I Tried Alternative Therapies Before Medication And I Regret It
Unlike some of my peers with ankylosing spondylitis, my first scan showed undeniable evidence of the disease. Bilateral inflammation and erosion in my sacroiliac joints were found, and a positive HLA-B27 genetic test cinched the diagnosis. My rheumatologist strongly suggested a biologic right away. But the idea of injecting myself with an immune-suppressing medication for the rest of my life was too much to process then and there. How did this happen? And how could it be forever?
Anything but that
I became obsessed with attaining remission naturally, which I now clearly see was the first stage of grief: Denial. I decided to try everything from restrictive anti-inflammatory diets that required cooking all my meals and left me crying on my kitchen floor, to foul-smelling Chinese herbs from my acupuncturist. I choked down handfuls of supplements and vitamins, had massages to break up my stiffness, and even dissolved homeopathic pellets under my tongue under the guidance of a naturopathic doctor. And I delayed any true medical treatment.
I was exhausted, covered in food stains, and smelled faintly of dirt and tree bark at all times (if you’ve never tried Chinese herbs, that’s what you’re in for).
My “Come to Jesus” moment
After three months of alternative therapies, there I was, in excruciating pain, barely even able to even roll over to grab the herbs and potions on my nightstand—and going broke from affording the practitioners who recommended them.
It was my moment of truth. I could continue trying unproven treatments just because a practitioner (who stood to profit from my business) was suggesting it. Or I could listen to my medical doctor who spent her entire career treating ankylosing spondylitis and used research-backed medications with decades of safety data—-even if those medications came with risk.
To my surprise, a biologic brought quick remission
The bad news is that it took being unable to put on my own pants in order for me to let the real experts take the reins and put me on a biologic medication. The good news is that when I finally did, my unbearable pain began to improve. I went into remission after just four weeks of therapy. Even though it only lasted eight months, it showed me that my body responds to the anti-TNF medications-—which makes me among the lucky ones with this disease.
In hindsight, I can’t believe I ever thought something like “the essence of horse chestnut”-—a homeopathic "remedy"—-could improve my symptoms. Homeopathy is based on the unscientific notion that highly diluted plant substances can cure disease. Homeopathy did absolutely nothing to help my ankylosing spondylitis.
This brings me to an important conversation that I think we need to be having in the chronic illness space: What place does alternative medicine have in treating inflammatory diseases like ankylosing spondylitis, and when are alternative medicine providers practicing dangerously outside of their scope?
No more magical thinking
If you are like me and your knee-jerk reaction is to avoid medications that come with serious safety risks, there is no shortage of alternative providers who will tell you that you simply don’t have to take them. Even when that goes against medical advice.
When you are desperate for a solution to your pain and dreading side effects, you may become willing to try almost any natural therapy presented to you—-because at least it won’t harm you. Or will it?
What I didn’t see at the time is that going without evidence-based medical treatment for a progressive disease is harmful in its own right. Delaying a medication that can slow disease progression, improve your function, and halt irreversible joint damage in the spine IS dangerous. And if any alternative practitioner you see is peddling a cure, don’t walk—run the other way.
While I do believe in a nutrient-dense diet, massage therapy for pain management, meditation for stress relief, and even those stinky Chinese herbs for certain symptoms, I am sticking with the science when it comes to treating ankylosing spondylitis. And with the cornerstone of my treatment in place, I’ve adopted some of these healthy lifestyle strategies to help around the edges—and that is exactly where they belong.
Other than back pain and fatigue, what is the most common symptom that AS patients experience?