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Back to the Basics

Health Wanted


Published March 3, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

When it comes to our overall health and wellness, many of us pay the least attention to the spine. The long lines for the treadmill and elliptical at the gym testify to our concern for "cardio" -- the heart and lungs. We care immensely about our muscles, not to mention livers, kidneys and colons. But unless something goes wrong with it, the spine just kind of, well, hangs out in the back.

This might change as chiropractic treatment works its way into the mainstream. One new-agey approach, though, promises not only a better back but a better quality of life. On Bridge Street in Richmond, Julieta and Matthew Rushford have just opened a practice that specializes in Network Spinal Analysis. The technique is cleverly marketed toward "anyone with a spine."

I decide to book an appointment with Julieta, curious to see what this kind of chiropractic work could do for me -- a fit person without a smidgen of back problems. When I arrive at the new clinic, painted a cheery cornflower blue inside, Julieta asks me to fill out a brief health form.

"You've never been to a chiropractor before?" she asks, putting her pen down and looking at me. I shrug, mesmerized by the Gregorian chants wafting through the room. Why would I have been to a chiropractor? As a kid, my back was just something I was told to straighten at the dinner table. And, OK, it was occasionally the target of some taped "kick me" notes from Courtney Adamson, fifth-grade bully. As an adult, I've taken good care of my back through exercise and occasional yoga.

Or so I thought. "That's like you walking into a dentist office without ever having your teeth cleaned," Julieta chides. "We probably have some work to do."

The chiropractic movement, I learn, aims to mimic preventive dental care. Until the second half of the 20th century, most folks saw the dentist only if their teeth hurt. But once they learned that regular check-ups could keep them from looking like a Yeti in later years, Americans began dutifully going every six months, even bringing their children in before permanent teeth grew.

"We advocate regular chiropractic care from birth on," says Julieta, who's worked on everyone from newborns to 90-year-olds with spinal fractures. "For you, probably in your spine there's stress dating back to a couple decades that may have been stored in the nervous system. And that affects your reality, your daily life right now."

But if I'm not experiencing any back pain, how can my spine possibly be damaged? Apparently, while I've been walking around whistling "Dixie" for the past three decades, my insides have gone haywire. As we learned in high school biology and promptly forgot, the spine connects the brain to some 100 trillion cells in the body's every nook and cranny. If one nerve extending from the spinal cord gets out of whack -- this is called subluxation, Julieta says -- it can wreak havoc on daily functions, sometimes affecting an entire organ.

First developed in the 1980s, Network Spinal Analysis, or Network, operates on the theory that gentle pressure to the spine will clear a person's clogged communications systems, sort of like a more pleasant Roto-Rooter for the corporal pipes. "Most chiropractors, they find the bone out of place and -- crrrunch! -- they put it back in place," says Julieta. "And that works for a lot of people, but our body has so much more potential."

A recent study of 2800 Network recipients revealed that 76 percent experienced less stress, more life enjoyment and improved physical, emotional and psychological well being. Of course, during and after their treatment, the majority had also made lifestyle changes such as practicing yoga or consuming health food and vitamins. When they began practicing Network 10 years ago, the Rushfords found similar results among their patients. "They were feeling something -- mostly in an emotional and spiritual level -- that we weren't expecting," Julieta says.

When applied often, she suggests, Network can transcend tangible aches and pains and achieve more holistic healing. After a few sessions, some people find they need physical changes such as a different bed, shoes or desk chair. But sometimes a bigger, seismic need emerges: a job change, a divorce, a quest to kick Courtney Adamson's butt.

After hearing this theory, I shift onto the table for my initial analysis. I remain fully clothed except for leather belt and shoes. I wonder what the heck Julieta is going to fiind.

"Chemical stress," she murmurs, moving her fingertips lightly over the top of my neck. "Could be the pill." Maybe. As I've answered the history form honestly, I don't expect too many surprises.

But suddenly she stops and her hands drop. "What happened when you were 27?" she says with such authority that I literally feel a chill run down my spine. I scan my memories; when I was 27 I dumped my boyfriend and ditched my life in Manhattan for a new job in Utah. It was a weird time in my life, and it's even weirder that Julieta can pick up on this. The spine, she tells me, stores information like the rings of a tree.

Julieta finds a couple of other things -- college-era stuff -- that shock me. By the time she finishes the examination I'm thinking she might be able to track down my old orange 10-speed. "You have a lot of work," she says. "Your sacrum has no idea that your neck exists." (Yeah, well, my brain tries to forget that my butt exists, too.) My range of motion is pathetic, my right leg is five-eighths of an inch shorter than my left, and thick bands of contracted muscle surround my spine -- supposedly a sign of guardedness. I thought it was the result of lifting weights every other day.

Julieta adjusts certain areas around my neck and lower back, which instantly feel more flexible, as if they've been sprung. "We're starting to brush the teeth," she says, prescribing Network two to three times a week for the next four to six weeks. Immediately I think, ain't gonna happen. Network is covered by some health insurance plans, but not all, and the $30 adjustments ($90 for the first test) would quickly gobble up my freelancer's salary.

Were I to continue with Network, however, I might end up like Stephanie, a patient who arrives for an adjustment just before I depart the clinic. The Rushfords keep the doors to each of the three rooms open so they can move among patients easily and promote openness. "We all heal together," says Julieta. "These walls are just illusions."

I watch as she flutters her hand over Stephanie's lower lumbar region. Stephanie lies face down on the table, breathing deeply, her face between two henna cloths. Nothing happens for a bit and then -- whoa! -- her back reflexively undulates like she's a dolphin.

This amazing sight is the kind of thing that convinced Matthew Rushford to become a chiropractor. It's called the somato respiratory integration (SRI) wave, a sign of intense body-breath awareness that allows a patient to realign her vertebrae after the slightest touch. When Stephanie sits up, she is flushed, loosey-goosey, her eyes a bit distant. "There's nothing else out there that does that," says Matthew. "The SRI wave is associated with significant changes in a person's quality of life."

As I leave, Julieta warns me that I may feel some funky stuff in my organs over the next 24 to 48 hours. Mercifully, I don't. But I do experience a certain expansion in my lungs, a calming sensation and slightly more energy. It's enough to make me consider another appointment -- right after I get to the dentist.