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Aging Spines Feel Young Again!

Safe, successful homeopathic treatment for painful spinal stenosis

Senior couple

“My back aches so much that it’s hard to stand up straight…”

“Whenever I bend my neck forward, I get a sharp pain from my neck to my shoulders…”

“My legs feel heavy and clumsy when I walk, but when I use a shopping cart at the grocery,  I get around easier…”

Aches and pains that limit a person’s mobility—these are the kinds of complaints I hear daily in my busy family practice, especially from people in their 60s and older. I do my best to help each patient, but some cases are more difficult than others, especially when the culprit is degenerative changes in the spine that accompany the “wear and tear” osteoarthritis of aging. This degenerative process can also be accelerated in younger people who’ve experienced repetitive trauma to their spines, perhaps from sports, work, or other injuries.

Conventional medical treatment has little to offer people suffering the effects of degenerative spinal changes. That’s why I’m eager to share with you a homeopathic treatment method that I have been using successfully with patients for the past four or five years. But first, here’s a little background on the problem.

Wear & tear on the spine

Between each bone (vertebra) in the spinal column is a natural cushion ­(intervertebral disc) that absorbs shock and gives our spines the ability to bend. Over time, these discs lose moisture and flatten out, causing the joint spaces between the vertebrae to decrease. This is one reason why people tend to get shorter with age.

As discs get thinner and lose their ability to cushion, friction of bone on bone can occur. This results in the body trying to heal itself by adding extra bone to the damaged areas. Such bony growths on the vertebrae are common and may go unnoticed, unless they grow into the spinal canal and press on the spinal cord, or they grow into the nerve-root canals (i.e., “foraminal canals”) on either side of the vertebrae and press on the nerves. The narrowing of these canals is known as “stenosis” (spinal stenosis or foraminal stenosis). Bulging discs, vertebral fractures, thickened ligaments, and related conditions can further narrow these passageways in which the spinal cord and nerve roots travel.

Senior couple

Sufferers complain of lightning-like or toothache-like pains in their arms and legs.

Stenosis symptoms

Pain from stenosis can come on gradually or suddenly and be constant or intermittent. Although the problem is in the spinal column, the symptoms are felt mostly in the arms or legs, depending on which nerves or what parts of the spinal cord are getting compressed. Sufferers complain of lightning-like or toothache-like pains in their extremities that are worse with movement and better with rest.

They may feel heaviness, numbness, or weakness in one or both legs that gets worse when they walk, and they often have to sit for several minutes before the symptoms subside. Interestingly, they will tell you they can walk for much greater distances in a shopping center if they push a cart and are slightly hunched over it (this temporarily relieves pressure in the spinal canal). When stenosis is in the cervical spine (neck), people may complain of tingling or electrical-shock sensations down the spine or into the arms and hands.

In the worst cases, people may have trouble with overall balance, coordination, or bladder and bowel control. They can even develop paraplegia or quadri­plegia from acute spinal cord compression (a neurosurgical emergency); for this ­reason, anyone with stenosis should be monitored by a physician, preferably in consultation with specialists. This is a debilitating, progressive disease process that leads to loss of mobility and, consequently, social isolation and depression.

How is it treated?

Doctors don’t typically diagnose spinal/foraminal stenosis based on a physical exam alone, since nothing much out of the ordinary will be detected. Rather, they turn to X-ray, MRI, or CT scans to confirm symptoms that a patient reports. (Conversely, not everyone who is found to have stenosis via imaging scans will experience symptoms, however.)

Conventional medical treatments include rest, postural awareness and physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, narcotics, nerve stabilizers, and steroid spinal injections. None of these treat the disease process—only the symptoms. And the medications don’t do a great job with the symptoms either; at best they just dull the pain because as long as the bone spur is still there pressing on the nerve, the pain doesn’t go away.

What Is Spinal Stenosis?

The spine, a row of 26 bones in your back, allows you to stand up straight and bend over. The spine also protects your spinal cord from being hurt. In people with spinal stenosis, the spine is narrowed in one or more of three parts:
• The space at the center of the spine

• The (foraminal) canals where nerves branch out from the spine

• The space between vertebral bones of the spine.
This narrowing puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves and can cause pain.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
of the National Institutes of Health

Section of the Spine

Spine

Surgery to relieve the bone pressure on the nerve (laminectomy) by shaving off some of the bone or other tissues is the next option, after conservative measures have been exhausted. Sometimes this is followed by spinal fusion surgery—fusing a few vertebrae together to create more stability in the spine following a laminectomy.

In fact, lumbar stenosis is the most common reason for spinal surgery in patients 65 and older, and surgery is helpful in properly selected people—usually those who have limited disease and well-defined levels of stenosis. In extensive stenosis, however, surgery may be too complicated and therefore contraindicated. Many older people with stenosis will be poor candidates for surgery because of other health conditions, such as osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or heart problems. Finally, although surgery may fix the current problem, it likely won’t fix it for good because the process of vertebral degeneration tends to continue.

First attempts at treatment

On average, in my 20 years of family practice I have seen about 10 patients a year suffering with significant spinal or foraminal stenosis. By the time they come to me, they usually have been diagnosed and are being treated conventionally for their symptoms, with limited results.

For a number of years, I tried homeopathic treatment to address the spinal stenosis symptoms of these patients. A review of the literature does not indicate any specific homeopathic remedies for this condition, so I repertorized the individual patient’s stenosis symptoms and gave the indicated remedy. Trials of Hypericum for those with sharp, lancinating or electric-like nerve pains were not successful. A few patients who felt achy and better from warmth improved mildly after taking Ruta graveolens, but their sickening, deep pain remained. I thought the remedy Bellis perennis held promise for some patients, as it fit their clinical picture of rheumatism in old laborers who are worse from exertion and lifting; but, alas, the remedy had no effect on their pain.

None of these patients came to me specifically for homeopathic treatment, so I did not treat them constitutionally; however, I did notice a Calcarea carbonica constitutional symptom picture in most of these fine people. That is, most had worked very hard physically in their lives, had a tendency to be overweight, had a tendency to “exostoses” (i.e., bone spurs), were susceptible to cold temperatures, had arthritic deformities, and were tired from a short walk. Perhaps I should have treated them constitutionally, but the nature of my busy family practice along with the physical, eroding, painful quality of their degenerative disease forced me to think less constitutionally …

Cow bone
Example of exostoses in a cow’s leg; a result of skeletal fluorosis from industrial ­contamination.

Ah-ha!

The remedy that would ultimately relieve my stenosis patients came to me as an “ah-ha” moment. While pondering the degenerative process in the spinal vertebrae and the proliferation of bone spurs that leads to stenosis, I consulted my homeopathic repertory for the rubric that describes bony growths—“exostoses.” A small handful of remedies were listed, which I researched in Hering’s Guiding Symptoms of Our Materia Medica and other homeopathic texts. One remedy stood out—Hekla lava*, prepared from the ash and volcanic rock that erupted from Mount Hekla in Iceland in the 1800s. It came into use as a homeopathic remedy after English physician, J. Garth Wilkinson(1812–1899), reported that sheep, cows, and horses grazing on volcanic ash-covered slopes near Mt. Hekla were growing huge bony swellings on their jawbones, shinbones, and thighbones, and sometimes dying as a result. On post-mortem examination, these exostoses were found to be relatively soft, crumbly, and riddled with holes. This gave homeopaths the idea to prepare a remedy from the volcanic ash, and they began to report clinical ­success using potentized Hekla lava to help people with dental and gum illnesses, jaw deformities, and bone diseases.

A light bulb went off in my brain as I read this. Having begun my career in pathology, I have examined many diseased bones under the microscope. The description of the bony growths on the animals in Iceland reminded me of the lacey-looking, trabecular-like composition of the bone spurs I’d seen under the microscope at the Manhattan Bone Institute—as well as on the MRIs of people with spinal or foraminal stenosis. It was in that moment that I knew that Hekla lava was the remedy that could help people who suffer from debilitating stenosis.

Spine diagram

Conventional medical treatment has little to offer people suffering the effects of degenerative spinal changes.

A trial of Hekla

I asked some of my stenosis patients to ­dissolve one pellet of Hekla lava 30c in a six-ounce glass of water and take a one-­teaspoon dose of this mixture twice a day (no stirring or shaking between doses needed). They were to refrigerate it between doses and, when the glass was empty, to start the process again. (I chose this water dosing method because, according to Hahnemann, it is more effective than the common way of taking dry pellets.)

First reports from these patients gave me reason for cautious optimism… Yes, after a few months of treatment, they were experiencing some improvement in their pains! But they still had a long way to go… The progress was positive but much slower than what I had hoped for. Was there anything I could do to improve my prescription

Add the tissue salt

In researching remedies known to address bone spurs, I had also considered Calcarea fluorica (prepared from calcium fluoride, and occurring naturally as the mineral fluorite). This remedy has a long record of use in addressing many conditions, including bony growths, bone tumors, and joint enlargements. It is also one of the 12 “Tissue Salts”—homeopathic mineral remedies that German physician W.H. Schüssler theorized could be used to support the body in the manner of a “tonic.” Schüssler was a pathologist who examined the make-up of the body and identified 12 mineral salts he found to be present in every human tissue.** Because human bones contain calcium fluoride (among other compounds), Schüssler found that he could help people with bone problems by supplementing them with minute doses of this mineral salt, using homeopathically prepared Calcarea fluorica in low potency (e.g., 3X, 6X, or 12X).

I had ultimately chosen Hekla lava over Calcarea fluorica as the homeopathic remedy for my stenosis patients because it better fit the description of the type of bone spurs and because its indications were mostly physical—which matched the very physical nature of stenosis symptoms. But since I wasn’t completely satisfied with treatment results, I decided to supplement the daily Hekla lava 30c prescription with a “tissue salt” to support healing in the manner of Schüssler. So I asked my stenosis patients to also take Calcarea fluorica 6X, 4 tablets under the tongue, once a day. This seemed to be the “missing link” because within days of adding this tissue salt to their regimen, patients began reporting substantially less pain. Below are two case examples.

Woman in garden

“Last week I was lifting 40-pound bags of limestone and soil to spruce up my garden for spring …”

Janet: homebound and isolated

Eighty-four-year-old Janet came to see me for help with depression. She had been widowed for the past 6 years, and before that, she had cared for her paraplegic husband for 20 years.

“For three years now, I’ve spent most of my time in a chair near the picture window,” she told me, “because if I get up and move around for even a little while, I get these horrible pains.” She described them as toothache-like, deep pains in both legs. The pains first started coming on whenever she did housework or went out with friends … so she began to do fewer of these activities and more chair-sitting.

“I felt very sad after my husband died, for sure … but, to be honest, I also felt a bit of relief … It was hard to see Howard so ill. And it was hard on me taking care of him all those years—constantly lifting him to transfer from the bed to the wheelchair, and so on.” With the onset of Janet’s own pain and mobility problems, however, her mood grew increasingly depressed as she realized she was largely homebound and cut off from activities and social connections.

Janet had been to several medical ­centers where she’d been diagnosed with lumbar spinal stenosis, and she brought the MRI reports to show me. She had been treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and mild narcotics. “I eventually stopped all that because the drugs weren’t really ­helping, and they just seemed to be ­making me more down in the dumps and foggy in the brain,” she said. Desperate for help, Janet had consulted a couple of ­different neurosurgeons. Although they thought she was healthy enough for ­surgery (which is often not the case for an 84-year-old), they refused to operate because Janet’s spinal stenosis was at too many levels in the spinal canal and would have required extensive surgery with an uncertain outcome.

Homeopathy for Janet’s stenosis

Although Janet’s depression was certainly colored by grief over the loss of her husband, I believed the sustaining cause was the terrible pain from spinal stenosis that had severely limited her activities and left her isolated at home. So I asked Janet to take Hekla lava 30c twice a day and Calcarea fluorica 6X once day, in the manner described earlier.

Three weeks later, Janet called to report real improvement in the stenosis pain. “At first I was noticing that I could do more around the house,” she told me, “and then after a few weeks, I decided to venture out for groceries for the first time in a long time—instead of paying to have them delivered. Not only did I get to the store okay, but I was able to last much longer than usual! The pains weren’t as bad, and they didn’t come as often.”

By the end of the first month of homeopathic treatment, Janet was occasionally forgetting to take her remedy doses because the pain wasn’t limiting her every move. She began to go out and visit friends again, and she wasn’t so worried that pain would interrupt her visits. 

By the end of three months of homeopathic treatment, Janet’s stenosis pains had decreased in intensity and frequency so much that she began taking the homeopathic remedies only when she felt she needed them—specifically when the pain would start up after sustained activity.

Stenosis pain gone?!

Six months after the start of treatment, Janet stopped the remedies completely because she was essentially pain-free! She went back for an MRI the following month—and the neurosurgeons who read it were puzzled by the fact that the multiple areas of lumbar stenosis, clearly visible in previous imaging studies, were no longer there!

Janet was extremely grateful to be back in action again. Later that year, she sold her house and made plans to move to another city where her daughter was opening a new business. On her last visit to my practice, I remember the joy in her face as she turned to wave good-bye—smiling and ready to start her new life. Two years later when I checked in on Janet, she was still completely free of the deep stenosis pains.

Stephanie: Lightning strikes

Stephanie, age 64, had suffered with severe left-sided neck and arm pain for five years before coming to see me. “It feels like lightning is striking!” she said. “The pain travels down my shoulder into my arm and hand really fast and gives me a terrible jolt.” It was especially triggered when she turned her head, when she drove, or when she did even very light housekeeping. She had always enjoyed her annual drive to Texas each winter from Illinois, but she had had to give that up the last few years because of her condition.

Stephanie had already seen several specialists and been diagnosed with cervical foraminal stenosis; specifically, severe narrowing of the nerve-root canals of the vertebrae in her neck, which was pinching her nerves. Her MRIs also showed degenerative changes in her spine in multiple places. Stephanie had been treated with anti-inflammatory medication, muscle relaxants, physical therapy, neck traction, and narcotics, but her pains were intractable. So she had stopped all those treatments before coming to my office and had decreased all her activities, in an effort to reduce the excruciating pain.

A number of neurosurgeons had recommended surgery, but Stephanie was not interested. After examining her and reviewing her MRIs, I thought that with the severity of her stenosis, her relatively young age, and her otherwise good health, perhaps the surgeons were correct and surgery would be Stephanie’s best bet. But Stephanie wanted to avoid surgery at all costs, so I decided to see if we could help her with homeopathy.

Hiking stairs

After several months of homeopathic ­treatment, all nine patients were pain-free and off all their pain medications.

Driving and cleaning again!

Stephanie began taking Hekla lava 30c twice a day and Calcarea fluorica 6X once a day. After just one month of homeopathic treatment, much to her amazement (and mine!), Stephanie could clean her house and make short driving trips around town without much pain. After the second month of homeopathic treatment, she was working in her garden “almost as if everything was back to normal.” In the third month of treatment, Stephanie’s pain worsened while cleaning her house, especially when she hyper-extended her neck while emptying cupboards. So I suggested she reduce the activities in which she was hyper-extending her neck but keep taking her daily homeopathic remedies. By the end of her fourth month of treatment, Stephanie found that she could go back to cleaning in all positions, even with a hyper-extended neck, and she did not have pain. Over the fifth and sixth months of treatment, she gradually became almost completely pain-free and was back to driving and gardening. She had cut back on how frequently she was taking the homeopathic remedies at this point, as she was having few if any problems with shoulder and arm pain. About 11 months into homeopathic treatment, she completely stopped taking the remedies, as she no longer needed them.

A treatment that lasts

Two years later (and three years after her homeopathic treatment began), I checked in with Stephanie to find out how she was doing. “I’m completely fine!” she laughed. ”No more lightning pains—what a relief!” Her only complaint? “Well, last week I was lifting 40-pound bags of limestone and soil to spruce up my garden for spring, and now my neck feels a little stiff… But I think it’s just regular muscle soreness—it’s already starting to feel better.” Later in the fall of that year, Stephanie called me with the happy report that she would soon be making her annual drive to Texas for the winter.

More success stories

In addition to Janet and Stephanie, I have successfully used the same homeopathic treatment method for seven other people in my practice with spinal and/or foraminal stenosis. All were initially suffering with debilitating pain that greatly reduced their mobility, and all were initially ­diagnosed via standard radiological methods (MRI, CT scan, etc.). After completing several months of homeopathic treatment, all nine patients were pain-free and off all their pain medications. All have continued to be asymptomatic in the ensuing two or three years since they began treatment, as well.

So far, I have only treated one patient in this manner whose response was not complete. A woman in her 40s with severe pain from spinal stenosis improved about 65% after three months of homeopathic treatment. I viewed this as a good response with potential for continued improvement if she continued the homeopathic remedies for another few months; but because she still had pain, she decided to go ahead with her scheduled surgery.

What’s going on here?

I wish I had “before and after” radiologic reports on each of these patients to see whether improvement in the physical signs of stenosis could be detected after homeopathic treatment, but I have “after” documentation for just one person. Most patients have no interest in pursuing follow-up MRI or CT scans once they are pain-free, nor would insurance pay for the tests when patients have no pain or medical reason to investigate.

Short of that, all I can I surmise is that homeopathic treatment with Hekla lava and Calcarea fluorica stimulated these patients’ bodies to absorb at least some of their vertebral bone spurs, so there is less pressure on the nerves, thereby reducing their pain.

But if these homeopathic remedies have such a positive effect in the spinal vertebrae, what about other areas of the body where bone spurs develop? Would this treatment protocol help there? Many of my stenosis patients also had arthritis elsewhere, especially in the knee or hip, presumably with some bone spurs, too; but interestingly enough, their arthritis in these other areas did not get better. The only improvement seemed to be in the vertebral column. I find this amazing and cannot explain it.

Try it and see!

The symptoms of nerve pain from spinal and/or foraminal stenosis are terribly debilitating. They decrease a person’s mobility and cause social isolation, which often leads to depression. The pain does not respond well to conventional medications, spinal injections, or physical therapy.

Homeopathic treatment using Hekla lava 30c, twice daily, and Calcarea fluorica 6X, once daily, over the course of a number of months has effectively stopped the pain in nine spinal/foraminal stenosis patients in my practice. These are amazing results! What a blessing for the patients who have avoided surgery and/or a life of isolation and misery!

I urge other homeopaths to try this method for their patients who suffer with painful spinal or foraminal stenosis and are under a physician’s care. Please let me know how it goes!

* An alternate spelling for the remedy Hekla lava is Hecla lava.
** For a thorough explanation of Schüssler's theory and use of Tissue Salts (also known as Cell Salts), see the articles by Miranda Castro in the January/February 2008 issue
of Homeopathy Today. View it and other back issues online at
www.NationalCenterForHomeopathy.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Debra Katchen, MD, MPH, AAFP, ABIHM, CHom

Debra Katchen, MD, MPH, AAFP, ABIHM, CHom, has been in ­general practice for almost twenty years in the Illinois cities of Knoxville, Galesburg, and East Peoria. She has studied homeopathy with Drs. Luc de Schepper and Robin Murphy and integrated it into her practice for the past six years. She currently practices in Monmouth, Illinois, and can be reached at dockatch@gmail.com.