Story 5: Surgery was the Answer

Severe back pain with radiating pain to the great toe was the description she gave me over the phone. The student calling for an appointment was a colleague and a friend. She was a far more experienced Alexander teacher than I, but my medical background was of value to her, and she had many questions and concerns, so we set an appointment for the following day.

When Rona arrived at my office she was clearly in distress. The pain was evident in her facial expression as well as her walking pattern. She was unable to stand fully erect, and full weight-bearing on the affected leg was not possible due to pain. I took her medical history and learned that she had consulted a neurosurgeon who had diagnosed her with a herniated disc at the lumbar 4-5 disc space. The disc was compressing the nerve root that innervated her leg muscles and was causing both pain and weakness. I asked about the severity of the pain using a pain scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you have ever experienced. Rona rated herself a 4. Pain scale assessments are always subjective and based on personal experience with pain. I felt this number was a low assessment of her pain.

We talked about how valuable the Alexander Technique is for this condition. We both knew that lessons twice weekly would be the answer and so we set to work. As the weeks went by Rona left each lesson convinced that she was getting better and reported reduced pain when I asked. We were both convinced that the AT was working and that she would be fine.

Three weeks into our work together Rona was late for her lesson. I called her home concerned about what might have happened and her husband answered the phone. I inquired about her health and was surprised by his answer. He assured me she was on her way and probably held up in traffic, but reported a completely different picture of her symptoms than she had been reporting to me. He said she was in severe pain a lot of the time, especially when caring for their toddler. He described her symptoms as worse than when we had begun our lessons. I explained that this was not the information I was receiving. We were both confused !

Rona arrived at my office frazzled and in pain. I explained that I had just spoken with her husband and, after a brief period working with her on the table, I  asked her about the symptoms and the discrepancy between her reporting and his description of her condition. She started to cry!

As we talked and unraveled the past few weeks of lessons, we both realized that we had been so convinced that the AT would work, that surgery could be avoided, that our judgment about what was actually happening was clouded. We each took responsibility for our part in this misunderstanding.

I however insisted that before we continue with lessons she return to her surgeon and make sure she was not at risk for causing permanent nerve damage at the site of the disc herniation. I explained my concern for her health and my wish for her to be healthy again. Sometimes medical intervention is exactly what is needed. In Rona’s case that was true. She had surgery the next week. The pain was immediately relieved, and at 2 weeks she was swimming laps to restore her strength. At 4 weeks post surgery she was teaching again and carrying her toddler without pain.

We used the AT as a part of her rehabilitation process, and the outcome was an example of truly integrated medicine.  I realized again that my observations and medical expertise did not prevent me from overlooking the obvious. When pain persists and /or worsens , a medical evaluation is indicated. The Alexander Technique works effectively in collaboration with many medical specialties.