My Experience with Acupuncture and Physiotherapy for a Slipped Disc
It all started in late 1995 with a numbness above the outer ankle of my left leg. I was helping a colleague take a rusty typewriter table downstairs for disposal when the numbness suddenly appeared. I thought it would go away after a few days, but it didn't—it became worse.
The company that I was working for had been taken over by one of its suppliers after it could not repay its debts. I had resigned after the new management gave me an offer that was very much less than what I had been getting. This is against Malaysian law, but I knew that it would be pointless to fight the case, so I decided to leave.
I applied for a few jobs, but by the time I went in for the interviews, sciatica had set in, and I could hardly walk. The pain was now radiating from below my left knee. Even so, I made it through the interviews after taking two tablets of Ponstan, a very potent painkiller. However, I didn't get any of the jobs after they noticed how I walked.
Possible Causes of My Slipped Disc
I first discovered that I had a slipped disc when I went for a medical checkup, a requirement to enroll for a Master's degree program at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati, Philippines. I didn't even realize that I had a slipped disc, but the doctor said that I had failed my medical test because of it. He said it was amazing that I didn't feel any pain, given that my condition was really bad and my spine had curved so dramatically.
I don't know the exact cause of my slipped disc. I fell off a bicycle in my childhood days when going downhill and knocking against a fence. That could have been a possible cause, as I had lost my voice for a brief moment after falling. But a more likely cause would be a masseuse falling off while stepping on my back. I felt a pain on the left side of my waist a few days after.
Why I Chose Not to Have Orthopedic Surgery
I finally decided to see an orthopedic doctor. He requested me to take a CAT scan, and when he reviewed the results, he recommended immediate surgery, as I had a very bad slipped disc at L4-L5. The intervertebral disc between my fourth and my fifth lumbar vertebra had ruptured, and its jelly-like contents were putting considerable pressure on my spinal cord.
I asked the doctor whether there were any other alternatives and he just made a joke out of it, and as if he was speaking to some idiot, he said "I knew you'd ask that. What's the big deal about an operation?"
I didn't like his attitude, so I went to see a different orthopedic doctor. This one did some tests, reviewed my CAT scan, and confirmed that surgery was required. When I asked the same question I had asked the other doctor, he replied "Your case is pretty bad. As you can see, you can't even lift up your left leg by more than 3 inches while lying flat." After getting two similar opinions, I was finally convinced that surgery was inevitable.
Since anything involving the backbone is considered a major surgery with high risk, my sister advised me to go to Singapore for the surgery. A colleague who had undergone a similar operation brought me to the National University Hospital in Singapore, where I met Dr. Dasday. He advised me against undergoing the surgery unless I really had no choice. He said "If painkillers can help you, delay the operation as long as possible. Surgery is invasive and cuts into your tendons, meaning that it will weaken your entire spine. When this happens, a second surgery, either above or below your present afflicted vertebra, may be required in the future, for example, if you have a fall or accident."
With this advice, I left and had another appointment the following month to monitor the situation. When I arrived for the second appointment, I met another orthopedic doctor, as I was told that Dr. Dasday had retired. This doctor merely reviewed my reports, and without doing any tests, said that I needed immediate surgery.
I was jobless then, and with three orthopedic doctors saying the same thing, I had wanted to undergo surgery and resolve the problem once and for all. My mother and my sister, however, were against the idea and advised me to follow Dr. Dasday's advice to delay the operation as long as possible, just in case something miraculous happened, or an alternative solution presented itself. In the meantime, they said they would help me out financially if I required it.
Some two months later, another sister of mine told me to see an acupuncturist, after her colleague told her that she had a slipped disc and was healed after one treatment. This colleague was washing clothes, and when she stood up to lift the basin to pour the water away, she felt a sharp pain in her waist and could not walk after that.
Acupuncture Didn't Help My Slipped Disc
I went to see the acupuncturist that my sister suggested. He studied my CAT scan but advised me to get an X-ray instead.
After my X-ray was taken, he placed three needles on my intervertebral disc between L4 and L5 and then burned it with moxa, a process called moxibustion. I told the acupuncturist that my pain was along my left leg, not my spine. The acupuncturist said he wouldn't be treating my leg because that was not the symptom that was caused by what was happening to my L4-L5 intervertebral disc. In any case, I did not feel any noticeable improvement after my first visit. I was then told to come every alternate day to allow sufficient time for my intervertebral disc to heal before the next treatment.
While I was undergoing treatment from this acupuncturist, I was also scouting for other acupuncturists in town, as I did not like the long, several-hour wait for a 20-minute treatment. The acupuncturist did not have an assistant, so appointments were a first-come-first-serve basis where patients had to agree among themselves as to who came first.
Every acupuncturist I visited had a different approach. Some placed as many as 10 needles along my left leg where the pain was without a single needle on the spine.
None of these treatments worked.
When I became more acquainted with my first acupuncturist, he would sometimes talk to me about his experiences. It was then that he told me that the method he used to treat me was not based on acupuncture theory but was learned from a professor in Beijing. According to him, the concept is very simple: "You burn the intervertebral disc to make it smaller so that when the disc does not exert pressure on the nerve, the pain caused by your slipped disc disappears. It's as simple as that! Many think that I'm using acupuncture merely because I use acupuncture needles" he had said.
The process took five months of daily treatment. I felt the numbness subside downwards from my knee to my ankle with each treatment. The feeling was as if I was standing in a bathtub with the water being drained. The area (not the intensity) of my leg that was numb became less and less. I projected that the numbness would continue to fall until one day it disappeared altogether, but that was not to be.
When the extent of my numbness reached my ankle and failed to go down any further, I decided to seek other means of treatment.
I then went to a physiotherapist and had a few types of treatment, finally opting for only traction to cut cost (to the chagrin of the chief physiotherapist). With 10 further self-determined treatments (I had refused medical supervision, also to cut cost), I did not see any noticeable improvement in my condition until the 7th treatment.
In the 7th treatment, something happened. I couldn't lie down flat, as my left leg hurt so much. I decided to twist my body until it didn't hurt. Since my bed was surrounded by curtains, the nurses did not see what I was doing, as I had been advised time and again to keep my body straight at all times. After the 20 minutes of treatment, I stood up and I felt perfectly normal again. The numbness at my ankle miraculously disappeared!
Relapsing and Trying Acupuncture Once More
I had a relapse nine years later when a masseuse used her elbow to grind my left buttock. It was very painful, and when I told her to stop, she told me that she felt something not quite right there and assured me that I would feel much better after she worked on it. Instead, I suffered a relapse of my slipped disc and sciatica the next day.
I went back to the acupuncturist, but after three months of treatment, I saw practically no improvement. I found another acupuncturist who could give me instant pain relief the moment he placed a needle that would send an electric current. It was frightening, but at the same time, it was very effective. He could not solve my slipped disc problem, but the sciatica would eventually disappear on its own, or so it seemed.
I'm still feeling numbness on the outer edge of my left foot, but since I can live with it, I didn't seek further treatment. In any case, an orthopedic doctor told me that nine years without a relapse was indeed an excellent track record.