The Proactive Solution to Broken Healthcare

December 08, 2016

It’s a mystery what we will be getting for healthcare policy this coming year, but for those in the know it isn’t a mystery that the system is dysfunctional and unlikely to become less so.  Healthcare premiums are increasing at so rapid a clip that it is being questioned whether it is even affordable for those living on a median income.  The most recent political effort to reign in this trend has not been successful and is likely to get scrapped.  Ultimately, no political solution is likely to make much of an impact unless the underlying approach to medicine changes.  That is, that our healthcare system is “reactive”.  We treat sick people rather than working on keeping them healthy.  Keeping healthy people healthy is cheap; treating chronically ill people is very expensive,

As insurance companies look for ways to cut costs this wrong approach is being exaggerated.  Deductibles are rising in an effort to deter patients from seeking treatment until a problem is so large it cannot be ignored.  Coverage for preventative care is being cut, compensation for massage, physical therapy, and chiropractic services have been reduced such that it’s getting harder to get an appointment.  In urban areas where costs are higher it is no longer viable to accept many insurance plans.  And when we do get treatment there is an undeniable bias toward medication and surgical intervention, methods that should be a last resort but which drive revenues for hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.

As a massage therapist I cannot count the number of clients who have come to see me after every other route of managing their pain had been explored.  Many are surprised to discover that mindful and skillfully applied massage in conjunction with proactive self-care is effective for them and wonder why it had taken so long to arrive at this solution.  It’s no coincidence that for so many of them massage was never recommended by a doctor. This was my experience as well.  I’d like to tell you the story of how a radical departure from the way I used to think about health led to a far better outcome than that which had been forecast for me.

Defying the Prognosis

When I was about 10 years old my parents noticed me limping.  They took me to a doctor and we were referred to an osteopath.  The diagnosis?  Perches Disease, an uncommon ailment of unknown origin that affects the development of the femur in some children.  Blood supply to the joint is limited and bone growth is stunted.  Surgery was suggested as an option to help restore healthy blood supply but a follow up appointment revealed that this had already happened.  The body found a way to redirect blood supply on it’s own.  However, due to a leg length discrepancy and malformation of the joint I was given this prognosis:  Joint pain that would become progressively worse, rule out running and contact sports and likely require hip replacement surgery by the time I reached 40 years old.  No course of action was suggested but simply to monitor the degradation annually with an X-ray.

My spirit was crushed.  I loved to play hockey and soccer, nothing brought me into the present moment like playing sports.  I became anxious and cautious, physical activity was painful and the joy was already gone.  With time I would learn to shut out feeling from the part of my body that hurt, but the anxiety persisted.  When I became an adult I stopped seeing doctors, they had nothing to offer me but bad news.

I spent a great deal of my adult life ignoring pain and doing little to improve my health.  I was anxious and struggled in many aspects of my life, most notably in finding direction.  Then in my early 30’s I started receiving bodywork, a course of action that had never been suggested to me.  At first, the sensations I experienced on the table were extremely difficult to handle.  There was so much stagnant energy and so much pain that I had been shutting out.  After the first session my hips hurt worse than before but also there was something else; a light-ness I couldn’t remember having experienced in recent memory.

I began being proactive about my health.  I was getting bodywork regularly and started strength training and conditioning and made changes to my diet.  Every trip to the gym I worked through pain.  I had little guidance and so learned by trial and error what things I could do to make it better and what things would make it worse.  I had no idea whether or not any of this effort would pay off, but I tried to keep an open mind to the prospect that my hips could heal.  Maybe, I hypothesized, that terrible prognosis that I had received as a child was based upon the assumption that alternative medicine had no benefit or that I would not work to make it better.

It’s been about 5 years now and my routine hasn’t changed much since I started.  I am constantly inventing new ways to challenge my body and build strength and flexibility and learning about new ways to culminate good health.  It’s amazing what’s out there when you open your eyes to the possibilities.  And though my resources have been limited and I have had to use money-out-of-pocket towards bodywork, my vision of a more whole and stronger self has made those sacrifices very worthwhile.  

The result?  I ski hard.  When I hurl myself down the mountain I don’t hold back.  I experience the joy that is being completely present and focused and free of pain.  Are my hips perfectly fine now?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  Every time that I go to the gym I am reminded that my range of motion is quite limited, that at the end of range there is still pain, that improvement is so incrementally slow.  But at no time since I was a child have I been more physically capable.  I am pushing 40 now and I have hope that I will not be getting hip replacement surgery anytime soon.

I still don’t see doctors as frequently as I should, but at times I’ve felt drawn by the need to go get the inevitable x-ray picture.  The desire to “know” what’s going on in there is so strong.  But really I have all the information I need.  I already know that it’s getting better all the time.  I really don’t need a picture to elaborate on the supposed degradation of my joints or receive another discouraging prognosis.  Maybe I’m hard headed and I’m sure there’s people who would agree with that assessment, but I don’t want to be told how I can’t heal.

The Proactive Healthcare Solution

The reason that I tell this story is that I foresee a mass transformation in attitude towards health coming, one driven by necessity.  Costs are too high, the efficacy too low.  Mystery illnesses such as fibromyalgia and autoimmune diseases abound, cancer is at epidemic levels, real solutions are hard to find.  

For many of us our upbringing has left us poorly informed about our health.  We have this amazing machine that is the human body but it doesn’t come with an owner’s manual.  A lack of formal education on the topic of health has led to a largely dis-empowered populace that differs decisions about our health to the “experts”.  Meanwhile our modern world has immersed us in a toxic environment of unrelenting stress and bad food.  When the experts can’t explain or treat the new wave of mystery illnesses, when following the course of their best guesses becomes unaffordable, we are faced with the truth:  That we are ultimately responsible for our well-being and navigating the myriad hazards of our modern world to achieve it.

Your Best Doctor

I’m going to advance an extremely unconventional premise-that you are your best doctor.  In days of old this may not have been true, your best doctor was probably your family physician who made house calls and knew intimately your family and your history.  Those days are gone.  Nowadays doctors are squeezed for every drop of their time.  Now you are your best doctor.  How can this be?  Two undisputable facts:  No one has the capacity to be more motivated for your good health than you or devote more time and resources to it’s fulfillment.  Also, no doctor, no matter how empathic, can have the experience of being you or feeling what you feel in your body or knowing your history as intimately as you.

I’m not suggesting that you not see a doctor; everyone including myself should see a doctor. Doctors are a wealth of resources that we should all be tapping so that we can make informed decisions regarding our health.  So are personal trainers, physical therapists, and massage therapists.  And of course there are circumstances where medication or surgical intervention is the best available option.  But a doctor’s job is impossibly hard these days.  To be able to see someone, evaluate their history and current condition and arrive at a course of action is 15 minutes is unreasonable.  Doctors are not supported enough by the system to do their job well.  Furthermore, the hazards we’re facing in our modern world are evolving so rapidly that the accumulative impact is not well understood by modern medicine.  

Have no medical training?  Perhaps that is to your benefit.  You won’t have learned the biases that exist within our medical system or to be skeptical of the body’s capacity to heal itself.  What we all have going for us is the ability to tune into our body and, if we listen with care, to be able to discern what choices that we are making that benefit us and which are to our detriment.  Everyone possesses or can develop this ability, and most of the time no quantity of pills will be more effective than addressing the very pillars upon which good health rests:  Diet, exercise, and stress management.  The body is blessed with incredible healing potential if it is not being poisoned, it is receiving good nutrition, has balanced strength and structure, is getting regular cardio exercise, if stresses are being interrupted for long enough and frequently enough for the immune system to do its job and for the para-sympathetic nervous system to be engaged.  If you are experiencing illness or pain, odds are one or more of these conditions are not being met.

The heart of this approach is shifting our attitude toward our symptoms and emotions.  We tend to view our symptoms as an inconvenience to be avoided and dread experiencing emotions that we have been taught to view negatively.  Worse yet, we may pathologize symptoms, perhaps viewing them as some reflection of a supposed shortcoming.   Perhaps it’s just a sign that “we’re getting old”.  Western medicine has not been helpful in this regard, offering medications whose sole purpose is to suppress symptoms or moderate emotional states without our having to make the kind of changes that these phenomena are pointing toward.  

But what if we “tweaked” our attitude, what if we untangled our ego from our challenges and viewed symptoms as merely a “check engine light” from the body pointing to some change that needs to be made?  What if we saw the whole range of emotional experience as an extremely intelligent and necessary means of navigating the world?  Just this shift in attitude alone takes back some of the power we have perceived as lost to us.  That power is important, because feeling powerless leaves us “stuck” in a sympathetic condition of the nervous system, which inhibits the immune system and healing processes in an attempt to survive some perceived threat.  

In contrast, feeling like we have power opens up the mind to the possibility of positive change.  This leads to a lower perception of threat and so induces the para-sympathetic nervous system.  In this state healing processes are prioritized.  We also digest food better and so have more nutrients available for those healing processes.  What else do we do better?  Sleep well, have intimacy with others, enjoy sex-all the good things that we all wish to experience more often.

All I’m suggesting is that we give ourselves more power than we generally believe we have.  Let’s take back that power.  We might be surprised by the results.  In this blog I’ll be providing more information about healing modalities that I have become acquainted with. Stay tuned!

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