Light Therapy: Baking the pain away

Let the sun’s rays bake my pain away…

I am FINALLY on vacation after a long, hard year of doing what a New Yorker does best – hustling! Gratuitous amounts of massage meant that business has been very good, but inevitably that overwork had its downside a.k.a tendonitis. My workouts helped me push through and past my ¨magic number¨ of massages per day, but with all that repetative movement it was inevitable that I would develop an overuse injury. Nevertheless, in the weeks that led up to my Mediterranean vacay, I had been laying out in the sun every morning before work to both settle my mind and develop a ¨starter¨ tan. The added bonus was the heat of the sun hitting directly onto my upper back and shoulders really dissipated a lot of the pain and tension I felt from the previous day´s physical demands. Unbeknownst to me this heliotherapy I was giving myself is actually a therapeutic technique dating back to antiquity. A number of ancient cultures had an idea of the healing properties of light. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, prescribed sitting in the sun to heal a variety of illnesses. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, preached that the sun could help heal nerves and muscles. Many ancient Greeks built roofless buildings for the purpose of exposing themselves to the sun´s rays. Outside of ancient Greece, the Egyptians took it a step further and practiced bathing themselves in various colored light to cure diseases. Thousands of miles away in India, medical texts dating back to 1,500 BC also note the healing properties of light for skin disorders. Go even further to China and their medical texts from over 2000 years ago detail a range of color and light therapies for skin and mental illness.

A woman receiving light from a modern light therapy i.e. phototherapy box

So, seeing that the ancients had an inkling of what the sun could do for one´s health, modern medicine didn´t get the memo until the early 19th century, where Niels Ryberg Finsen, a Danish doctor of Icelandic decent, studied the medicinal affects of light rays. His impetus was the severe metabolic disease he suffered from whose symptoms  he experimented with sunbathing to relieve. He died a year after winning the Nobel for a phototherapeutic device he created that simulated sun light to treat several skin conditions. Thirty years later, scientists realized a lack of Vitamin D produced in the body by exposure to sunlight, was the main cause of a disease known as ¨Rickets¨ which leads to the weakening and softening of bones. Twenty years after that, researchers in Hungary used soft laser light to relieve arthritis pain. In later years, NASA scientists did a plethora of research on the manner that LED light affects plant biology in an effort to understand how to grow plants in space. What they found was a very small spectrum of light provided most of the energy needed to grow plants. From this research, more strides were made in the understanding of the healing properties of light within animal and human cells. Currently, two forms of phototherapy exist; Non targeted light therapy that comes from a box, like in the image of the woman above and targeted light therapy, which is administered by a laser. These forms are used with much success in the treatment of such skin disorders as psoriasis, non-severe acne, vitiligo, eczema, atopic dermatitis, polymorphous light eruption and lichen planus. They have also been effective at treating mood and sleep disorders like SAD (seasonal affective disorder), non seasonal depression and circadian rhythm disorders like delayed sleep phase disorder. Further medical research is being done with light therapy to address accelerated wound healing and pain management, which brings me back to my tendonitis. My experimentation with light therapy from its natural source (the sun) elicited the following note. On the days that I did not lay out because weather did not permit me to, I found that the pain and weakness in my anterior shoulder and neck would become mildly worse and last the full work day. The days that I did get about 45 mins of sun exposure, it felt more like a dull ache and only after doing 6 hours of massage at the end of my day. It is clear to me that the sun does heal. In the two weeks I will be bathing in its Mediterranean glory, my hope is to eradicate most of the pain and heal those weary tendons. I am looking forward to the day when the medical community finally approves its use for pain management. We need more natural and ancient approved manners to heal our bodies and minds.

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A Body is a Terrible Thing to Waste

All bones, no strength – Anorexia circa 2003

October 13th was the 8th anniversary of my recovery from Anorexia. Back on that date in 2004, I broke down on the floor of my bedroom in the middle of the night. I was staring into the demon bowels of the disease that had dictated my life for 3 years. It sucked the air from my lungs. I couldn’t live another day with its crushing pressure. It took me two weeks to leave the confines of a friend’s home (where I had escaped to cocoon myself from reality) and once I did emerge, I felt like I was in some kind of silent film. The world moved slowly, while I felt frenetic. I quit and distanced myself from everything in my life that I had allowed to enable the disease. I went into therapy. I ate a bowl of black eyed peas and rice, my first meal, with trepidation. My stomach; my intestines; my mind slowly came back to life. With belly distended, I proudly proclaimed on whatever social networks existed at that time that I was recovering. I was still very thin, but by the New Year 2005, my consistent eating led my body to “betray” me.

Performing in 2007, at my heaviest post recovery (Image copyright: Gary Winter)

The life preserving shut down of my metabolism was meant to make sure I wouldn’t starve again. I was afraid to eat, but I did anyway. I submitted my food journals to my therapist who approved and told me to eat more. “Variety” she stressed, but I was fixated on foods I felt safe with. I did gratuitous amounts of cardio at odd hours, so no one would stare at my body at the gym. They had known me when I was at my thinnest and I feared their assumption that I was letting myself go. My fears were realized when in the Spring of that year, a trainer approached me and offered to give me a fitness assessment. The masochist in me accepted and after running his various tests, proclaimed to me that I was borderline obese. Oh, the shame that washed over me. For years, that left me with such an acrid taste for personal trainers. He told me to cut out the “junk food” and come see him for sessions at the gym. I was living on tuna fish and pita breads, fueling my workouts with coffee and bee pollen smoothies. I never went back to that gym. In fact I stopped going to any gym. My weight and health habits fluctuated erratically between 2005 and 2008, until a good friend recommended his trainer. I got over myself and the shame I had felt in my previous experience and contacted him. He assessed me through a short circuit of activities and introduced the concept of strength training. He taught me how muscle mass and strength would benefit me in the long run, making my metabolism more efficient and letting my body reshape itself into it’s own “normal.”

All muscle, all strength!

The seed he planted germinated when I went back to school for massage. I was hit with Anatomy, Physiology, Neuro and Kinesiology. I never soaked up information with such appetite before. I couldn’t get enough. This knowledge enhanced my workouts and sessions with my trainer because I understood how my body was designed to function. Suddenly, Mr. “Borderline Obese” became the joke that I should have never taken seriously. (Side note here: I saw his picture and name on a real estate placard recently, which clearly shows us he did not have a glowing career in exercise physiology after all). I also returned to therapy with a more cognitive approach to help get to the root of my control issues and take them head on…much like throwing knees and elbows during pad drills. I channeled my emotions into my workouts and learned, often times the hard way, what an art BALANCE is. Now, as a massage therapist, it is so important to foster this healthy sense of bodily awareness within my clients, wherever possible and always when solicited.

So when I was contacted recently by a Fitness/Wellness website for a review of their services, I stepped up to the plate and joined. SlimKicker is a point based program kind of in the vein of Weight Watchers, except that it values activities and nutrition at various levels and creates challenges for its users to foster long term health habits. It also provides a calorie counter, fitness tracker and other resources. There is the community aspect too, as users can post inspirational feed on the homepage, join each other in challenges/groups and “friend” each other for support. The About Us section states that the site is all about learning proper nutrition, portion control, and acquiring important habits. In that vein, upon signing up I was asked for my weight and what my goal was – weight loss or strengthening/toning. Although I chose the fitness oriented option, the pop up that followed was more for weight loss, citing how many calories and percentages I needed to consume in order to achieve my goal. The amount it noted was no where near what I would need to fuel my body and my workouts. To drive this point home, I logged only my exercise habits; not my food intake. If I followed what the site suggested, I would essentially send my body into starvation mode.

It is important to note here that there is a disclaimer in their Terms and Conditions that states the site should not be used by anyone with any medical or nutritional conditions and that content is for informational purposes only, not meant to replace professional medical advice. Obviously no one with an eating disorder has any business on a site where everything is meticulously logged and counted, but many people without said issues can still have disordered eating habits and cycles of guilt they feel compelled to share via social network. The site’s inspirational feed is 80% laments at having eaten too much of something labeled “bad” either by the user themselves or the nutritional information offered to them by the website (Remember that disclaimer,guys?). Also, there are statements of pride over extra exercises and completed challenges; however these inspirational statements are edged with complaints about weight gain or lack of loss (again, that disclaimer). This is not the site’s fault. They want you to be positive, stay focused and band together for support. Our society is more to blame for fostering this widespread self loathing and depreciation. The hate and guilt are infectious and breed a vicious cycle that will continue so long as we choose to continue “sharing,” despite any health oriented social networks best efforts.

SlimKicker, if used properly, can function as a motivator for adopting a fitness regimen because it holds you accountable for your activities. Much like a TO DO list, if exercise is factored into a week and logged daily, it makes you all the more aware of the need to check it off your list. After doing so for so many times, it will hopefully become a natural part of your daily lifestyle. I’m still not a fan of food logging due to my past; however if you truly don’t know what you have eaten in a day, keeping a food diary can help you track unhealthy patterns like over eating and of course, under eating. My advice is to pay attention to your body’s individual needs and seek out a registered dietician and/or nutritionist if you find the process to be overwhelming.