A little more than six years ago (I remember Claire was pregnant with Elleda, who just turned 6) I woke up one morning, stretched, and *click*—something happened to my upper back and I was in extreme pain. But the urge to urinate was even stronger than the pain of getting up, so I forced myself to my feet and staggered towards the bathroom. I remember one shoulder being much higher than the other—my back felt all twisted up. Somehow I made it to the bathroom and relieved myself, and then I think I mumbled something to Claire and lost consciousness.
Claire had never seen anyone faint before, and called 911. I think the paramedics were there almost immediately after I regained consciousness—or at least that's how I remember it. They found me upstairs in the bedroom lying flat on my back. They (of course) took this seriously and took my vitals, gave me an IV (if I recall correctly) and carefully strapped me onto a backboard and carried me downstairs and to the nearest hospital in an ambulance.
At the hospital they hooked me up to various monitors and asked me questions. Once they were satisfied that it was "only" back pain (and that my loss of consciousness was a "vasovagal syncope") they had me stay for a couple hours to make sure. (I happened to be in very good shape at the time—I had been running assiduously in preparation for my pending fatherhood—so I was proud that I kept setting off an alarm when my pulse dropped below 40.) But in the end there was nothing they could do—back pain is the sort of trauma they're not trained to deal with—and they sent me home (with a prescription for some kind of painkillers).
The pain wasn't nearly as severe (especially with the Vicodin or whatever they gave me), but after a couple days something still felt wrong in my upper back. I went to see my primary care physician (PCP) who (lucky for me) wasn't available and so I saw someone else. This doctor asked me a few questions and then examined my back. (This was the first time anyone had done that.) He found a vertebrae had slipped out of place, and asked if I had ever seen a chiropractor. I explained I'm a skeptic and that I've read about many that have made quite outrageous claims, and I don't know how to find a "good one". He then had me lie down on a massage table, asked me to take a deep breath and pushed on my spine and I felt instant relief. He had popped the vertebrae back into place. He explained that the muscle pain was spasms as they tried (vainly) to pull the the vertebrae back into place. I asked him if there was anything I could do to keep this from happened again, and he said he didn't think so.
I still felt a little soreness, but that subsided after a couple days.
Let's skip ahead all the way to last weekend. I had noticed my back was a little sore at work last Thursday and Friday, but I thought it was probably due to the new chair and desk at my new job, or the workouts from the fitness "boot camp" I had signed up for there. On the weekend I noticed my back was quite sore especially when I leaned over or lay on my side to play with the kids. Claire noticed that my shoulders were far from level. But it wasn't until Monday that I made the connection. The discomfort became pain, especially after the stress of the drive home.
I went to see a doctor Tuesday morning. I described my symptoms and told her my story of how I was sure this was the same problem as before. She told me (even after I explained how the other doctor had previously "fixed" me) that all she could do was prescribe muscle relaxants and ibuprofen, and give me some back strengthening and stretching exercises. Most of the time, she explained, back pain subsides after days or a couple weeks. If it was still a problem after 30 days then I could return for "imaging". I protested saying that I was sure it was the same vertebrae problem, and she did a quick exam and I was able to clearly identify where the problem was, but she said there was nothing she could do. I asked her if she could refer me to another doctor who could, and she explained she is an MD and the doctor I had seen way back was possibly an osteopathic physician (DO). Kaiser (my HMO) employs DOs as well as MDs as PCPs, but she couldn't refer me to another PCP. I asked if there were any DOs at that Kaiser facility (in Mountain View) and she looked it up and kindly gave me a list of the DOs at nearby facilities (none in Mountain View). I recognized the one name in Campbell—I was pretty sure it was the same doctor I had seen over 6 years ago.
I called to make an appointment (and ended up having to make him my PCP in order to do so); the next available appointment was the next afternoon (today), so I suffered through another drive home and painful night. The muscle relaxant (cyclobenzaprine) helped a little, but also dulled my senses in an unpleasant way.
This afternoon I saw that doctor and was pleased that he was the same one. This time it took him three tries to get the vertebrae (T4) back into place. I didn't feel the same immediate relief I remember from last time, but my back has been feeling progressively better every hour. I asked him if I should try the strengthening exercises and he replied "Can't hurt." I asked if there's anything I can do to prevent this from happening again, and he said hopefully there's no need to worry about that since it last happened over 6 years ago.
I'm going to avoid drawing any sweeping conclusions from this experience, but in this case an osteopathic physician was better equipped to help me than a "plain old" MD. I don't think this is an argument for "alternative medicine" (which I remain skeptical about), but it does appear there are some legitimate alternatives to standard medical practice.