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A tale of Certified Medical Massage Therapy.

I’d like to tell you about this woman that saved my life. Or at least my shoulders.

My shoulders started giving me trouble a few years ago. It didn't take too long to diagnose the problem as classic rotator cuff impingement, in both shoulders. I knew that there was a fair bit going wrong, and since the main symptom of rotator cuff impingement is pain, it leaves you with no doubt that you have a problem. Cranky rotator cuffs don’t let you sleep much, either, and I am told that this long term sleep deprivation did little to improve my already curmudgeonly mood.

But it's no wonder my mood wasn't all that sunny. I remember it well: "I'm too young to fall apart like this," I thought at the time, clenching my teeth through the pain.

I’m a pragmatist when it comes to medicine; I'll try anything. If it works, that’s good enough for me. I tend to reserve scalpels for the last resort, but other than that, anything goes. So I started a journey to find a way of healing.

To make this particular part of the long story short, nothing worked. Vitamins, targeted exercise, acupuncture, yoga, weeks of avoiding reinjury; nothing worked. The problem got worse.

I went to a surgeon, someone who specializes in shoulders, elbows and hands. He gave me a cortisone shot in the worst shoulder and a long list of very specific exercises. The cortisone shot helped a little -- just enough pain relief so that I could keep going. I still HURT, but I could grit my teeth and manage -- barely. The exercises did not seem to help, in fact, they only seemed to make it worse.

The surgeon said things like "we are trying to delay surgery as long as possible." I know a few people who have had rotator cuff surgery, and the results are not always good. There are no guarantees. Sometimes people are worse after the surgery. And there is a theory that the bone surface that has been shaved by the procedure tends to grow spurs afterwards, so it makes repeat surgeries almost inevitable. I was not encouraged.

Two years and three cortisone shots later, I was no better. The pain was bad enough that I was not able to get through a full rehearsal without pausing to let the shoulders rest, and concerts were an ordeal. It was clear to me that my musical career had a hit a "Dead End Ahead" sign. Even teaching was painful, and to let my shoulders recover, I was leaving my violin at home while teaching lessons, and only borrowing my student's violins when I had a pressing need to demonstrate. My playing began to deteriorate; I have always had "fast fingers" and facile technique, so I could still blast through difficult passages at full speed, but my intonation and accuracy were no longer up to snuff. I was beyond desperate, and was trying to accept the idea that my days of playing the violin were limited. That alone was enough to cause me a great deal of upset, but adding the fact that I was living in pain every minute of my life was enough to cause genuine despair.

And then I heard about a new treatment called "Medical Massage."

I've been to massage therapists off and on through the years, and always felt much better for it. Medical rehabilitation massage therapy takes the art of massage to a new level, with intensive and thorough training of the therapist in areas of physical therapy, underlying anatomical function, and the pathology of functional physical problems. This new classification of certification is a synthesis between deep tissue myofascial massage and medically based physical rehabilitation techniques. This combination has done a great deal to "connect" these fields, and the results have been excellent. Connection works.

My medical rehabilitation massage therapist’s name is Kimberly LeFore, by the way, and she practices in Billings, Montana.

At my first session in October of 2005, Kimberly went to work on my shoulders. It was painful, but considering how much pain I was experiencing on a day-to-day (minute-to-minute, actually) basis, it was no more than seemed reasonable... OK, I'm lying. It was excruciating. But it only hurt on the spots where she was working, and then when she moved on to a new spot, the pain moved, too. It was endurable, in other words. And it also had that odd quality of being "a good hurt," and I could sense that it was therapeutic. I've learned that messed-up muscles and tendons hurt when a medical massage therapists works on them -- but they get better immediately.

At the end of one session, my shoulders felt better. Much better. I slept through the night with very little pain. I was almost afraid to say "I'm better" out loud, because I didn't want to "jinx" the improvement. I made an appointment for once a week.

At the end of two sessions, I began to have hope that this might actually be a turning point. The second session hurt much less, and the spots Kimberly had worked on the week before were not as sensitive. Once my body was less messed-up, the treatment hurt less.

At the end of a month, I could function without pain and sleep soundly every night. Taking aspiring or ibuprofen before the sessions helped quite a bit with the discomfort, and reduced the inflammation which helped even more. I felt better than I had in a decade. Kimberly says "I don't do 'feel good' massage. I solve problems." And I’ll say amen to that.

As the weeks passed, the sessions became far less painful and much more comfortable. A year later, my sessions were still definitely "intense" -- Kimberly does very deep tissue work -- but not actually painful, unless I had gotten into trouble during the week with some sort of chronic tension. Untying the knots in specific trouble spots can still sometimes hurt, but the results are so wonderful that I have described them as nothing short of miraculous. During this time, I've been amazed to learn how interconnected the body is: the knee-bone connects to the ear-bone, pretty much.

I went for weekly treatments for a year. Then I went every other week for a year, and now I am going once a month. I’m just tickled by how well I’m doing. I haven’t had a cortisone shot since. On a scale of "one to ten," I'd rate the effectiveness of medical rehabilitation massage therapy at "ten." (Actually, I'd rate it at "eleven," but I tend to get carried away in my enthusiasm.) 

It may be difficult to find a medical massage therapist in your area with the certification that guarantees genuinely advanced medical training.
For a reference to someone in your area, you can email Kimberly at:
Kin's email

If you've been suffering from chronic pain and physical disability, don’t give up hope. There may be help out there for you. Good luck.

UPDATE, 2011:

After six years of sessions, I can honestly say that Kimberly LeFore really did "save my life." When I wrote the above article, I was minimizing, to a degree, just how bad things had gotten for me. I was deeply depressed, in pain every second, and could tell that I had only a few years left before I would be in a wheelchair. And yet, after only six months of sessions, when the Concertmaster position opened up in my orchestra, I was able to say, "Yes, I'll go for it."

I was able to practice intensively and consistently, every single day for a month solid, preparing for the audition, bringing every aspect of my playing back to 100% -- and I could do it completely pain-free. I did have the muscle soreness and fatigue any healthy person would expect during such an intensive time, but the playing itself was at 100% full function, and 100% pain free. That was a miracle for me. Winning the audition was a very happy moment for me, professionally and personally. It felt great to win the audition, and it felt miraculous to feel that good again.

As I write this, I just finished two days of hard physical labor, breaking up an old set of concrete and brick front porch steps, piling the rubble into wheelbarrows and trailers, filling in a huge hole after hauling out a giant tree stump, working with shovel, crowbar, pry-bar, sledgehammer, sweating in the hot sun and wearing work gloves. I am pooped, but I feel good. Really good. Six years ago, trying to work like this -- even for half a day -- would have landed me in bed for a week. It's nice to know that I may, God willing, have many years of a healthy, active life ahead of me.