for Chronic Pain Scientists don’t always know why these alternative therapies make the
hurting stop. But a growing body of evidence suggests they work BY LOOLWA KHAZZOOM
“It felt like I had been doused with
gasoline and lit on fire,” recalls Toussaint,
now 48, who was a student at the Univer-
sity of California, Irvine. “I can’t imagine
surviving something more devastating.”
Toussaint had become one of the
many Americans suffering from chronic
pain—as many as 76 million, according to
the American Pain Foundation—who
are dealing with everything from arthri-
tis to cancer. And like many pain patients,
she struggled to convince doctors her
symptoms were real. Toussaint says she
was refused X-rays, misdiagnosed, and
In the early 1980s Cynthia Toussaint was a promising young
dancer, close to snagging a role in the hit TV series Fame. But then
she tore a hamstring in ballet class. Usually such tears heal on their
own, but in Toussaint’s case the injury led to the development of
complex regional pain syndrome—a little-understood disease
characterized by chronic pain that spreads throughout the body and
can be so excruciating that even the touch of clothing hurts.
dismissed as crazy. “One doctor patted
me on the head, saying, ‘ You’re making a
mountain out of a molehill, darling. You
need to see a psychologist,’” she recalls.
Meanwhile her disease—often reversible
if treated early—only got worse.
Bedridden and folded up in a fetal position, she was unable to brush her hair,
shower, or use the bathroom unaided.
She teetered on the verge of suicide. Finally, after 15 years, a switch in medical
plans introduced her to doctors who
believed her. But by that point, the pain
medications they prescribed could not
reverse her condition. Worse, the drugs
left her with a slew of side effects.
Toussaint wanted to try physical therapy for pelvic pain, and a movement
therapy called Feldenkrais, ideas her
doctor initially dismissed. “He rolled
his eyes and said, ‘It’ll never help,’” she
remembers. Ultimately, however, the
move led her into the world of alternative
therapies—and saved Toussaint’s life.
When she first began working with
a physical therapist, Toussaint was so
sensitive that the slightest touch caused
her intense pain. So the therapist, sitting
at Toussaint’s bedside, used guided
imagery, a deep-relaxation method scientifically proven to reduce pain levels.
In guided imagery, a therapist helps a
patient imagine herself in a calming
place. Many patients visualize going to
the beach or the mountains. Toussaint
conjured up a make-believe ballet class,
where week after week the therapist followed Toussaint’s verbal cues to guide
her through elaborate combinations that
she “danced” in her head.
Her body quickly began unfolding.
26 AARP JANUAR Y&FEBRUARY 2009