A lifetime with muscular dystrophy has made Eileen Pierce intimately familiar with pain.
"I was born with MD and, on top of that, eight years ago they told me I had MS (multiple sclerosis) "… I'm 42, and the doctors said I wouldn't live to 13," says Pierce, a Talent resident.
Muscular dystrophy includes a group of genetic diseases characterized by degeneration and progressive weakness of muscles controlling movement. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord and leads to a variety of neurological disorders.
Pierce has struggled with back pain her entire life, a common symptom among MD patients. She often experiences back spasms, at times so severe she collapses. She has twice collapsed getting on and off city buses, resulting in torn knee ligaments. Knee pain still plagues her. Dealing with all this pain gives her debilitating migraine headaches.
Last January Pierce's shoulder and arm were shattered in a car accident that also took the lives of her mother and boyfriend and broke her aunt's back. In her ensuing rehabilitation, she began working with Michael Pennington at Turning Point Physical Therapy in Talent. Pennington introduced her to a new and little-known pain reduction therapy called Primal Reflex Release Technique — PRRT.
When Pennington first told Pierce about the method, she was skeptical.
"I thought Mike was nuts," says Pierce of the system that uses a variety of manual pressure techniques to give quick pain relief without the use of drugs.
Pierce was won over by the immediate results, and by the extended periods of pain-free living.
"I've had it last up to a week," she says.
PRRT is based on the theory that a series of primal reflexes — hard-wired into the brain — are, like pain, protective mechanisms, ones that were essential for survival in early humans. Healing can be accelerated by turning off these reflexes that often remain after the immediate need for the pain has passed.
PRRT was developed by San Diego physical therapist John Iams, who began teaching colleagues how to use it about six years ago. Pennington is one of Iams' early students and is himself a certified teacher of PRRT.
Pierce lies face-up on a table during one of her thrice-weekly physical-therapy sessions. Pennington moves Pierce's head backward and puts pressure at points at the base of her skull. He then massages her ears and pulls gently on her hair.
"What we're trying to do with the cranial releases here "… we're trying to down-regulate or turn down the tension — the pain in the body — by using the cranial nerves," says Pennington.
Just as doctors use the familiar rubber-tipped hammers to test reflexes, PRRT therapists use reflex hammers — or their hands — to turn off pain, in what is called the law of reciprocal innervation.
"If I tighten up my biceps, what does my triceps have to do? It has to relax," explains Pennington.
After reducing the body's overall pain response by working with the larger cranial nerves, Pennington begins to address Pierce's back pain.
"In a minute, you're going to see me pound on her abdominal muscles, and that will inhibit her back muscles from tension and spasm. Part of the muscular dystrophy is that they get a big lugosis, a curvature here (in the spine), and (that) creates a lot of tension, a lot of pain, spasms," says Pennington.
Pierce demonstrates a technique to relieve migraines that she has learned to do at home.
She puts her tongue on the roof of her mouth, opens the mouth an inch and presses her thumbs under the chin. She exerts a slight downward pressure on her thumbs with her jaw. She's even taught this technique to a friend who suffers from migraines.
In less than two minutes, the migraine is completely gone.
"We try to train people how to do it on their own or with their spouses so they can do this when they're not with me," says Pennington.
For physical-therapy patients, the release from pain can accelerate their rehabilitation.
"If you're having a lot of pain, I can shut it down so you can start to do the exercises, start building strength and range of motion. It's going to speed your rehab along. So we use it as a tool," explains Pennington.
But like all tools, there are risks.
"A lot of them (patients) get out of pain, and they start jumping up and down "… Yes, I can turn it (pain) off, but you can turn it back on, too. So we warn them and ask them to give us two, full weeks of no pain before they get back into their regular activities," says Pennington.
At the end of today's therapy session, Pennington works on Pierce's legs. Complications from torn ligaments stemming from her knee injuries makes it difficult for her to straighten her legs without pain.
After a minute of tapping on Pierce's hamstrings, her leg begins to extend, sans pain. One more minute of tapping, karate-chop style, and her leg extends fully.
When Pierce stands up, she straps on a shoe brace that stabilizes her right knee. She walks slowly, using a cane for balance. She smiles. No pain.
"She survived against all odds, against MS, MD," says Pennington. "This girl is really a miracle."