’ve learned the lesson, but the pain is hurting my work. I know that You would remove my pain instantly, if You wished.”

When I woke the next morning there was NO right shoulder pain.

I’m an outstanding scientist: I make careful observations and keep excellent records. The events described above are simply events which happened as written. Readers should draw their own causal interpretation regarding the facts.

Later that day I had an appointment to hang out at the park with my great friend Denver and his boy—my neighbors at my prior residence in Point Loma. His son played in a baseball league, and Denver was throwing him pitches in batting practice.

When they finished I asked if I could try throwing the ball. I said that I hadn’t pitched in a long time so I might be wild, and I didn’t know if I could get any speed on the ball (in college I threw up to the middle 80s).

To my surprise I was able to throw a baseball, but without any heat. My right shoulder was feeling better than I could remember: when the muscles are warmed up they become larger and warmer due to increased blood circulation. After a sufficient number of tosses I increased power, and quickly was half-way to my old top speed.

Those who don’t play hardball may not realize that half-speed for a college pitcher is “pretty fast” for someone who doesn’t swing a baseball bat regularly. As for full speed, consider that many professional players wearing a batting helmet cross themselves before stepping into the batter’s box.

Denver didn’t want to squander my pitches, so he grabbed a bat and asked our dear friend Nate to be the catcher. I began to throw some pitches to Nate, so we’d both be warmed up. When the other dads in the park realized what was happening, many came to ask if they could also swing at some pitches (fast balls and curves).

I told them my only rule: one hit up the pitcher’s box, and I quit—I didn’t want to risk a reinjury. Nobody hit through the box, and I mowed down many batters like grass beneath a lawn mower. Whenever anyone swings at my pitch and misses, I find it highly amusing. Perhaps all pitchers feel as I do when they throw a called strike, or strike a batter out.

I quit before too long. No sense testing a gift as wonderful as removal of chronic pain. So far it hasn’t hurt again, even after fighting two-hundred pound tuna in hours-long battles.

Thank you, Lord

Alternative Therapies

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 20, 2021

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