After being mysteriously sick, mentally and physically, off and on for a couple of years, I went to a doctor when I was back in Australia late last year and tried to get a diagnosis. It was really a retrospective diagnosis, as the physical problems had gone and I’d been dealing with the psychological content of the mental ones (though it seemed to me that there was a physiological component too.)
The doc thought that it was all down to a problem with my neck — a misaligned atlas bone, which is the top vertebra on which the skull sits. She said it was a common problem, and that the compression of nerves and blood vessels caused by it can bring on all kinds of trouble. She said it wasn’t an orthodox medical diagnosis, but she explained the biology and gave me some information to read, and it did make sense. She suggested a treament, called Atlas Profilax, which is a massage with a vibrating instrument that supposedly causes the bone to move back into place.
I wasn’t sure, so I gave it a few months. Symptoms didn’t recur, but the doc thought that they would if my posture got worse. In the end, I decided to get it done. MDs don’t provide the service, so I had to see an alternative healthcare practitioner. I decided to trust the MD’s recommendation and see one woman (a massage and cranio-sacral therapist, amongst other things).
Her opinion was interesting. She thought my atlas bone was only a little bit out, and although she said that the problems I’d had could have been caused by it, she seemed more inclined to think what I (and my old, now retired doctor) originally thought — that it was a virus. She was honest, saying that she wasn’t sure I’d benefit from the atlas treatment, except in a general wellbeing and preventative way (misalignment of the bone is apparently a contributing factor to posture worsening with age, the MD had said, as people crane their necks forward in order to feel balanced).
I decided to have it done anyhow. If it does provide a lifelong aid to good posture, I thought, it would probably be worthwhile. After a good, deep neck massage, the treatment itself was several uncomfortable minutes of having the muscles at the top of my neck, under the skull, attacked with an instrument like a small rubber-tipped jackhammer.
Afterwards, I stood up feeling as though I was in deportment class with a book on my head. My neck, back and posture in general felt very straight. In the car, I felt that I wanted to sit bolt upright. The next day (yesterday) I was a bit sore, but still had the feeling that standing straight — shoulders back, chest forward, head upright rather than craned — was natural and comfortable, whereas before it has always been rather uncomfortable. I also felt I’d stopped listing to one side. My mother thought I was standing straighter.
I spent all day doing my usual stuff — sitting at the computer, bending over fiddly little sculptures — and noticed how awkward it felt to sit with my neck bent down, compared with the comfort of an upright neck. This morning my neck is a bit stiff and the muscles are showing an interest in craning forward again as I type this. I’ve increased the screen magnification and am touch typing as much as I can, which is helping.
Enough people think the atlas adjustment did wonders for them that I’m inclined to believe the bone really does move back into place. However, I’m wondering whether my improved posture yesterday wasn’t due more to the neck massage. Time ought to tell.
Little things that I was hoping might stop after the treament — jaw popping when I open my mouth wide, crunchy noises when I move my head — are going on as usual.
So far, I would say the main benefit I’ve had, whether from the atlas thing or the massage (or even the cranio-sacral stuff the therapist did afterwards, who knows?), has been the discovery of a comfortable upright posture. And I don’t want to lose it. So I feel more motivated to do the things that keep the neck and back happy. (One slightly odd thing: I seem to be a little better at touch typing. I got through that whole last sentence without having to look until the word “typing”, and ditto for this sentence — I made mistakes, but was able to correct them without looking down.) And still feel I’m not listing to the left.
If the whole business of stiff neck and weird, short fevers (like what I gather hot flashes are like, but apparently I’m not discernably early-menopausal), and, worst of all, crippling irrational anxiety, was caused by a virus, I guess I just have to hope it doesn’t happen again. I’ve left both the tourist ghetto and the teaching job, so that I’m now in much less contact with people who’ve come from overseas or recently been on planes (my students always seemed to be going back and forth to Japan). Hopefully that will lower the chance of picking up a weird bug.
I did find that in dealing with the anxiety, beta blockers turned out to be the magic bullet. I took a low dose for two weeks last year. Somehow their physically calming effects broke the anxiety circuit. (They were much more effective in my case than Xanax, which was a helpful bandaid at times, but never seemed more than that.) Then I got miserably depressed, which was when I started to get an inkling that whatever else was going on, there was non-imaginary mental material to deal with. But I don’t think I could have dealt with it without taking the drugs first. It’s hard to look for concealed problems when adrenaline’s racing around your body and your mind’s in a panic.
What I will be doing, when I go back, is looking for someone in Bangkok who can give a good neck massage. Unfortunately traditional Thai massage does bugger all for necks, in my experience, and very often there isn’t a proper table, so that either your neck is twisted or your face is mashed into a pillow. Not good. But there are other kinds of massage therapists there. And if I’m going to keep on with the sculpture (I do seem to have been bitten by a “play with plasticine” bug!) I’ll have to get an adjustable table that lets me work with a straight back.
My neck is showing less inclination to crane forward now. I definitely need to keep the magnification high when I’m using this tiny laptop screen. My back still wants to be straight, chest out etc. I’ll give it a week, I think, then write another report.