Never have an operation unless it’s life or death
That was one of the family mottos Damien Mearns had grown up with. So when, at age 15, his doctor told him “You need an operation or you will be in a wheelchair by the time you’re 30,” Damien calmly replied, “I don’t believe you,” and, with his parents’ backing, declined the surgery his doctor said he so badly needed.
The operation Damien didn’t want then-and now, at the age of 49, is glad he never had-was spinal fusion surgery to ‘correct’ scoliosis-the abnormal twisting and curvature of the spine that Damien was diagnosed with at age 13. A major procedure, it would have involved inserting metal rods into his back and attaching them to his spine with screws, hooks or wires. Then bone grafts would have been used to fuse the spine in place. This metalwork would have been stuck in Damien’s body for the rest of his life-unless it caused any problems.
“It sounded like butchery to me,” said Damien, “and I couldn’t believe that medicine wouldn’t come up with a better solution in the near future.”
More than three decades later, spinal fusion is still conventional medicine’s main answer to severe scoliosis in teenagers and young adults. Although it can be effective for stopping the spinal curve from getting worse or even significantly straightening it, the procedure comes with serious risks-from bleeding and infection to paralysis and loss of bowel function and bladder control.
Fortunately for Damien, there was a better solution out there for him, and today, he’s not only far from wheelchair-bound, but he’s also a keen ballet dancer.
But things got worse before they got better for Damien. Despite taking up yoga and, later, Pilates-both of which helped ease the constant “uncomfortableness” Damien experienced as a result of his condition-the curve in Damien’s spine grew, just as his doctor predicted.
By the time Damien was at university, he was experiencing facial spasms, eye pain and constant fatigue-symptoms he now knows were a result of nerves being pinched in his back. He had to abandon his bed and instead sleep on the floor every night “to push my rib cage back in line, as it was so uncomfortable”.
Things continued this way after Damien left university. He felt exhausted all the time, had difficulty concentrating and struggled to hold down a job. Eventually, at the age of 29, he reached rock bottom: “I was living in a bedsit, I’d lost another job and my girlfriend had just left me. I felt like my life was going nowhere.”
Realizing he had to make a change, Damien paid a visit to the Covent Garden Therapy Rooms in London one day to find out about any alternative therapies that might be able to help him. Browsing through the many leaflets they have in reception, there was one in particular that caught his eye. It had an illustration of the human body on the front depicted as separate blocks that were out of alignment (see box, right). “It immediately spoke to me,” said Damien. “That’s what I felt like-out of alignment.”
The leaflet was for a technique called Rolfing-also known as ‘structural integration’-a system of soft-tissue manipulation and movement education with the goal of improving the alignment and function of the body. Patients are usually recommended a course of 10 one-hour sessions, during which manual force is applied to the soft tissues, often while the patient performs slow, directed movements.1
After doing a bit of research on the technique, Damien came across London-based Rolfer Alan Richardson and booked a course of 10 weekly sessions. He soon started to feel better and noticed his energy picking up, but after his seventh session, something he never expected happened: “I had a massive de-rotation of my spine.”
Damien describes it as having an “in-body experience”. “I’d always felt disjointed-as if I wasn’t really connected to my own body,” says Damien. “But for the first time I felt wonderful.”
Once he’d completed all 10 sessions, Damien found he no longer had to sleep on the floor, and his facial spasms had diminished.
Life started going somewhere for Damien after that. He got a job as a computer programmer, which he turned into a successful career, and he met his future wife, Ivana.
Although Damien’s spine was still far from normal-part of it remained hidden behind his right shoulder blade, as it had been for years-Damien had accepted that things were “as good as they were going to get” and was happy with the huge improvements in his quality of life.
But some two years later, Damien received a surprise phone call from Alan Richardson, his Rolfing practitioner. Alan had been to the Back Pain Show in London and spotted a machine he thought would be ideal for Damien.
Known at the time as the Power Assisted Micro-Manipulation (PAM) machine, or ‘bionic hand’, it’s a tool designed to be used by a therapist to treat back pain and related problems by mechanically mobilizing the spine. Trusting Alan’s judgment, Damien soon contacted Irene Phillips, an osteopath who was using the machine in a clinic not far from where he lived. Irene was actually the first osteopath in the world to use this type of device-the latest version of which is now called Theraflex-and is still using it today to treat not just back pain, but scoliosis, whiplash injuries, prolapsed discs and more.
Damien booked a course of treatments with Irene and, after his eighth session, his spine popped out from behind his shoulder blade. “I was amazed. But Irene was quite blas’e about the whole thing,” said Damien. “We see this type of thing all the time,” she told him.
Spreading the word
Damien couldn’t believe that more people didn’t know about this potentially life-altering machine. Wanting to change that, he set up a Facebook Group to get the word out and so hopefully help others with scoliosis-especially those with worse cases than his.
Scoliosis Cures and Pain Relief-a public group on Facebook that anyone can join-now has more than 2,600 members, and Damien regularly posts links to websites and YouTube videos discussing Theraflex, Rolfing and other treatments for scoliosis and back pain. You’ll also find lots of success stories among the posts, along with some impressive before and after photos-including ones of Damien himself pre- and post-treatment.
Today, Damien says he barely notices he has scoliosis. “Technically speaking I still have it, but practically it’s gone.” His facial spasms and eye problems have disappeared completely.
He still has the odd Theraflex session-around once every 18 months-but says he’s able to maintain the improvements in his spine by doing rotational exercises and using an inversion table, a device that enables him to “hang upside down like Batman”. He also does a ballet class once a week, which he says is great for flexibility and strength.
Damien’s spine now has a curve of around 20 degrees, a massive improvement on the more than 50-degree curve he had before. And nearly two decades on from when his doctor predicted he’d be in a wheelchair, Damien is walking tall. He has alternative medicine-and his extremely prescient 15-year-old self-to thank for that.
Research on Rolfing
Rolfing, or structural integration, was developed by the late American biochemist Dr Ida Pauline Rolf in the mid-20th century. It’s a system of manual therapy and movement education that aims to improve the function of the human body as a whole rather than just treat individual symptoms. Commonly reported effects include improved posture and motor coordination, overall relaxation and pain reduction.1
While high-quality clinical trials on Rolfing are lacking, what studies have been done are positive. One involved two children with cerebral palsy and found that three months of weekly Rolfing sessions led to improvement in the children’s gait.2 In another study, 31 patients with cervical spine (neck) pain were treated with 10 sessions of Rolfing. After the treatment, the researchers found significant pain reduction and an increased “active range of motion” in the neck.3
It’s also been used to treat chronic fatigue syndrome alongside a ‘cardiovascular endurance regimen’. Improvements were noted in the patients’ sleep quality, posture, pain, wellbeing and ability to achieve functional goals.1
A helping hand
Theraflex, sometimes referred to as a ‘bionic hand’, is the latest version of a ‘vertebral mobilizer’, classified by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as a class-IIa medical device. It’s designed to relieve mechanical back problems by increasing the suppleness and flexibility of the spine. As therapists have used it over the years, they’ve discovered it can be used to treat all manner of back-related conditions, including scoliosis.
While conventional medicine’s answer to scoliosis is to immobilize the spine via surgery or, in less severe cases, braces, Theraflex’s answer is just the opposite: to make the spine more elastic and mobile.
The device consists of a computerized unit and a handset with four pistons that work at various speeds, with different sequences and forces. During a treatment-which usually lasts about 10 to 20 minutes-the patient lies face down on a specially designed plinth while the therapist moves the handset over the entire length of the spine. Patients are also advised to ‘walk tall’ for 10 minutes a day in between sessions to improve their postural muscles.
According to osteopath and Theraflex practitioner Irene Phillips, most back pain patients generally only need three to five treatments if the spinal problem is mechanical (rather than neural). Scoliosis patients take longer to see results, she says, depending on the degree of spinal curvature, but Irene has seen many curvatures reduce measurably in the nearly 20 years she’s been using the technology.
Although there appear to be no controlled clinical trials on the therapy, one retrospective study of 58 chronic back and neck pain patients has assessed the effectiveness of SpringbackTM treatment, which includes the use of a Power Assisted Micro-Manipulation (PAM) machine (Theraflex’s predecessor) and a simple exercise programme. According to the results, 90 per cent of the patients said that Springback helped by increasing their mobility while considerably reducing pain.1
Useful contacts and resources
Certified Advanced Rolfer
Hale Clinic, 7 Park Crescent, London W1B 1PF
Tel: 0208 883 7655
Official website for certified Rolfers in the UK
Official Theraflex website; includes list of practitioners using it
Tel: 07885 157 825
Osteopath and Theraflex practitioner
The BackCare Clinic, 86 Brockenhurst Avenue
Worcester Park, Surrey KT4 7RF
Tel: 020 8335 3787
Damien Mearns’s Facebook Group
Scoliosis Cures and Pain Relief