City Sprawl: Back against a wall

The one option I have left in treating my back pain is sending shivers down my spine.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

At the risk of sounding ever closer to middle-aged, I’ll confess to you I’ve been having some pain lately in my lower back. Swimming doesn’t work. Yoga doesn’t work, not even the weird kinds. Tylenol? My sciatica laughs in the face of your Tylenol. My sciatica—you see? I’ve had to start calling it that, with the possessive pronoun.

Know thy enemy.

Eventually, the pain got to the point where I needed some professional help, and I don’t know what I had in mind here, but physical therapy, anti-inflammatory prescriptions, and a massage by exotic species of bird all came to mind before what my doctor actually did recommend, which was to visit a chiropractor.

Just reading that word is triggering in you one of two feelings right now: either intense skepticism, or intense defensiveness. I don’t have to spell out for you which camp I was in, or the myriad, but always hazy and grounded-in-gut-feeling, reasons as to why. Chiropractors all know what their skeptics are saying about them, and I can’t see the point of dredging up old suspicions and battle lines, especially since I’m now weekly putting my spine in the hands of a chiropractor.

It takes a lot for me to admit that, since I haven’t fully switched camps. I’ve been dancing back and forth between the two camps, which is uncomfortable and resulting in a lot of awkward conversations with friends. Obviously, I bring up the topic of my chiropractor all the time, since I need lots of opinions on it. Then I throw the opinions all out, immediately. My back hurts. Desperation is winning out over cynicism.

Worse than this, my chiropractor knows how I feel. I couldn’t help it. For one thing, I have the poker face of a Labrador. For another, the first time I met with him he asked how I was doing, and that was a mistake. I blasted him with an unscripted monologue about how nervous I was and how I’d never done anything like this before but that I was willing to try about anything except please, I had small children and really needed to not be confined to a wheelchair.

He won me over by not taking offense. “I’ve heard it before,” he said. “I call it the office of last resorts.”

Actually, he didn’t win me over quite that easily. Would that it had been so simple. Then at least I could have laid my worries to rest and focused exclusively on the pain now seeping down the back of my right thigh.

But I couldn’t tune out the skeptic. If anything, my skeptical side was flung into high gear, and everything in my surroundings took on unfair and exhausting significance. In the waiting room, there had been water-cooler availability: check. The man clearly understood the importance of staying well hydrated. But what kind of music were the office loudspeakers piping overhead? Was it music that someone who could or could not get into medical school would have picked? I’m not proud to say I sized up the framed photograph of his wife. I’m more comfortable admitting squeamishness over the new-patient kit’s 15-percent-off-appetizers-with-purchase-of-entree coupon for a nearby local restaurant.

“Hey!” screams the defensive camp. “You gotta eat.”

My husband’s struggled with back pain, and can sympathize with my ambivalence. He was first prescribed acupuncture—which at first worked and then very much did not—then an inversion table, then physical therapy. The first therapist he saw told him he didn’t have enough support in his shoes. The second one told him the same shoes had too much support. “It was like trying,” he reflected, “to decide whether eggs are good for you.”

It’s not as though I’ve never stood at a medical crossroads before. We all make choices for our health, every hour of every day. It’s just that usually for the big decisions—say, whether to vaccinate your children—you can count on the loaded pause and arched eyebrow of your seasoned professional to nudge you the right way.

Let’s suppose I can warm up to the idea of a chiropractor. The philosophy of seeing one. The herbal essence of chiropractic care. At that point, how am I supposed to pick someone specific? Since most of them are—and increasingly, I’d stake my back on this—decent and well-meaning people, you don’t want to fall into the care of the rare quack who gives them all a bad name.

Am I completely at the mercy of reviews Russian web bots have penned on the internet? Like any good patriot, I’d Googled my guy beforehand, and spent an hour squinting at the profiles of all his opining Yelp users. Hold your surprise when I tell you I found something fishy with all of them. One lady declined to use vowels when she typed; somebody else was named Amandine, and is that even a real name? A third person’s profile picture was a photograph of an actual fish.

The closest thing I can compare it to is how, if you’re a renter like I am, we still rely largely on Craigslist for our house hunting. Doesn’t it seem like there should be a more grownup version of housing ads for people with incomes of more than $26,000? But no, we’re all still down in the muck, still scrolling the same anonymous Times New Roman listings that we did when we were 22. I’m not proud or anything. But using the internet to procure your basic shelter—or health care professional—feels so unofficial. So dicey. So blindly, idiotically hopeful.

Off the internet, here’s how things are going so far. The first three weeks with the chiropractor were an emotional roller coaster. I’d have a bad day, then a good one, then a really bad one. On the good days, I rejoiced, and overexerted myself. On the bad days, I panicked. Seeing a chiropractor probably isn’t my actual last resort for my back, but as of yet no one’s trotted out the avian-massage option—or any other options, for that matter.
I expressed my misgivings. The chiropractor told me to hang in there, but was also charging me $50 per session. Dark thoughts started to roll in. Of course he wants me to hang in there! I glowered. I’m treating this crook and his kids to whatever $50 will buy you these days—like an oil change, or the moral compass of a single Yelp reviewer.

Then the next week, I felt better. The week after that, I felt better yet. And that’s where I am now, stuck somewhere between feeling pretty bad about judging him prematurely and desperately hoping that’s exactly what I did.

I’m not suggesting you visit a chiropractor. I’m not dissuading you, either. Only I spent too long inwardly shrugging them off to suddenly take up the torch for them, or write a glowing review on Yelp. Anyway, it would come out all wrong. I use so many vowels. And last I checked, my profile picture was just Yelp’s anonymous gray icon that I never bothered to change. Also, I’ve only written two reviews, which looks pretty suspicious, though I have this coupon here for an appetizer that’s not going to trade in itself. So if you like, I can weigh in on the buffalo dip—which is, tragically, probably not great for your back.

(December 2017)