I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from my blog this past month. The predominant reason being my knee pain. It has gotten so bad lately I haven’t been able to do anything, so I decided that I need a real rest and to re-evaluate my lifestyle.
I have tried every fix in both eastern and western medicine.
As is anything where cultural belief comes into play, this can be a touchy subject. I’m going to explain my personal experience with both sides.
Upon my arrival to Taiwan (now two and a half years ago) I had the same mindset about eastern medicine as your average westerner, quackery. At the same time I was aware that the modern western healthcare isn’t exactly ideal (I hate big pharma with a passion). Over the past two and a half years my opinion has definitely changed. I don’t know if that has been due to growing older and learning more about health in general or if it is directly related to living in Asia.
A brief history of my knee pain;
Last fall, I jumped into training for my first half marathon. I loved it so much I ran another one a month and a half later and then the 12k obstacle course Challenge run a week later. Then I jetted off for my trip around Laos during CNY and didn’t miss a beat as I got up that first morning in Vientiane and hit the hot paved streets for a run (much to my still drunken dorm mates’ confusion). It was near the end of this month, limping around the park in Ho Chi Minh City outside my hostel that I decided something was definitely wrong. I haven’t been able to run the same since.
I started to focus more on biking and swimming, but I was still running about 5 days a week and hiking on the weekends.
10 months later (A few weeks ago) with the pain only intensified over time, I decided it’s finally time to call it quits on everything. Since last March I have tried every fix possible. I am at the point where every attempt I make feels more desperate and less hopeful.
When my knee first started to hurt I bought a brace and loaded up on ibuprofen for long hikes. I knew it was a short term fix but I did not think I would still be having problems almost a year later. After a month or two of that I saw a physical therapist. He took x-rays to make sure nothing was broken or obviously out of place and told me to take it easy on the running while I did physical therapy treatments twice a week. I cut back on the running and diligently went to get the ultra sound and electric pulse therapy on my knee. I did this for two months with no change until he recommended to a hospital to get an MRI. I got the MRI and had no significant ligament damage, an irritated lateral ligament, but no tares. So I continued with the treatment.
Somewhere in that time frame I tried acupuncture. I didn’t feel any difference but I only went two times. I have heard you are supposed to go for months before you can feel a difference, I just didn’t have the time, I was too busy with my active lifestyle. Somewhere here I fell off my bicycle and couldn’t move my arm for a few weeks so I gave up swimming and went harder on the stationary bicycle. I also let my friend try an old Chinese medicine technique on my knee, placing a piece of ginger over the wounded area and heating it with a piece of incense; we tried until I burned my knee.
I went back to the states for the summer and brought my MRI with me and made an appointment with the best joint specialist in Rochester. After paying $45 to meet with him for less than five minutes he looked at my MRI told me nothing was wrong it was just runner’s knee and I needed PT exercises. The physical therapist had me doing hip flexor stretches, even squats, and told me I could run for 20 minutes at a time. At this point my knee was severely agitated with pretty much any amount activity, but I thought since it had her OK it was fine. After a month of PT exercises that caused nothing but pain I gave up. I just stopped doing them.
In September, I came to terms with the fact that I have to stop running. I stopped but continued to hike, bike and swim. I sought out a class in Iyengar yoga that focuses on stretching and balancing the muscles. It took me a while to find one in English, the first teacher I found (Taiwanese), told me (through the interpretation of a friend) that my hips were crooked and my quadriceps were too strong, creating an imbalance and therefore strain on my knees. I would need to rest and work on the inner thighs and glutes to strengthen my knees. Okay, I thought, I will rest. So, when I found an American instructor whose class I could attend regularly I gave up hiking. Still biking and swimming. In the meantime I also found a notable chiropractor who confirmed the yoga instructors assessment that my hips were crooked, and informed me that I also have sprained ankles and my left shoulder is higher than my right, Yay! More injuries!
After a month of yoga, and visits to the chiropractor I still felt irritation in my knees and was beginning to loose hope, until my friend made an unexpected suggestion. He had been taking tai chi lessons from a master in Taipei, supposedly the best in Taiwan. The only master left who knows the real art of tai chi healing. At first I teased him about being an old person. Anyone who has ever been to Asia (or LA) has seen old people up at the crack of dawn doing strange looking aerobic stretches in the park. However, there are several different styles of tai chi (Wiki Tai Chi Page), the kind he had been learning had been more of a combative form, and his master, sifu, was the best massage healer in Taiwan, in possession of the knowledge of a lost art of tai chi healing, that only he knows. He learned from a secretive sifu in china who learned before him from a secretive sifu and now he is the only remaining one with the knowledge. My friend had been telling be about his classes, and boasted of his use of the force (yes, I made obvious Yoda comments here to convey my skepticism), and had made an appointment for his own ailments at sifu’s healing clinic and one for me too. I agreed to make the trip all the way to Taipei (it’s really not far in U.S terms, but for us on this tiny island, a 3 hour bus ride is farrrrr) to hand over my last hope of being healed to the legendary sifu.
I am not to divulge any of the sifu’s secrets, but I will give a general run down of what happened. In a small storefront aided by his tai chi students, I lay on a table similar to the one at the chiropractors office. He first felt my spine to make sure it was in place, it wasn’t. Then my knee and my ankle. He reset two spots on my spine, by having one person pull my ankles, one pull my wrists and pressing down on the specific spots in my back. My knee was “dislocated” I am not sure if that is a mistranslation or there is no English equivalent for the Chinese of “just a little bit in the wrong place” and he reset my knee by pulling and twisting it back into place. My ankle in a similar fashion. Then they covered my newly healed areas with the smelly minty green Chinese medicine bandages, that my brain immediately associates with the image of old people on the bus. I was told I was 50-70% healed and no activity for 3-5 days, swimming was okay, and I could only walk for 30 minutes a day, no more.
Well not thinking of it as activity, I continued with the yoga poses my instructor gave me to practice at home and some PT exercises recommended by my cousin who works in a PT office and swam. I was in pain. Serious pain. So I went back again this past Saturday and got everything reset again. Two days of absolutely no activity has left me starting to feel a little insane. I am taking it one day at a time, telling myself that if this actually works it is more than worth it. This Saturday I will return to Taipei to see the sifu one more time, hopefully for the final time.
When I told my friends and family back home about the tai chi master they were skeptical. My mom urged me to try to get another MRI scan. And we’ve talked about if surgery is a possibility where I would have it done. And I told my family if I have to get surgery I would 100% without a doubt in my mind rather have it done here in Taiwan. Primarily because I have health insurance here and none in the US, but that isn’t the only reason.
I trust the approach to medicine here more than in the US. Even the hospitals that practice western medicine have a more holistic attitude about healing than typical western medicine. I have stopped taking analgesics for pain, headache- drink some water, stomachache- have some mint tea, getting sick-drink some honey lemon tea, vitamins – chia seeds, cilantro, throw any fresh herbs into your food or soup. Through this whole agonizing process with my knee I’ve realized that healing isn’t going to be one quick fix. That I am going to have to fix myself and not just one part of my body. I’ve changed my diet, I’m changing my lifestyle-reducing stress, getting more sleep, meditating daily, mindfulness. All of these things are what western medicine would throw anxiety medication or sleeping pills at, these are short term fixes, with no long term solution. Eastern medicine has caused me to look at the whole picture of health. No just fixing the part that is wrong. If I want to be healthy I have to take care of my whole self, I don’t think it is coincidental that “holistic” and “whole” have the same sounding root.
I am not saying one way is better than another, they both have their deficiencies and their merits. I’ve never believed in “spirit”, or “chi” would be the eastern equivalent, but I have begun to think that there is something to a balance of consciousness. I think it is this balance that Eastern medicine does a better job of maintaining and thus tends to have positive long term results.