Why my osteoarthritis diagnosis is not a life sentence

Back in 2011 I was hit by a car while riding my bike.

Being a movement and health coach for 20+ years, that day was going to put all my trainings and beliefs to the test. The way I looked at "posture and alignment," functional movement and how to get out of pain, was about to get flipped on its head.

There were many things that resulted from that accident. One was, the day following my accident, I couldn't turn my head to the right, and my right arm was contracting like the limb of someone after a stroke. (Being a personal trainer, this was gonna be a problem.)

I got x-rays of my neck.

Diagnosis: I was told I had osteoarthritis and the start of stenosis in my cervical spine.

My response: Yeah? So what. I didn't develop arthritis and stenosis in the last 48 hours. Why can't I turn my head?!

Hmmm... no definitive answers. My doctor just told me to do the same things everyone does for pain; get some bodywork, acupuncture, chiropractic, physical therapy, etc.

I got a variety of treatments. Some helped a bit. Some made things worse. Nothing lasted. Looking back, some of the things the treatments providers had me do were down right dangerous for me at that point in my recovery. But back then, I was just following "expert" advice.

Months and months of bodywork later, my arm was somewhat better, but my neck continued to be stiff and I still had limited range of motion.  Other areas of pain were popping up all over my body.

Why am I writing this?

This is not a pity party.

Far from it.

I'm sharing my story to help others recover from pain when they have "tried everything" to no avail.

My first point being that pesky osteoarthritis diagnosis. When we are in pain or can't move as we normally do, we often get imaging (MRIs, x-rays) done. These internal views of our bodies may present degeneration (arthritis, tears in tendons and ligaments, or bulging discs in our spines, etc). We may then believe what shows up in those images must be the culprits for our pain and problems.

Again, I was told I had osteoarthritis, but that did not explain why I couldn't move my head, because the arthritis has been there for years, without issue.

So what gives?

Many studies show that people can have degeneration in their spines, without pain. There also are people with pain and no degeneration.

Here are some key points to consider if you have had imaging done that shows degeneration.
  • Degeneration is considered a common part of aging but does not directly correlate with pain.
  • Degeneration is also in younger --and older-- bodies that do not experience pain.
  • With a diagnosis, you can become fearful and anxious that you will be in pain in the future, even if you aren't currently experiencing pain, therefore limiting your movement. 
  • By self-limiting and guarding against potential pain, you are neurologically wiring your brain and muscles to restrict movement. 
  • With restricted movement you become tighter, tenser and can develop additions dysfunctional patterns and more pain.
  • Your beliefs may be deeply ingrained in an outdated pain/imaging relationship, especially if your doctor leads you to believe that image findings are the final word.
Pain is a multifaceted beast. I now know that there is a biopsychosocial model of how we experience pain and how our brains interpret it. How we are supported, our beliefs, locus of control, learned helplessness, all play a part in our healing, or not.

This video below is also a great explanation.

Back to my recovery. 

Like I said, I had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and soft tissue injuries. I was doing the typical things you probably do for your pain too. I also believed that my pilates training would be good for me, as well as stretching, foam rolling and strengthening the areas my physical therapist told me were "weak."

But I wasn't getting better. I was getting worse. My mood was completely crappy a lot of the time. I love to move, and all the things that use to bring me joy were not.

Then one day I found a book about Somatics. Move Without Pain by Martha Peterson.  Move without pain? Sign me up! 

Honestly, at first I just skimmed and flipped through the book. Just looking at the photos and not reading what the heck Somatics is, my brain computed the photos into thoughts like, "Oh these moves look like pilates." See, that was my belief system in charge

Then I opened my mind to a new way of thinking about movement and the brain, and explored the movements in the book. I got instant relief in my tight left psoas/hip area. Whoa! Somatics so not pilates or stretching!

I was hooked.

I kept exploring the somatic movements, getting more release of tension and relief in my body and life. My neck greatly improved too!

It was what I had always been looking for to help my clients with their bodies and pain problems. I just didn't realize it was out there, because I only knew what I already knew. Just like you know what you know, but if you are new to Somatics you don't have a clue of what this is all about. :-)

What is so different about Somatics vs bodywork?

Bodywork and treatments are trying to change parts of our bodies, like we are damaged machines with body parts needing replacement, adjusting or manipulating.

Somatics on the other hand goes to the root of all movement, the brain! 

The brain and nervous system, specifically the somatic nervous system, controls how our bodies move and what we sense as we do so. But motor patterns that are repeated all the time, downshift to parts of our brains that run on "autopilot."

Faulty motor patterns can be due to chronic stress, injuries, surgeries, anything that relates to how we use our bodies on a daily basis.

At the moment of acute physical trauma, the nervous system will contract the body into protective reflexive patterns. If those reflexes aren't released within the nervous system, the body remains contracted, often resulting in chronic pain. Just like when I was hit by the car. My head was whipped around like a pinata, and my neck and shoulder muscles contracted, so tightly that I couldn't move my head.

My hands and arms contracted to hold onto my bike handles so forcefully, that when I was helped off the street, I was still gripping my handlebars. Bystanders had to ask me to let go of it. My body was also contracting into the freeze reflex, which contracts the front of the body when we are startled.

I also remembered, just as I saw the car coming at me, that I tried to get out of the way. I lifted my butt off the bike seat, arched my back and tried like hell to get out of the way, like I was trying to run. I now realize this was classic fight fight or flee response.

The result of that moment was stuck within my nervous system and body. I was stuck in contracted reflex patterns of freeze, fight or flight and what we call the trauma reflex which is a bending and twisting pattern of the body. All the bodywork was not addressing the brain and nervous system feedback loop, that was keeping me stuck in a contracted state.

My problem wasn't my osteoarthritis, it was my chronic tension patterns. 

I got relief by addressing the way I moved and used my body.

Trying to manipulate my body parts wasn't going to resolve the problem.

Getting my muscles to relax to their natural resting length, using my somatic nervous system was the only way to address the root of my pain problems.

When I started doing Somatic movements called pandiculations, I cracked open my somatic awareness of just how much tension was stuck within my muscles.

It was such an eye opening experience. And it's what lead me to become a Clinical Somatic Educator. That's the way this work goes. It can be life changing. Life saving. But it is so different from the current paradigm for pain relief, that it can be "hard to believe."

If you or a loved one has tried everything for pain, and still suffering, I invite you to explore Somatics.  Being open to change is a choice, and it's yours to make.

Here are ways to learn more:

If you are already reaping the benefits of Somatics, feel free to comment below. The more we share this work with the world, the better off we all can be. :-) 


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