A couple weeks ago, when I was driving to work, I realized I could barely turn my head, which made changing lanes on the freeway more challenging than it normally is.
The right side of my neck was all knotted up, accompanied by a dull pain in my right ear and a stabbing pain behind my right eye. I was sure I had a brain tumor, but before I could take care of that, I needed to deal with my neck.
My boss recommended her chiropractor and by the time I got to his office, I was practically crawling. I sat on his table and explained my symptoms. He stood behind me and pressed on my neck and I tried not to scream.
He walked around the table to face me.
“You don’t have a brain tumor,” he said.
“How did you know I thought I had a brain tumor?”
“I see 20 people a week with exactly your symptoms, and they all think they have a brain tumor.”
“But what about the cluster headache behind my eye? Is it hormones?”
He shook his head.
“It’s not a cluster headache and it’s not hormones,” he said patiently, but with a slight get-off-WebMD tinge to his voice. “It’s your jaw. You clench and it’s thrown your neck into spasm.”
“Should I wear a jaw guard at night?”
“They don’t really help.”
They also cost hundreds of dollars, so I was relieved.
“Clenching your jaw has has affected the nerves on the right side of your face. It’s also why you feel the pressure in your ear.”
I had explained to him that I had developed tinnitus suddenly three years before, and several trips to an ear clinic and two MRIs later, the source of the 24/7 ringing in my ear was still a mystery.
“You don’t have tinnitus,” he said. “You clench your jaw and it’s changed the shape of your ear canal. After we work on your neck, the tinnitus might go away. I’m going to give you a heat ultrasound and it’ll be better.”
“I’ve been using a heating pad on my neck,” I told him.
“Don’t use heat,” he said, which made absolutely no sense given that he was about to dump hot goop on the back of my neck. “That makes it worse. I’ll give you an ice pack when you leave. And don’t take Advil. It only helps vascular headaches but not headaches caused by muscle spasms.”
“So basically everything I thought was wrong with me and everything I’ve been doing is wrong?”
“Completely,” he said.
I was dubious. But he taught at Harvard Medical School and I don’t, so I laid on his table while he moved the ultrasound wand over my neck. He explained that the heat from the ultrasound would begin to break up the muscle spasm in my neck. In 48 hours, I would return for a massage and then another one three days after that, and that would be it.
I sat up on the table and rubbed my neck.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.
And it did. The next day I couldn’t get out of bed. I still couldn’t turn my neck and my entire head was throbbing. I felt nauseated from the pain. After hours of icing my neck to no avail I succumbed to the siren call of Advil, even though my chiropractor told me Advil wouldn’t help. I do think they helped, although I took four, so the fact that I was essentially comatose may have colored my perception.
The next morning I was in slightly less agony. I went back to his office and laid on his table while he massaged my neck and shoulders. He chatted away and when he’d gotten me sufficiently off-guard he wrenched my head to the left so violently, setting off a chorus of sinister snap-crackle-popping in my neck, that I shrieked.
“Jesus!! How do you know you won’t kill someone doing that?”
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he laughed.
I sat up on his table and rubbed my neck.
“Come back in on Monday. I think you’ll feel completely better by then. But your neck is odd.”
“What do you mean, odd?”
“It’s just odd.”
I expected something a little more substantive from someone who taught at Harvard Medical School, but I also didn’t need more information to obsess over, so I didn’t pursue it.
I left his office and by the end of the day I could turn my neck effortlessly. The pain behind my eye and in my ear — what I had felt off and on for years — had vanished. I hadn’t felt this good in forever. The day felt more sunshiney and I could almost hear Disney birds chirping around me.
When I returned to my chiropractor’s office on Monday, I wanted to kiss him. He gave me another massage, and as I was waxing rhapsodic about how fabulous I felt, he warned me that my neck could go into spasm again any time.
“It could be two months from now, it could be tomorrow,” he said.
Okay, I thought, as I walked out of his office. But at least it’s not today.
Today, I’m thankful for my chiropractor.