On Black Friday, I had no interest in shopping. I had lifted my growing niece and nephews too much over Thanksgiving and now couldn’t even lift a credit card, let alone a present. Another rotator cuff tear, I figured. Another year of pain. Just sitting still the shoulder pain was five out of 10. Turning the steering wheel of my car, the pain hit 15.
So I called my rowing partner Andy Baxter, who owns gyms for people over 50, and who is an expert in rehab for sports injuries. I told him my tale of woe, “This time it’s surgery,” I said.
“Don’t!” he said. He went on to explain what I suspected: half the time shoulder surgery makes things worse. One big problem is scar tissue, which tends to make your shoulder freeze up. Or the surgeon makes the tendon too tight and you can’t move your shoulder, or too loose and you can’t control it.
“Shoulder surgery is like back surgery, “ Andy said. “If at all possible, just say no.”
So I skipped the doctor and did three things differently. A week later I was kayaking and splitting wood with an axe. My shoulder feels as good as it did before Thanksgiving.
What saved me from another year of pain?
Maybe luck. Maybe I wasn’t hurt so badly as I believed. But maybe it was the things other than ice and Ibuprofen that healed me. Here’s my three-step prescription for a miracle shoulder healing.
First: I bought a sling at Walgreen’s to immobilize the shoulder. I even slept in the sling for the first couple of days to keep from moving it.
Second: I went to a topnotch acupuncturist. She hooked me up to a machine that indicated my qi or energy was weak through both my shoulders. She was confident that she could fix me during the visit—if the ligaments were not badly torn. Alas, the quick fix didn’t happen. But I had the feeling my energy was flowing better when I left her office, and I woke up the next morning with less swelling. I figured I was down from a year’s recovery to maybe six months.
I had the feeling that the warm oil poured on my forehead was grease for all of my joints.
Third: My wife and I went for three nights at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson. We had already scheduled the anniversary getaway and almost cancelled because I wouldn’t be able to rock climb or do the challenge course or ride horses or play tennis. In fact, I couldn’t do much of anything. So for three day I lived pretty much like a mushroom, holed up in the spa. And it was GLORIOUS!
I steamed, I soaked, and every so often I emerged from the various forms of hot water to be slathered in hot oil. I tried the “Ultimate Ayurvedic,” and had the feeling that the warm oil poured on my forehead was grease for all of my joints. Then my wife and I did a duet relaxation massage. My practitioners gravitated to my hurt shoulder, which they said was all was knotted up. They approached the knots very differently, but the net result was that the pain stopped, the sling came off, and before I left I walked over to the zip line tower and almost signed up to do the 50-foot climb.
My sense upon leaving the resort was that I had experienced not just a mix of Eastern and Western medicine, but Northern and Southern as well. A few days later I was kayaking and rowing. Miracle or not, this was the best way to avoid surgery.
Editor at Large Stephen Kiesling was a founding editor of both Spirituality & Health and American Health magazines. He was the youngest member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and the oldest competitor at the 2008 Olympic Rowing Trials. A Scholar of the House in Philosophy at Yale, Stephen is the author of several books, including The Shell Game, Walking the Plank, and The Nike Cross Training System. He has written for The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Outside, has been featured in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Today and All Things Considered..