Proper skeletal alignment can eliminate pain and promote healing, but it doesn’t have to be achieved with sudden, wrenching movements. “Gentle chiropractic” maneuvers can achieve the same goals, and educate the patient in the process.
Originally published 2003
In San Jose, California, Dr. Helen Shaw is on a mission. “People think they have to live with pain,” she says, “They’ve learned to limit themselves. Sometimes, they’ve even been told to ‘learn to live with it’ by a trusted medical professional. But most of the time, it just doesn’t have to be that way.”
A Gentle Approach
After years of training and a decade of practice seeing thousands of patients, Dr. Shaw has written the next chapter in the book of “gentle” chiropractic healing. Although many people associate chiropractic with violent twisting and jerking, Dr. Shaw is quick to point out that you can results without any of that.
“Good skeletal alignment is vital for proper function of the nervous system and muscular activity”, she says, “but that alignment can be achieved gently, by stretching some muscles and strengthening others. Sometimes a ‘quick fix’ is necessary, but the majority of the time excellent results can be achieved with gentle pressure, stretching, pulling, and light massage”.
Perhaps the most important benefit of that approach is that, after a while, people learn to correct themselves. But the trick is knowing what to stretch, pull, or massage. That’s where her years of training in human anatomy and physiology, come in, from her study of chiropractic technique.
Both her study and her practice convinced her that the way people hold themselves, the little things they’re not aware of, are responsible for many of the problems they experience. In other words, in a large majority of cases, we’re causing our own pain! It’s our own tight muscles that put things out of alignment; that keep joints from operating properly; that cause the pinched nerves we feel as pain. To correct the problems, the body simply needs to be “reeducated”. Sometimes it takes a while, but it is almost always possible to do. And that, in a nutshell, is Dr. Shaw’s mission: To reeducate the individual so they heal themselves, and to reeducate the public that healing is possible.
In her practice, Dr. Shaw uses a variety of techniques. The most common of them, generally part of every session, are:
Massage always feels good. As human beings, we love the touching and we benefit from the relaxation. But rather than an all-over, full-body, “feel good” massage, Dr. Shaw is tightly-focused on the muscles that inhibit proper alignment. Sometimes the important muscles are very small ones alongside a joint, that could easily be missed in a traditional massage.
Pulling on a limb, (also known as traction) is incredibly effective for sore joints. Often combined with shaking and jiggling to promote relaxation, this maneuver creates a small amount of additional space in the joints, which is often sufficient to reduce friction and eliminate pressure-induced pain.
Stretching muscles and ligaments is another technique that promotes good alignment. But knowing how to use the body’s own leverage to increase the stretch — and how to do so safely — is something that takes training.
Beyond the individual techniques, it takes years of training to learn how to identify the root causes for many problems. For example, a pain in the neck may be caused by the way a person holds their back, which could be the result of trying to protect a painful knee! It’s Dr. Shaw’s job to “connect the dots”, and fix problems all along the chain, rather than just the problem that lies closest to surface.
Perhaps what sets her apart, though, is that fact that she sees here her job as one of “teaching”. She teaches the body how to align itself better. And as she communicates with her patients, she teaches them about the connections, so they become more aware of the underlying causes for the sensations they experience.
A Visit with Dr. Shaw
Entering Dr. Shaw’s office, one immediately sees a large tropical aquarium. (It used to have a large an eel named Ior (“ee-or”). We miss him.) After being greeted by her friendly staff, you take a seat in her waiting room.
Usually, there are seasonal decorations all around the office. The way Dr. Shaw sees it, there is always a reason to celebrate, and a celebration deserves decorations.
After a short wait, you go to the adjustment room, where you see a picture of her two beautiful horses.
Dr. Shaw arrives. A small, slim woman of Japanese/American descent, Dr. Shaw is brimming with energy, and full of laughter. She is carrying her assistant, Dr. Peaches, an aptly-named cockatoo who assists in the rehabilitation of patients in a variety of ways.
As you lie face down on the table, Dr. Shaw works on the muscles of the back and the alignment of the spine. It’s nothing if not relaxing. Meanwhile, Dr. Peaches paces and back forth, delivering a Japanese foot massage, or simply stands and inspects the proceedings, to be sure it is done right.
Dr. Shaw finishes up the back manipulations with the “thumper”, an electric instrument of massage designed by some inspired person who shall certainly be receiving a considerable reward in heaven, if there is any justice in the world. (Dr. Peaches loves to play with thumper, too, putting his beak on it and nudging it about, which makes it sound like it’s old and antiquated and ready to break up into a million pieces.)
Then you turn over, and Dr. Shaw proceeds to pull and stretch the neck, mildly and gently, but firmly. It’s a pretty strange sensation, the first few times. But after a while you learn to relax the neck muscles (which is possibly the real purpose, since we hold them unconsciously tense almost all the time) and you notice that you are standing taller and more relaxed in the following days.
After finishing your session with Dr. Shaw (or, just as often, before the session), you go to a room where you lie down on a large box-like padded bench. An assistant puts down cold packs, which help the healing process, and then a roller begins moving up and down your spine. First your hips are lifted, then your low back, your middle back, and finally your upper back. Then the sequence reverses as the roller moves down to the bottom and starts over.
If you like, Dr. Peaches will also participate in this part of the session. He loves to have his head scratched, and he his extremely patient while you learn the best way to pet him. (It helps if you think of your index finger and thumb as a “beak”, and you gently pull on his feathers the way one of his beaked-buddies would.) It’s not only fun for him, but it’s soothing for you. Like petting a dog or cat, it’s calming, and it feels good.
After you get used to it, several of minutes on the table is sufficient to turn your body into putty. Sometimes, when it’s over, you just want to lie there and close your eyes… But after a while you get up, and you’re on your way out of the office, recharged and refreshed!
The Next Level
Doctor Shaw also teaches other chiropractors how to use her techniques. Much of what goes on her practice is teachable, of course. Many patients have the same kinds of pain, so when you see this, she tells her colleagues to look for an underlying cause over here, and over there. Then she explains what sort of result they’re looking for, and demonstrates the technique to use in each case.
But there are two aspects of her practice that go beyond the realm of teachable science, into the realm of art. They are product of awareness and attitude, rather than scientific training, and they depend on a considerable amount of innate talent.
The first unique aspect of her practice can only be described as sensitive fingers. Dr. Shaw is keenly aware of what her fingers are feeling when she works on a patient. Rather than simply applying a certain technique for a given problem, her choice of technique is guided by an acute awareness of what is going on inside the patient’s body.
As she works on a patient, she feels the muscular knots and the stress points. She seems to magically know how hard is enough, always staying short of too much, because here fingers are reading the patient’s reactions to the stresses she is applying. The practice of awareness can be trained, but the quality of that awareness is a matter of talent. After all, any one of us can learn to play basketball. But very few of us are ever going to jump like Michael Jordan. (You might even say that Dr. Shaw is the “Michael Jordan” of chiropractic.)
The second unique aspect of her practice is Dr. Shaw’s ability to communicate. That communication could be as simple as explaining a series of stretches. But more often, it is the combination of her awareness, coupled with her ability to communicate, that turns out to be the most powerful tool in her arsenal.
For example, I have more than once had a session that went like this:
- [Author] The knee hurts a lot. I’m not sure why.
- [Dr. Shaw (sensitive fingers probing)] There’s a tight spot right here.
- [Author (startled)] Wow. It sure is.
- [Author (relaxing, as the stress is rubbed out)] Ahhhhh…
Now, if the session ended there, it would have been worth the visit. But it is the next step that is frequently the most illuminating. She recognizes when some form of tightness is something new, rather than a chronic condition she’s been working with all along. So the conversation generally goes on, something like this:
- [Dr. Shaw (demonstrating)] That muscle is used to perform this kind of motion. Have you been doing anything like that recently?
- [Author (awareness expanding)] Hmmm. I did that a lot the other night when I was (name your sport or activity).
- [Dr. Shaw(demonstrating)] I see. Well, instead of moving like that, try moving like this. And use cold packs and this stretch when it feels painful.
- [Author] Ok. I’ll try that.
The result of this interaction is remarkable. First, I’ve learned something about what I’m doing that is causing me pain. But instead of being told that I should simply avoid that activity (which happens too often!) I’ve been given some things I can do about it. That advice makes it possible to continue doing an enjoyable or necessary activity in a way that minimizes stress on my body.
Dr. Shaw’s two-fold awareness (what’s going on in the body, and whether or not it is new), combined with an innate attitude that says her purpose is to educate, not merely to correct, are that primary tools that enable her to carry out her mission. Because she’ll only really be happy when everyone is functioning at their optimal capacity.
My Personal Experience
I came to Dr. Shaw after a couple of knee surgeries had all but completely sidelined me. I had eliminated activity after activity, until only a few remained — and they were frequently painful.
The first visit produced a major revelation — the arthroscopic surgeries that had removed cartilage from my knee had probably been unnecessary!
At the time, of course, it had seemed like a good idea. The doctor never told me that the cartilage, once removed, would never grow back. He didn’t even suggest that, given the irreversibility of the procedure, I might want to investigate a chiropractic alternative. He just said that, “Well we know it’s bad now. And we know that if we operate things will change. So what do you want to do?” Interestingly, he didn’t promise any kind of improvement. But thinking I had no alternative, I underwent the surgery.
As a result of experiences like that, I’ve learned to visit a doctor mostly for diagnostics. They have the best diagnostic techniques and instruments in the world. But I’ve learned to be highly skeptical of any drugs or surgeries they recommend, with the exception of setting a broken bone, wrapping a sprain, or bandaging an open wound.
Mostly, I’ve learned that they don’t tell me the long-term consequences of the protocols they’re advising. They don’t tell me little things like “cartilage doesn’t grow back”, or “this drug will fix your symptom, but it will damage your kidney in the process”. So I’ve learned to take their diagnostics, fill their prescriptions to see what they’re designed to do, and undertake a serious hunt for alternatives.
After all, if the problem isn’t immediately life-threatening, I can always go back for the procedure they recommend. But most of the time, I’ve been able to find safer alternatives that build long term health, rather than simply addressing short term symptoms.
When the doctor went in with the ‘scope (arthroscope) they found that a tear in the cartilage had produced a flap that had somehow worked it’s way around until it was wedged between the remaining cartilage and the bone. In other words, there were two pieces of cartilage in a joint that only had room for one.
Like I said, their diagnostics are superb. That explained the pressure in the knee, and the pain I felt when I tried to run on it. But their solution was to cut out that flap of cartilage. It solved the immediate problem, all right. The knee felt better, after it healed. But every activity since then that moves the joint in the wrong way causes extreme pain, as bone hits bone with no intervening cartilage to cushion the blow.
Now, here I was in a chiropractic session, learning that simply pulling on a joint (traction) creates a small amount of additional space! Had I gone to a chiropractor when I felt that pain, instead of a surgeon, a little gentle pulling might have been sufficient to let that flap return to its normal position. And then it might have knit together with the rest of the cartilage, and my knee would have been fine.
Or it might not. But it bugs me to this day that I was never given the choice, and had no opportunity to find out. I could always have gone back for the surgery. But it would have been worth spending 6 months or so first, trying to achieve full healing, instead of removing tissue that will never grow back.
The bottom line for me was a painful lesson: Always look for alternatives. And when it comes to aches and pains in the bones and joints, put chiropractic up at the top of the list.
Dr. Helen Shaw
Focused Chiropractic & Nutrition for Sports Performance and Self-Achievement.
Author of the Shaw Technique for Gentle, Guided Release
855 Saratoga Ave.
San Jose, CA 95129
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