Ankylosing Spondylitis and other autoimmune diseases can
be healed through alternative practices
Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), an autoinflammatory condition of the spine that greatly restricts movement resulting in spinal fusion, crept up on me in high school. When I was 19, a rheumatologist confirmed the diagnosis. AS is a lifelong, incurable illness. My father had a bad case (his spine stopped moving completely by age 36) and he passed it down to me.
The progression of AS was fast and very scary. Pain radiated through my whole back, ribcage, collarbone, shoulders, and hips. My neck mobility rapidly decreased. I was often hit with a stabbing sensation in my rib cage that seemed to last ages. It was frequently so intense I couldn’t take a deep breath. I was never present in conversation, always half in the world and half in the pain. It consumed me. I became angry, depressed, anxious, and hopeless. This, however, is not an story about being sick. It’s about getting better. Much better.
Incurable = A Life Sentence
When I was first diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, I didn’t think much of it. I couldn’t touch my toes and my neck hurt frequently, but other than that, it didn’t affect the way I lived my life. As the years went by, however, each day became more of a battle. I steadily had less energy, could move less, and hurt more. I often couldn’t reach my feet to put shoes on or sleep for more than a half hour at a time. I learned to pick things up off the floor with my toes. The pain in my body increased at an exponential rate, and I got scared. So, I went to a doctor in search of help. An x-ray showed fusion in my sacro-illiac joints and narrowing vertebral spaces, confirming the disease process I suspected. It was in this moment, seeing an X-ray in the doctor’s office at age 23, that the doctor’s words hit me with reality — “there is no cure for AS.”
My rheumatologist offered the typical regime — painkillers and immunosuppressant drugs. I’d already been on Vioxx, the NSAID pulled from the market for causing heart attacks and strokes, and was too shaken by the controversy to try anything else. The doctor told me I would be very foolish not to follow his recommendations. AS complications include blindness, heart problems, and compression fractures. However, I was in such a weakened state that I knew I couldn’t sacrifice my immune system to Humira or Enbrel. I walked out the door overwhelmed, terrified, and angry.
Rejecting The “Incurable” Mindset
“No cure = no way out” is a common message to autoimmune and autoinflammatory patients. We’re told, “If you’re lucky, it goes into remission.” Even with the best of outcomes, you live with the daily fear of relapse. That fear puts stress on the system, which makes it harder to get better. So, I removed the word “incurable” from my vocabulary and began speaking in present tense about my illness, referring to temporary symptoms, not a lifelong disease. Instead of “I am sick,” I would say “I feel sick today.” The language change slowly became more and more true to me. It gave me back hope, and that gave me motivation. As someone who lives a comfortable life, no longer limited by Ankylosing Spondylitis, I wish to share that, this shift in consciousness was the most powerful choice I made in my recovery.
Ayurveda And Disease
In this new and not-yet-infallible frame of mind, I began to research different systems of medicine. In Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, the way each disease is defined tells you immediately what you need to do to calm it down. Not that it’s simple, or easy, but that it’s possible. There is no claim that you can change your genes and remove all chances of experiencing AS pain again (this is the conventional definition of “cure”). But, you can remove the cause, reducing symptoms little by little until you feel better. A lot better.
Ayurveda defines AS as tejas burning ojas at the cellular level of the bone tissue and nervous system. Calming tejas requires the reduction of inflammation at a cellular level, and nourishing ojas means restoring cellular intelligence and soothing the nervous system. This Ayurvedic understanding of pathogenesis (progression of disease) became a huge, bold signpost that beckoned to me, “This way out!”
This concept replaced my former definition of the word “cure.” I stopped searching for a miracle drug or treatment to change my genes and un-fuse my joints. Instead I did everything I could to calm inflammation and nourish my system. This process has involved many different methods over the years, and my progress has been slow but steady. When considering the previous lifetime sentence, the slow road didn’t seem so bad. I ruled out nothing and began to seek help from all different sources.