From Young, Healthy, and Active to Disabled

In 1977, I was 25 years old and attending graduate school, working towards a master’s degree in social work. I was healthy and active, and I enjoyed bicycling long distances and hiking. I started running to get into better shape in preparation for a bicycling trip through Europe. As I continued to run, my back started to bother me. I went to a doctor who told me to stop running and gave me a handout with some back exercises to do. I stopped running and hurt my back more while doing the exercises. From then on, anything I tried to do seemed to injure my back more. The last straw was a yoga class where, not knowing any better, I tried to keep up with everyone else instead of listening to my own body. After that class, I was in agony 24/7. I was in too much pain to attend my classes and had to drop out of graduate school. I could barely even tolerate sitting up to eat.

For more than three years, I barely functioned because of the pain. I went from doctor to doctor. None of them could figure out what was wrong with me. They prescribed narcotics, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs. None of the medications helped, and taking them made me feel like a zombie. My health insurance was one of the first health maintenance organizations (HMOs), whose network didn’t include any chiropractors or osteopaths. I went for treatment even though I barely had any money. Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation helped only a little. I was still in too much pain to function. I consulted an orthopedic surgeon who spent 45 minutes examining me and talking to me and seemed to be very compassionate. At the end of the appointment, he gave me a diagnosis of chronic body pain and said there was nothing he could do for me. He told me I might be like that for the rest of my life and to learn to live with it.

By this time, I was 28 years old and had lost everything. I had no income, minimal support from friends and family, and my prospects for anything getting any better looked pretty dim. I was considering suicide.

I Found Hope in a Very Surprising Place

Then a friend of mine who was a health reporter suggested I read a book, Anatomy of an Illness, by Norman Cousins. Cousins was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and progressively crippling joint disease. He was told he had only a 1-in-500 chance of recovery. Cousins didn’t like those odds and applied himself to finding a cure. He learned about the mind-body connection and started on a program of “laughter therapy.” He also ingested large doses of vitamin C, which he learned through his research is important for connective tissue.

At the time I was reading the book, I was watching a Holocaust miniseries on TV and reading books about World War II and the Holocaust. The topic interested me and distracted me from what was going on in my life. I had no idea at the time that focusing so much of my attention on such devastating world events would have any impact on my pain or mood. After my eyes were opened by reading Cousins’ book, I changed what I was watching and reading.

Cousins also mentioned biofeedback, a treatment that uses sensitive electronic instruments to measure physiology and then feeds that information back to the patient so that the patient can learn to control their body and reactions to pain. The idea appealed to me, and I found a psychologist in my area that provided the service. The psychologist told me at our first meeting that fear and worry causes changes in physiology that increase pain, including increased muscle tension, changes in blood flow, suppressed immunity, and suppressed healing response. He taught me a relaxation technique to counteract it, using hand temperature biofeedback to measure how I was doing. Our hands cool when we are stressed as part of the fight-or-flight response. He gave me a simple liquid crystal strip that measured my hand temperature to use for home practice.

My pain levels decreased about 50% in a day! I had felt out of control, which frightened me. The biofeedback gave me a way to make a difference. With less fear, I felt better. I continued to monitor my hand temperature and worked to keep my hands warm throughout the day. I also began to explore other mind-body approaches to healing my back.

I was also very weak from the years of inactivity and afraid to start moving again. I found an exercise program at the local YMCA called “The Y’s Way to a Healthy Back” and enrolled. The supervision and coaching involved in the program were very helpful in getting me back on my feet. I also took up swimming to help my back. I got back to work full time soon after at an administrative job and eventually finished my degree.


My Back Was Better, But Then…

Unfortunately, after a few years back at work, I started to have some foot problems. I developed a bone spur in my big toe joint on my left foot that felt like a stabbing pain with every step. After more conservative measures failed to contain the problem, I had surgery to remove the bone spur. After the surgery, I experienced a different kind of pain when walking. I could only walk a few steps before I was in agony. Once again, no one could tell me what was wrong. I went to many doctors and physical therapists, and none offered any relief. After a while, I found that even sitting in a chair with my foot on the floor was too painful. My mind-body interventions were no help at all.

Fourteen years passed, and I managed my foot pain as best I could. By this time, I had left my job and set up my clinical social work practice. The social worker who was supervising me suggested that I try Rolfing, a type of bodywork that gets deeper into the soft tissue than massage. Also known as structural integration, Rolfing is based on returning the body to its natural state of balance. I realized that during the time that I was healing from the incision above my big toe joint, I was walking on the side of my foot. This caused my muscles, ligaments, and fascia to shorten so that I could no longer walk normally. After two sessions of Rolfing, I felt like I had a new foot!


Even More Pain Challenges Came Later

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of my pain problems. Since my foot felt better, I decided to take a long walk one day. When I got home, I bent over the sink to wash my face. My hip muscles, fatigued from the unaccustomed effort of walking, gave out, and I sprained muscles in my hip. The injury was so painful that I could barely sleep for three weeks. The pain from that injury limited my activities for the next three years or so, but Rolfing, stretching, and continuing to swim eventually resolved the pain.

A few years later, I experienced a repetitive strain injury that caused tendonitis in both my arms. After spraying an ice-melting spray on my driveway and walkway, I had difficulty lifting anything with my arms. That pain and weakness persisted for about two years but did resolve with acupuncture.

I still wasn’t done with pain. About nine years ago, as I was completing work on a book about alternative treatments for chronic pain, I developed another painful foot problem called plantar fibromatosis. My left foot was inflamed with small benign growths on the bottom of the arch. With every step, I experienced a very painful pulling sensation in my foot. My podiatrist told me there was no effective conventional treatment for the condition. The growths could be removed, leaving potentially very painful scars on my foot, but the growths would likely return. Once again, alternative medicine came to the rescue. While researching my book, I learned about low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also known as cold laser therapy or photobiomodulation. LLLT uses red and near-infrared light to reduce inflammation and pain and heal tissue. It also works for osteoarthritis, which was causing misery for my elderly cat. I acquired a unit to use at home, and both of us got better.


Injury, Surgery, and Acute Pain

About five years ago, life had been going along well for a few years. I was busy with my clinical practice, promoting my book and starting a website, the Alternative Pain Treatment Directory, for people with chronic pain. I walked into a home improvement store to pick up a hitch pin for my bike rack prior to a planned vacation and was tripped by a store employee. I fell and broke my ankle, needing a surgical repair that included a plate and six screws. By this time, I had been preaching the benefits of alternative treatments for some time. 

I believed, based on my prior experience and research, that I was better prepared than just about anyone to manage pain without prescription pain medication, so I decided to forgo them. I managed the pre- and post-surgical pain with CBD oil, another alternative treatment I had learned about in my research. I also took ibuprofen and acetaminophen for the first two days post-surgically and used homeopathic remedies arnica, ruta, and hypericum. I used a pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy device to reduce pain and inflammation and speed healing. Once the dressing came off my ankle, I used the low-level laser therapy, which has to be used directly on the skin, to further reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing.

I was also very concerned because I could not bear weight on my right leg for six weeks, and I was afraid of reactivating old injuries by putting too much stress on previously injured parts of my body, including my left foot and hip, back, and arms. I used the LLLT as a preventive measure and, miraculously, it worked—none of my old pain returned. After about six weeks, I started a course of physical therapy to restore strength and range of motion to my ankle. I also had more Rolfing sessions. I’ve been able to get back to all of my previous activities.


The Other Alternative

Now imagine an alternative reality without my use of alternative treatments.

Imagine if, after injuring my back, I had never discovered mind-body healing and biofeedback—my life would be completely different. I may not have been able to enjoy my life as I do or participate in work that brings me joy. 


And that, my friends, is why I am a passionate believer in, and advocate for, alternative pain treatments.



Cindy Perlin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, certified biofeedback practitioner, and chronic pain survivor. She is the author of The Truth About Chronic Pain Treatments: The Best and Worst Strategies for Becoming Pain Free and the creator of the Alternative Pain Treatment Directory. She is in private practice in the Albany, NY, area, where she has been helping people achieve their health and wellness goals for over 30 years.


If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and need help or someone to talk to, you can dial 988 to reach the 988 Lifeline.

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