I’m prostrate in a Fujian hospital bed. It’s 1980 China, where I’m on a job interpreting for National Geographic–my first gig after graduate school. Fourteen-hour workdays have worn me down, and I’ve contracted bronchitis.
The clinic doctors are required to treat me with both Western and Chinese medicine, which explains the daily shots of tetracycline in my now bruised thigh and the grainy little brown pills I gamely down with boiled water.
“What’s in them?” I ask.
I think I hear something about deer’s antlers and bear sperm, and I don’t want to know much more. But I recover.
Was it the modern or the traditional treatment that got me better? I never give it a thought.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. I’m living near Washington, DC, and for some time have suffered from life-draining back pain. Physical therapists, orthopedists, physiatrists, osteopaths and chiropractors provide temporary or no relief. I’m told that the problem is a torqued spine–but no one can tell me what’s caused it or how to fix it.
After five years of unfruitful physical, osteopathic and chiropractic therapy sessions costing me and my insurance company thousands, I’m desperate. My quality of life is plunging. No more bike rides, no more swing dancing, no more passionate planning of family hikes. Goodbye to hard museum floors and Audubon field trips.
When I start identifying with the elderly women on canes inching their way across the street in front of my car, I know things are really bad. I need a new approach.
“Try Dr. Shelly Wu,” suggests a friend with no China connection. [Names have been changed.] “Her diagnostic method will seem off the wall, but she’s cured lots of people, including me, of some really stubborn problems that conventional doctors can’t seem to help.”
I’m an evidence-based type of person. I’ve worked for think tanks and for one of the nation’s leading health-policy journals. I’m open-minded: I have nothing against traditional Chinese doctors, when I’m in China. But on big health matters, give me mainstream Western medicine–x-rays, MRIs, the works.
Yet mainstream medicine has failed me. So I email Dr. Wu, explaining how a long line of osteopaths and chiropractors have managed to straighten my spine for only a few days before the pain returns.
“The Chinese have a saying,” she emails back. “‘When the top is skewed, the bottom is crooked.’ No one is looking at the big picture. The problem may be in your mouth. Go see Dr. Chester Wang, a whole-body dentist.”
A whole-body what? My mouth? An emailed diagnosis? Is she nuts?
But horrid visions of my back problem turning me into my mother, whose lack of exercise, osteoporosis and stroke left her dying with the frame of a small, fragile bird, compel me to take a leap of faith.
I drive to a nondescript office building in Fairfax, Virginia, and walk into Dr. Wang’s office. I am greeted by a genial, graying man who gets straight to the point.
“Boy, are you off-kilter!” he observes as I stride down the hall to the dental chair.
After painstakingly measuring my bite, he says, “Your problem stems from one of two things. To start with, the Chinese map of the body links the front teeth to the spine. You’ve had root canals in your front teeth. Removing the teeth might fix your back problem; it has for other patients.”
I sink back into the dental chair in terror. My front teeth? No way, I think. This guy is wacko.
“The second possibility, and the more likely cause of your problem,” Dr. Wang continues, “is that your bite is misaligned, and the bone connecting your upper jaw to your skull is tilted, throwing off the rest of your body. The effect is like walking with a stone in one shoe. Have you ever had orthodontic treatment?”
“Twice,” I say, relieved that my front teeth are no longer in his sights.
“For some people, orthodontic treatment can have unintended, adverse structural consequences later in life,” he says.
He now has my full attention–and two weeks later, he places a tailor-made appliance into my bottom jaw. Working along the same lines as the mouth splints that athletes use to improve their performance, it corrects my bite and relaxes my jaw, which also supposedly lowers my stress-hormone levels.
Within twenty-four hours, the knot of lower-back pain that has been grinding down my spirit starts to recede. Three days later, at a neighbor’s Christmas party, I find myself standing on a hard slate floor for an hour-and-a-half without pain. A few weeks on, the pincer effect in my right sacroiliac joint is gone. Two months after that I’m back to the Lindy Hop and yoga abdominal hovers. I’m biking to spin class. I’m minitrekking on an Argentine glacier. I have shaved a decade, maybe two, off my outlook.
Skeptical friends wonder how and why such an appliance should erase my SI pain. Not me. I’m no longer a skeptic, for one simple reason: I am now pain free, returned to the active life I crave.
But it’s not so simple. The next twenty-seven months in dental braces (to make the realignment permanent) do not go smoothly. Each orthodontic adjustment improves or worsens my back pain within hours. The “it’s working!/it’s not working!” dynamic slams me back and forth between euphoria or depression, depending on the day and hour. Still, for me, the swift bodily response confirms the link between bite and SI joint, reinforcing the general rightness of my chosen treatment path.
In the end, reversing my malocclusion wasn’t a cure-all. I still see a chiropractor for laser treatment around my SI joint and periodic neck adjustments. But correcting my bite helped stabilize my spine more than any of the traditional Western approaches did.
Here is my life now: I get out of a chair with ease. I no longer toss and turn a thousand times a night. I walk weekly along the canal I love. I swing dance. I lift weights, carefully. I am not my mother. Recently more than one friend has remarked, “You look so much happier. I can see it in your face!”
So the gist of the solution was within reach of this old China hand, yet I didn’t see it. I’m reminded of two other Chinese proverbs: “As far off as the horizon, yet right under our eyes”; and “There are mountains beyond the ones we know, and heavens beyond the one we see.”
And sometimes I still wonder: What was in those little brown pills, anyway?
About the author:
Kyna Rubin is a freelance writer and Chinese-language tutor. She has worked for organizations including the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China, the Urban Institute  andHealth Affairs .