Things have to be pretty bad for a sixteen-year-old varsity volleyball player to quit the team, but that’s exactly what happened to one of our patients.
Kate (not her real name) came to see us at her parents’ request because of upper back and neck pain and increasingly frequent and intense headaches. It all started when she was on a four-wheeler on bumpy roads for an afternoon, a story that makes a lot of sense for the symptoms she had. Certainly, the physical symtoms she was experiencing could be accounted for by hanging onto the handlebars for dear life. The point to be made here is, she should have gotten better on her own. We usually do. So what happened to keep her from recovering? And, the story could just as easily have been, “It all started after exams,” or, “It all started after a fight with my boyfriend.” The cause and effect does not always correspond so understandably. Again, the point is, something pushed her over the edge of her tolerance and her body wasn’t able to get her back on track.
In fact, Kate’s pain and headaches kept getting worse. Kate is a good student, responsible, and a great athlete, varsity in two sports. She went to traditional physical therapy and was treated with strengthening and stretching exercises. She kept getting worse. Soon, not only did she have to quit the volleyball team, but she was missing a troubling amount of school. Her physical therapist realized his approach wasn’t working and sent her over to us.
After we evaluated Kate, a few things were clear: She could move her neck and shoulders fairly well, but the nerve testing showed her nerves were likely not sliding along their pathways the way they should. Even though Kate could move well when asked to turn her neck, etc, when we watched her move it was as if her neck was much tighter than it actually was. And, her hands and feet were cold, even more than usual, except when she had a bad headache, when she would get uncomfortably warm.
Kate’s treatment consisted of gently facilitating the movement that her body already wanted to do, but she was not allowing to happen. (I will describe why this happens in another post.) Once she moved freely and let go of the guarding activity, of which she was not even aware, the blood flow increased (as demonstrated by warming of her skin, which is the opposite of what happens with the stress response), the nerves moved along their pathways with less resistance, and her pain lessened considerably. We taught Kate breathing exercises (she demonstrated quite shallow, rapid, upper chest breathing. Check your breathing… This is really common) which also increased the blood flow to the nerves/skin and helped her nervous system shift into a less anxious, more calming, mode. Kate was able to continue with these activities with some simple home exercises.
The headaches decreased in severity and frequency almost immediately. The neck and upper back pain took a little more time, but within a few weeks Kate was no longer missing school. She also was able to play varsity basketball without problems. Does this mean she’ll never suffer from headaches and neck pain again? No, most likely she’ll fall back into her old patterns at times, but she now knows there’s nothing terribly wrong, and she has tools to deal with the symptoms when they do recur.
In the next post we’ll talk in more detail about the importance of slow, deep breathing. In the meantime, practice slowly inhaling and even more slowly exhaling…