Monday, April 6, 2009

A miracle, depending on how you look at it

[Computer graphic: "On Point" by Thomas Funkhouser]
Like everyone who can read this, I have a charmed life - a computer, a home to put it in, eyes to read with, the ability to read, more leisure than is good for me. And, like everyone, I find it easier to dwell on what I'm not satisfied with. But today my e-mail brought me a flock of reminders that something has gone very well for me recently.

The e-mails go to a listserve I am on for sufferers from neuropathy. Their subject is "Burning feet." I don't know how else to explain this pain phenomenon, except to say that it is real. What we usually mean by that is that western medical science can measure it. In this case, it is measured with a nerve conduction test, which involves needles and electric impulses, and makes you glad you have decent pain tolerance. (The plug for meditation comes later.)

The sensation that my feet and lower legs were burning cold and exquisitely sensitive, painful to walk on, had come on overnight. And the level of pain was unbelievable, though I could believe the disorder, which is pretty common in kidney patients. My internist never touched my feet, but asked a number of qualifying questions and prescribed the nerve conduction study and the first drug of choice, Neurontin. I grabbed at it, though I had just last year gone through serious withdrawal getting off this particular drug, which I was taking for much milder pain, and which has lots of side effects. Anything for pain like this. As many people know, nothing really stops pain, but you get a sort of relief, some breathing room. Meanwhile I considered some of the other things people do, like lidocaine patches and capascain cream. The only shoes I could wear were the soft ones, with thick diabetic socks to cushion them.

I was sort of swimming happily in the mental daze caused by the Neurontin when I went to my Chinese doctor for my regular acupuncture appointment. I have been getting treatments for a year now, part of my ongoing desperate attempt to stop growing old. I did know that acupuncture excels at pain disorders. But I had no real expectation that it would impact this tsunami. I think Dr. Wang did, though. He got very efficient. Neuropathy is one of the specific conditions for which the World Health Organization has validated acupuncture. It is understood like every other illness as a blockage in the natural flow of chi.

How do you describe these things? You walk in bent over with pain. You get up from the treatment table an hour later, and you're all right.

Since then I have stood and stared at the results of the nerve conduction study. Yes, I really have this disorder. Something is still manifesting in one leg, complicated by arthritis and a chronically recurrent bursitis. Maybe the cure was a coincidence. Maybe the neuropathy just went "in remission" in that mysterious way things do when western medicine can't explain them. We shall see. I still have some tingling in my feet, especially the soles; some sensation of heat, but not enough to take a Tylenol (except now that I'm thinking about it). I am still bothered at night by the pressure of the bedclothes on my toes; but not enough to order one of those tent things that holds the bedclothes up off your feet.

Most people I mention acupuncture to tell me "I can't stand needles," as if that settled it, and a whole major world tradition in medicine is out the window. Of course you don't like being stuck with sharp things; I wouldn't want to hang around with you if you did. But when you have intractable problems, maybe it's worth a try. An acupuncture needle is hair-thin, not like the needle that gives you your flu shot. Sometimes it stings going in, but the pain immediately subsides. It's supposed to. You are not supposed to lie there in pain. I have never suffered with acupuncture anything like I did in beauty parlors back in the day; I mean that.

I admit to a certain comfort-level approaching acupuncture, in that a long time ago I learned to give myself shots for allergy, later for Procrit. Then, too, there's the edge you gain sitting still in meditation with other people. You get over your fear of pain and your conditioned response. You see that pain is just a sensation. It passes. You really can endure it. It gives you a certain pride, actually, a kind of warrior attitude.

And after all, I had given birth, so I knew what real pain was about. I remember when Joan Rivers was a young standup comic, she had a bit I thought was funny. She said, "They tell you having a baby doesn't have to hurt. Let me tell you this - I screamed my head off. And that was just during conception."

Her line, not mine.

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