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How to advocate for yourself in the medical maize to reach full recovery so you get back to what you love

You are suffering from pain, say chronic low back pain. It hurts enough that you don’t go out often anymore, you are not exercising to the point you would like to, and you have to call for help when lifting things. You’ve seen your primary physician who gave you some painkillers and sent you to a surgeon. That surgeon took images and circled (with red pen to make a point) areas on the image that ‘are giving you problems’, such as severe disc degeneration, degenerative disc disease, facet joint arthritis, compressed nerves and the list goes on. Then the surgeon tells you “we can surgically fix this”. “Try physical therapy first”. “Try to lose some weight”. “You should try to exercise more”.  And here you are, contemplating what to do. You’ve consulted the Google Doctor, read the success AND the disaster stories of people like you who had the surgery. You still don’t know what to do…

Healthcare is lightning years away from what it used to be, when your family doc knew you very well, and also your family and the name of the family pet. That family doctor knew all your habits and medical history and was able to advise you; you did what he said because you trusted him. 

Nowadays, the consumer is MUCH more educated, thanks for the ease of how we access information, and one individual in the medical systems knows LESS in general sense but MORE in his own specialty area. Why does it matter to you as a person seeking medical help?

You need to establish your care team, team of people from different specialties who work TOGETHER to help you achieve your goals.

  1. You need to establish your goals that are measurable and objective (eg ‘I want to be able to lift my grandson safely’, not ‘I want to be without pain’ – that is too subjective)
  2. You and your care team need to establish what are the barriers that prevent you from reaching your goals and from moving forward. Is it pain? Is it weakness? Is it not knowing what the best exercise regimen is and how to do it safely? Is it lack of sleep? Is it excess weight? Is it some kind of a condition that needs to be medically managed?
  3. You and your team need to identify the things that need to be addressed by the members of your team and established smaller, step-wise goals that they will take you through, with frequent check-ins.

So, getting back to you with low back pain that prevents you from lifting your grandson, and because of back pain, you have not exercised in a while and you even don’t know where to start. And – if you are over 50, your back imaging (x-rays or MRIs) show many red-pen-circling-worthy things that may not be problematic. Your primary care physician can take care of your well-being medically; your physical therapist will help you alleviate pain, get you moving and get you stronger safely. A nutritionist can help you lose some weight and use food as medicine. Your surgeon can take care of the mechanical component (IF that is what is in the way of you getting better) -but this should be your last resort, after you have addressed the above. Surgery does not make you stronger or fixes your pain, it only allows for you to get stronger and more mobile so your pain decreases, so you can start exercising to get even stronger so you can lift your grandson…..makes sense? 

Being a physical therapist, I encountered many cases that believed the surgery would fix everything only to be disappointed that the surgery ‘did not work for my pain’. And the success stories come when your team works together as a well-oiled machine.

So, my final note: research your medical team. Talk to them, email them, inquire, make sure they understand your situation. Make sure they are open to working with the other members of your team.

Happy Healing!