A ‘desert island’ treatment for bursitis

Who would have thought that a bit of swelling could be the most severe pain I have ever known?

For two full days and nights I was stuck in bed being hit by waves of agony. All I could do was wake my wife every three hours and ask her to apply another hot compress. Getting up to stand for the first picture (below) was a real challenge.

Bursitis, housemaid’s knee, synovitis, infection, gout? Who knows? But the pain was worse than a broken bone.

The second picture was taken two weeks later, and things are clearly under control. That image was the result of a lot of careful management and faith in natural healing principles. But at first I wasn’t so sure. There are any number of reasons to go to hospital with a leg like that. And at one point I almost did. But then I remembered all the people who have come to me with similar problems and asked if I knew how to help them avoid hospital. So I decided to take my own advice.

It was educational.

I think we might be winning…

I also remembered the many tales of bad experiences in hospitals and realised that isn’t always the best answer either. Even so, some of my colleagues were quite alarmed by my ‘recklessness’ at declining the benefits of modern medicine.

“You need to go to hospital, it could be infected, it’s certainly inflamed, you don’t know what’s going on there. It could turn really nasty”, one highly experienced colleague said.

“Honestly Jonathan, this seems to be working and I really want to avoid aggressive medical treatment if I possibly can.”

“Well it looks and sounds exactly like what happened to my knee, and I went to hospital, and I’m glad I did, because it became really serious. I needed antibiotics and surgery.”

“And how did that turn out, Jon?”

“Well there was permanent damage and in the end I had a full knee replacement.”

“You mean you lost your knee? Nearly lost your leg? You’re not really selling this to me, Jonathan.”

“Point taken. But don’t you want to find out what it is? Get a proper diagnosis?”

“I’d love to, but not as much as I want to keep my own leg and make a full recovery. And so far what I’m doing is working, so I really don’t want to mess with this. If it isn’t heading in the right direction, Louise can get me to hospital in 5 minutes flat”

So on I went with the programme, I took my own therapy. And I wondered how many surgeons would be happy to choose their own medicine.

The third photo shows the complete recovery, a full month after this all kicked off (sorry about the lighting). There was no pain, complete range of movement had returned, and the only sign that it wasn’t 100% back to normal was a mild tension in the joint when I ran up stairs.

Natural Healing 1 : Hospital Nil

I can’t say that this will work in every case (caveat emptor, in other words), or that hospital intervention wouldn’t have also been a great success. But over 2 years later what I can say with my hand on my heart is that nature’s recovery has been absolute and without any complications whatsoever.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Rest. Well, injury requires rest, so, rest.
  2. Hot poultice. Initially, with the assistance of my wife, hot compresses every few hours, made by soaking a flannel in boiling water with a good concentration of dissolved epsom salts.
  3. Aggressive amounts of vitamin C. Connective tissue requires ascorbate to repair itself, which is why people with scurvy quite literally start falling to bits. With severe inflammation one burns through ascorbate reserves at an astonishing rate, which means when sick or injured supplementation is essential. The amount you need is determined by ‘bowel tolerance’. For the first two weeks of this my tolerance was around 50 grammes of ascorbic acid per day – almost half a packet. You will know you are getting near to saturation because the relief of pain is definite. Vitamin C repairs the damage, neutralises the metabolites, toxins and irritants that are produced, and thereby brings considerable relief from pain as well.
  4. Daily hot baths with 2kg of epsom salts. This is a more general version of the hot compress, used once I was mobile enough to get in and out of a bath. This has a couple of effects. Firstly, the heat drives circulation to the inflamed areas, flushing away toxins, bringing raw materials for repair, and increasing immune system activity (which mops up the damage and debris). The epsom salts have a ‘drawing out’ effect, removing toxins via the skin and from deeper tissues as well. Some people say this provides magnesium inwards. And that isn’t a bad thing either. Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) can be bought in bulk amounts at horse feed merchants much more cheaply than at pharmacies and health shops.
  5. Water. It shouldn’t be necessary to mention water, but it is surprising how many people don’t drink enough. Healing from just about anything will be limited if one is dehydrated. And when you up your water intake it is necessary to increase salt intake as well accordingly. Caution: increasing salt intakes may give your cardiologist palpitations.
  6. Mobilisation. At first, complete rest is needed, because inflamed tissue loses its structural integrity. As healing progresses, however, little bits of stress and movement are needed to help form structural patterns within the healing tissues and bring them to full strength. Regularly put everything through its full range of pain-free motion without straining. Not too much, not too little, not too early, not too late. How much is too much or too early? Pain is the guide. Just avoid doing what hurts. If everything hurts, avoid everything. If painkillers are needed to move then one is doing too much. If the pain when simply lying still in one position is unbearable then it’s definitely time for professional advice. Eventually, brisk walks, jogging, stretching and yoga were all fed back in to reverse some of the stiffness and stasis that results from being laid up.
  7. Sun. The biggest surprise was how potent a painkiller a bit of UV light was. Once I could hobble outside into the sunshine and take a bare-back stroll along the sea shore, the relief of pain from doing so was huge. And it lasted… well, I don’t know how long it lasted, because it was still working a day later when I did it again. So I just kept doing it every day. Low vitamin D levels are another thing that will invariably make healing an uphill struggle. But raw unprotected sunshine works in other ways besides just producing vitamin D. Sunblock stops you making it as well, but do I need to tell you to be careful not to burn? If so, then you are probably the kind of person who should have stopped reading already and sought medical advice.

Here is what I didn’t do:

  1. I didn’t use ice. Ice is wrong. For sprains, muscle tears, bruises, crushes, and this… For almost anything musculoskeletal, use heat. The people who came up with icing for a sprain got it wrong, and they have admitted it. I always use heat, and it always works much better than ice. Why people are still icing is beyond me. The hotter the better, within tolerance, but short bursts and repetition is the thing. People tend to leave hot packs on far too long. WARNING: extreme caution is required with heat or cold if there is any neurological deficit, ie. nerve damage, loss of sensation, mobility or consciousness, circulatory problems, broken skin, medication, pregnancy, or any underlying/pre-existing medical conditions.
  2. I didn’t take anti-inflammatories. They may relieve symptoms but they offer no health benefit whatsoever. Inflammation is your friend, it is the primary structural healing process of the body. Hence, anti-inflammatories stop or limit healing. Hence when used long term for arthritis, anti-inflammatories actually accelerate the erosion of the joint, leading one down a pathway of stronger and stronger medication. Painkillers also allow you to over-ride your own natural in-built protective mechanisms. Pain means stop. It is not some primitive artifact prone to false readings: pain is in fact one of our oldest and therefore most highly evolved signals. Besides, there are other ways to relieve pain. So although I am not dead against painkillers, they need to be avoided if possible for healing’s sake. If pain is so severe that there is no way around pharmacy pain relief, then it is definitely time to get professional help. I repeat: anti-inflammatories offer no health benefit whatsoever.
  3. No antibiotics. This one is academic anyway since I opted out of medical care. However, antibiotics are not magic bullets, yet they get thrown at so many problems that may not even need them, usually with scant regard for side-effects, adverse reactions and the problem of antibiotic resistance. So they ought to be the last resort. But since humans have forgotten how to manage effectively without them we have become lazy and now they are a treatment of first resort. So, I’m not against their use, but in this case they weren’t needed, and I am happy about that.
  4. I didn’t reinvent the wheel. In other words, I didn’t do anything that didn’t have a good track record of working in other situations and a sound rationale for its application. At the very least, I did nothing that had potential to make matters worse. And that is still the prime directive in healing: do no harm.

I also didn’t try to push on through the pain and ‘keep exercising’ the injury as some people still believe it is best to do. Newsflash: it isn’t.

I didn’t just mope around spending hours on Facebook either. I didn’t party hard or stay up late or eat much junk food or leave anything to chance. I took my colleagues’ advice seriously but I evaluated it critically. I made educated judgments based on my own personal values about the risks of going it alone versus the – often underestimated – risks of hospital treatment.

I did trust the natural healing ability of all living things, and applied every principle I could think of to help it manifest.

In short, I did nothing reckless or outside the limits of my own knowledge and confidence, and nobody persuaded me to take this approach against my own educated judgment. And had things taken a turn for the worse, medical help was never out of reach. In such events, these are personal decisions each person must make.

Some might say I took an unnecessary risk, and that I got lucky. I would agree with both those points, except perhaps not the ‘unnecessary’ bit. Risk is unavoidable when injured or sick. Recovering involves a huge amount of uncertainty, and anybody who thinks that the hospital approach is inherently safe and risk-free is not aware of the facts. A conservative estimate might be that a tenth of people admitted to hospital are harmed avoidably by the hospital, whereas the treatment itself is unavoidably unsafe.

Even properly prescribed properly administered medical treatment has a downside and can cause a great deal of harm. It didn’t save my friend Jonathan’s knee, and it is possible that the more aggressive and suppressive approach actually destroyed his knee, and his chances of making a proper recovery. We will never know.

We will also never know how things would have turned out had we each made different choices.

In aviation they say there is no such thing as a good pilot who is not yet back on the ground. But a good landing is any landing from which you walk away safely. For all the talk of the supposed brilliance of ‘Evidence Based Medicine’, you can never say for sure what will work; only what has worked.

But here I am, and my knees are great.



Warnings and disclaimer: the above is written for interest only. Nothing said here can be taken as medical advice. No two injuries are exactly the same, and all must be appraised individually. In any similar situation, seek the right professional help, and do not apply any of these techniques without adequate advice or experience. Each person must consider their own knowledge, experience, values, resources and range of beliefs before making any decision to accept, decline, modify or avoid, medical treatment or healing advice of any kind. Health outcomes cannot be reliably predicted in advance and there are no guarantees in healthcare.