Live it!: Holistic approach to treatment looks at mind, body and spirit
On her worst days, Michelle Abner's pain was debilitating.
For 19 years she dealt with what felt like a baby's head in repose against her pelvis.
The torment nipped at her relationship with her husband, Jade, and her friends and family.
It controlled how she slept, how she sat, how she ate, how she walked, even how she stood.
In public she'd force a smile, purely to keep the tears at bay.
Sometimes she'd sit awake at night and ponder if anyone else ever felt what she was feeling and if her body would ever feel normal again.
Depression kicked in. Anxiety, too.
She spoke to a myriad of doctors across the region.
Their answers were far from conclusive.
Some thought her discomfort was a byproduct of three pregnancies.
It's normal, they'd say.
"I obviously knew it wasn't" Michelle said with a sardonic laugh during an interview recently from the living room of her home in rural Benson. "It was far from normal."
Then, one day, a breakthrough.
While checking in for treatment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester for an eye issue, Michelle was asked about any surgeries she'd undergone. She mentioned a hysterectomy that followed the birth of her youngest daughter and the talk subsequently turned to her pelvic pain.
The doctor was intrigued and performed some tests.
It was then Michelle learned the surgeon who performed her hysterectomy had failed to completely remove her uterus.
She was given two options: a second surgery — with no guarantee the pain would subside — or physical therapy.
She chose the latter.
It was then she met Kirstin Bergman.
Finally, a ray of hope
The looks don't bother Kirstin.
She knows the holistic treatment methods she subscribes to are sometimes met with a gruff "hogwash" and an eye roll. But conforming doesn't interest her. Healing does.
"The whole body is connected," she said from a therapy room at Grace Living Community of GlenOaks in New London, where she practices as a restorative exercise specialist. "So why wouldn't you treat someone with that idea in mind?"
It's that mindset that led her through a Master's program in physical therapy as an honors grad at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul and the study, among other things, of pelvic floor dysfunction.
A little-known disorder, pelvic floor dysfunction occurs in the muscles or nerves of the pelvis and its surrounding skeletal structure.
In women, the pelvic floor muscles surround the urethra, rectum and vagina.
Thus, the condition can cause severe pain — particularly during intercourse and menstrual cycles — incontinence, Endometriosis, even infertility.
While the disorder mostly affects women post-pregnancy, Kirstin said more nulliparous women are being diagnosed with the disorder, as are men. In fact, as many as one-in-five Americans suffer from some type of pelvic floor problem, according to the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Michelle is one of them.
When she "found Kirstin, I thought it was a dream."
"The idea my pain could be treated. Wow. It could be fixed," Michelle said.
Getting to the root
The course of treatment Kirstin performs can be extensive and lengthy.
In Michelle's case, she was in Kirstin's care for seven months.
Treatment begins through an initial evaluation — sometimes upward of two hours.
"It's a disorder that affects the patient's lifestyle," Kirstin said. "So that's what I look at."
Kirstin assesses the patient's alignment, pain and tissue integrity. She focuses on their posture, how they sit, stand and move. She examines their diet and whether certain foods might be causing irritations.
She then monitors muscle, fascia (connective tissue) and organ tension, from the top of the patient's head to the tips of the toes.
From there, she performs manual and trigger point therapy, soft tissue and joint mobilization, positional release, skin rolling, cupping, desensitization techniques and Gua Sha — an ancient Chinese method believed to stimulate blood flow.
The early treatments can be painful or awkward.
But that quickly subsides as the pelvic pain decreases.
It's then, Kirstin noted, her patients often regain confidence.
"The worst thing about the disorder," she said "is that it affects parts of the body people feel embarrassed to talk about. Who wants to talk about being incontinent or issues with their sex life? It's important people know their bodies can feel whole again."
"It's amazing," she said. "To walk around for 19 years, always feeling like your stomach is in knots. Always having to put on a happy face. Having everyone think you're making it all up, to now feel normal again. I feel like a new person."
She continues Kirstin's methods, but from the comfort of home and at the hands of Jade. He learned some of the pressure techniques during Michelle's treatment.
And she can't recall the last time she felt any kind of discomfort.
Dan Burdett is the lead writer for Live it! Magazine. You can follow Dan on Twitter @danburdett1 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About holistic medicine
According to WebMD, Holistic medicine is a form of healing that considers the whole person - body, mind, spirit and emotions - in the quest for optimal health and wellness. According to the holistic medicine philosophy, one can achieve optimal health by gaining proper balance in life.
Holistic medicine practitioners believe the whole person is made up of interdependent parts and if one part is not working properly, all the other parts will be affected. In this way, if people have imbalances (physical, emotional or spiritual) in their lives, it can negatively affect their overall health.
A holistic doctor may use all forms of health care, from conventional medication to alternative therapies, to treat a patient. For example, when a person suffering from migraine headaches pays a visit to a holistic doctor, instead of walking out solely with medications, the doctor will likely take a look at all the potential factors that may be causing the person's headaches, such as other health problems, diet and sleep habits, stress and personal problems, and preferred spiritual practices. The treatment plan may involve drugs to relieve symptoms, but also lifestyle modifications to help prevent the headaches from recurring.
Other principles of holistic medicine include the following:
• All people have innate healing powers.
• The patient is a person, not a disease.
• Healing takes a team approach involving the patient and doctor, and addresses all aspects of a person's life using a variety of health care practices.
• Treatment involves fixing the cause of the condition, not just alleviating the symptoms.
Types of holistic healing therapies
Energy healing: a natural and instinctive healing method used by holistic healers to clear and release obstructions in our energy fields.
Acupuncture: the process of acupuncture involves insertion of very sharp, sterilized thin needles into the body at precise points with the intention of adjusting, altering and improving the flow and balance of energy to promote healing of many health issues.
Healing touch: a calming, soothing and nurturing yet powerful energy therapy, healing touch supports physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health and well-being.
Homeopathic therapies: homeopathic medicine uses very small doses of remedies that are prepared from substances found in nature such as herbs, minerals, plants and animals.
Herbal therapies: the system of using herbs to heal and/or maintain wellness either internally in foods and teas or topically in creams or salves.
Chakra healing: Chakras are spinning energy centers located throughout your body that influence and reflect your physical health as well as your mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. There are seven main chakras that begin with the root, or base, chakra at the base of the spine, ascending in a column to the crown chakra at the top of the head. Each chakra is associated with a particular color along with certain functions. All of your chakras must be open and clear in order to achieve optimum health and balance. Open chakras allow energy to flow cleanly and easily, resulting in an increase in energy and awareness along with arousing your natural intuitive abilities.
Naturopathy: utilizes natural remedies and treatments to assist and sustain the body's natural healing abilities.
Meditation: a method for acquainting the mind with virtue. It is believed the more familiar the mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes.
Crystal healing: involves placing gemstones on the body to draw out negative energy.
Spiritual healing: the belief the body can heal through prayer.