“Degenerative Disc Disease”: if you’ve gotten the diagnosis, you’re far from alone. By age 50, 85% of Americans will show evidence of disk degeneration, and more that 65 million of us suffer from low back pain annually. But putting such a big sounding name to your everyday aches can be scary and confusing- what does it mean to call the normal aging of your spine, something the very vast majority of adults experience, a “disease”? Whether you’re diagnosed at 90 or 35, Degenerative Disk Disease sounds life-ending. But to journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin? It sounds like a whole lot of marketing.
The author of Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting the on the Road to Recovery, Ramin spent six years as a human guinea pig while she scoured the globe for “the fix” for her DDD. After being diagnosed at age 52, she pursued chiropractors, steroids, surgery, to no avail. In an interview with Next Avenue, Ramin described her frantic and desperate search for a degeneration cure.
“I was very, very scared. It sounded bad. It sounded like doomsday… No one told me ‘That really sounds terrible, but it isn’t, so just don’t worry about.’”
Because what she learned over the years, as she was passed from hand to hand by different practitioners? Her diagnosis didn’t mean anything.
Everybody experiences disc degeneration; that’s just how the body works. To many, disc degeneration “disease” is as nonsensical as “gray hair disease”: a very scary term for a very normal condition. But when people are scared, Ramin argues, they’re willing to spend money to feel safe again.
Ramin herself was caught up in the $100 billion per year back pain industry. She tried steroids, narcotics, surgery, and couldn’t find relief. In the end, it wasn’t a drug or invasive procedure that saved her. It was her physical therapist, and intense, directed exercise.
Ramin relays the first conversation with her physical therapist in the book. At her first appointment, Brian Beaudoin turned Ramin over on a table and read a laundry list of her physical ailments: her pelvis was rotated, her facet joints were thick and bulky, her scalene and levitator scapulae were tight, she had a disc bulge and hypermobility. All of these contributed to back pain that she had gotten spinal surgery for just three months before, and her surgery hadn’t addressed any of them.
“Patients always tell me that their surgeon never discussed what would be required for rehabilitation,” Beaudoin told her. “They expect to get up and go the morning after the procedure, but even if they do everything right, it can take months to recover.” Many patients, he said, will never even regain their previous level of functionality. “They do not realize that if they’d preserved the integrity of the spine and its musculature, and instead worked with a good PT and an exercise specialist, with actual training, they could have avoided a lot of pain and disappointment.”
“The worst thing you can do as a practitioner is to allow the patient to believe that a passive approach to recovery- something I do to you, or for you- is plausible, because it isn’t.” -Brian Beaudoin
And there’s one of the most shocking things about Crooked: of the 100 doctors Ramin polled, all, except one, resoundingly said they would not elect to have lumbar fusion or disc replacement surgery. Now, Ramin agrees.
“People want to be fixed. They are always looking for the person who can fix them, or the procedure, or the drug. The bad news here, or maybe it’s good news, is that you are not going to find someone who will fix you. You will be the fixer.”
Because low back pain doesn’t just stem from “damaged” spines. It comes from weak glutes, weak thighs and weak lumbar stabilizing muscles, like your abdominals. An approach that only treats symptomatically, and doesn’t engage the muscles you rely on every day, offers temporary relief at best.
Brian Beaudoin’s philosophy for healing is much like ours at Omni is- no assistants, no modalities, no bull. He believes in functional exercise, not just one-plane curls or leg presses, because isolating a single muscle group does nothing to retrain a patient’s motor cortex. Loading a dishwasher or pulling on a shirt- the day to day business of living- engages hundreds of muscles at once, and so should that program your therapist designs for you.
At Omni Therapy, this holistic approach is built into our foundations. We understand that treating the whole individual- including emotionally!- is vital to lasting recovery. We want to give you the know-how, courage and confidence to take charge of your own wellness plan. You deserve to feel like a patient and not a customer, and you deserve to heal. That path to health will be yours to walk (and run, squat and do curtsies on!), but we can help guide you down it.
As Beaudoin tells Ramin over breakfast some time later: “The worst thing you can do as a practitioner is to allow the patient to believe that a passive approach to recovery- something I do to you, or for you- is plausible, because it isn’t.”
Instead, regular, structured exercise, overseen by a professional but ultimately performed and maintained by you is the path to a pain-free life.