If you’re like me, you want to do what you love. My passion is hiking, which requires working joints, a reasonably fit body, and happy feet, despite nearly-operable scoliosis, a right knee that doesn’t track straight, and overly tight tendons, I aim to be a white-haired octogenarian out there loving the trail.
From my late 40s to late 60s, I’ve had to find ways to resolve body tension, decrease inflammation, and heal injuries. The four complementary and alternative medicine options below keep me reaching my peaks and can likely help you, too.
This source of healing has been around for thousands of years. Tiny needles, often more like ultra-fine wires, are tapped into the body to increase the flow of energy along the meridians, or pathways, in the body. The “needles” are so skinny that each has a top for the acupuncturist to hold onto; the part you can barely see is what gets placed shallowly into the skin.
Acupuncturists may also use oils, heat lamps, glass cups, and moxa, a dried herb to help heal an injury. Different, right? Do I understand the theory behind acupuncture? Nope. I don’t understand computers or electricity either, but they work. Acupuncture reduces inflammation, which is great for my wonky knee, aching spine, and other injured body parts.
After acupuncture, I sleep deeply. My acupuncturist also helps women with fertility issues and can turn a breech baby in utero (wish I’d known that 29 years ago). She’s helped me get over a cold I couldn’t shake as well as worked on my seasonal allergies. I’ve sent her friends with lung disease and irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis, and they’ve come away marveling.
Since I had chemotherapy for invasive breast cancer in 2000, which is what introduced me to this alternative medicine, I get acupuncture once every three weeks, more often if I’ve got a specific problem I’m trying to heal. By keeping my immune system healthy, I’m better able to avoid the flu.
Does acupuncture hurt? Rarely. If it does, I notice it for the space of three heart beats. Once all the needles are placed and the lights dimmed, I zone out like I do during a massage, enjoying a wonderful sense of relaxation. Afterward, I may continue to feel boneless or I may feel surprisingly energetic. I can’t predict which it will be, but I enjoy both results.
Though born Canadian, Daniel David Palmer invented chiropractic care in the US in 1895. He based the name for his new healing system on the Greek words for “hand” and “done,” because the practice is done using hands.
Chiropractors used to be called “bone crackers,” the very sound of which makes my spine ache. I’ve never been to one like that. I go to gentle chiropractors, ones who focus on proper alignment of the skeleton and functioning of the muscles, ones who treat issues with ultra-light pressure.
Think of chiropractic work as a basic first step after an accident or injury. These folks know how the bones should be stacked and can nudge them back into place after they’ve been pushed out of alignment—which can happen from training hard, a fall, sitting too long at a desk or in a car, as well as more traumatic accidents. Before trying anything else to cure a body problem, it’s good to know that the skeleton on which our muscles and flesh rest is aligned correctly.
My chiropractor has helped me through whiplash from an ice skating fall, a concussion, weird hip pain, and, of course, my spine and knee issues.
I go once a year even if I don’t have an injury, for the same reasons I take my car in for regular tune-ups. I want my body to have the best possibility for proper functioning, to reduce wear-and-tear, and to catch nascent problems before they become major ones.
Reiki is another mysterious Eastern medicine that I don’t understand but swear by. This is a practice that began in Japan long ago, lapsed, and was rediscovered in the early 20th century by Mikao Utsui. Reiki is based on the energetic, rather than physical, systems of the body. The name “Reiki” combines the Japanese words for “life energy” and “universal,” the theory being that we are surrounded by universal energy. Once trained, Reiki practitioners call that energy into themselves and out through their hands into the one in treatment.
Not surprisingly, Reiki is called a healing energy practice. You don’t have to undress to receive the energy and practitioners don’t even have to touch you; one can hover her or his hands just above your body.
What does it feel like? You might feel warmth, a slight tingling sensation, or nothing at all except relaxation.
I discovered Reiki when I injured my shoulder from swimming. Reiki reduced the inflammation and took away the pain. Ultimately, I needed shoulder surgery to shave off some bone. My Reiki master gave me Reiki in the hospital before surgery so I’d require less anesthesia and greeted me with Reiki in the recovery room afterward to speed my healing.
One of the many marvelous things about Reiki is that anyone can be trained to perform it on themselves. There are levels of Reiki, each one offering a stronger flow of energy healing. I’m a second-level practitioner—each level required only one day’s training—and often use Reiki on myself to help me sleep. It’s perfect for athletic injuries, of course. And when my daughter had her wisdom teeth removed, I spent hours watching television with her as she lay on the sofa, my hands laid gently along her jaws, giving her Reiki that eased her pain. Sometimes I use Reiki simply to give myself an energy boost.
Massage is probably the best known of the alternative medicines, and possibly the oldest and most widespread of the natural healing methods I discuss here. Over 5,000 years ago in India, ancients used touch to care for people. The system spread to Japan, China, Egypt, and eventually Greece, Rome, and other parts of Europe. For white settlers in the US, massage arrived in the early part of the 20th century. During WWI, soldiers with shell shock or nerve injury were treated with massage.
During a massage, a trained therapist works on the muscles and fascia (sheets of connective tissue that encase each muscle, organ, and pretty much everything.)
You get to choose the level of pressure that feels right for you; please don’t assume the therapist knows best. If you feel yourself tensing against the pressure, then it’s too intense for your body. One typically feels deliciously relaxed during a massage. For me, it’s as if I’ve sunk into a deep well of healing in which I let go of all cares, much like a meditation. There’s a deep sense of calm.
When I’m training for an adventure like this summer’s hiking in the Bavarian Alps, I’ve learned (the hard way) to build regular massages into my schedule to prevent injuries. I stretch after each workout but massage goes deeper and the benefits last longer.
Along with encouraging the muscles to relax, massage increases the flow of blood and nutrients to muscles, tendons and the tissue surrounding them. Flexibility is increased and stiffness reduced. The body moves more smoothly.
I’m particularly grateful when my massage therapist works on adhesions, the dense collagen fibers that create scar tissue over major, minor, or micro-injuries. Adhesions can occur when the muscles are contracted repeatedly or for a sustained period of time, i.e., when exercising or hunched over a keyboard for hours. Adhesions bind muscles, may weaken them, and can cause pain. It’s great to work out these kinks before they become too problematic.
Cheryl Suchors is the award-winning author of 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, the story of a woman determined to heal from breast cancer and the loss of her best friend by immersing herself in nature and mountains, despite her fear of heights. Women’s friendships play a pivotal role. Kirkus Reviews called the book, “An inspiring yet relatable true story with exciting scenes and plenty of heart.”