Osteopathic Physician’s Own Pain Triggered Her Life’s Path

By Nicole Thorsvik, DO

My path to a career in medicine was not a direct one. As a first-generation college student, my focus had been on gaining acceptance to a university, not on what I would study or which profession I would purse. Once at school, delving into philosophy, literature, and history brought me enjoyment and led me to pursue a degree in the humanities. These subjects taught me to look beneath the surface for context and to appreciate man’s pursuit of meaning and life. It was a great complement to my career in medicine, which came later, but did little to prepare me for the job that came next.

Following graduation, I spent five years working as a retail manager. The work was challenging and taught me about leadership and teamwork. Working 60-hour work weeks also took a toll on me physically. The stress of long days coupled with heavy lifting led to headaches, and back and neck pain. I sought the help of a physician. Upon reading the results of my x-rays, he declared that I had arthritis and that I would likely have pain for the rest of my life. It was a gloomy prognosis for a twenty-something. For my suffering, he prescribed pain medication and a chiropractor. Both were helpful for a short time, but my pain always returned.

It was my boss’s wife who referred me to a physician specializing in osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM). She told me that the physician was a D.O., not an M.D. She explained that M.D.s and D.O.s are both fully licensed physicians in the United States, but that D.O.s were skilled in manual diagnosis and treatment of the musculoskeletal system, a tool which M.D.s don’t learn in medical school. Then she recounted how she suffered from chronic neck pain and limited motion in her arm due to severe injuries from a car accident. Subsequent surgeries had failed to help, but one gentle hands-on osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) from this doctor reduced her pain and improved her motion. Elated with her results, she encouraged me to try it.

At my appointment, the doctor’s intake included questions about my physical and emotional stresses, stating how both could contribute to my pains. He conducted a head-to-toe examination of the range of motion in my joints and the tension in my muscles and soft tissues. His touch was gentle and the treatment subtle. At the end of my visit, I was astonished to find that my pain was gone. A few days later, I noticed that my digestion had improved, as had my sleep and energy level. The results impressed me. I thought about all the suffering people who could benefit from OMT and I set out to learn what I could about osteopathic medicine.

In my research, I learned that the philosophy of osteopathic medicine recognizes and supports the body’s innate ability to heal. I read about how our bodies are constantly adapting to our environment and the stresses and strains we place on them. Each organ system contributes its part to support overall health. For example, arteries supply oxygenated blood and nutrients to support the tissues. The venous and lymphatic systems return blood to the heart and remove metabolic waste products, respectively. If either system is disrupted or impeded, the tissues may become damaged or dysfunctional, much like the heart in a heart attack or the brain in a stroke.

Thus, it made sense that mechanical imbalance in the musculoskeletal system could affect the function of the tissues, contributing to disease
and pain over time. By targeting the neuromusculoskeletal system, OMT supported the body’s health by removing the structural impediments to free range of motion. It restored blood and nerve supply and facilitated waste removal. Evaluating each patient individually allowed the physician to tailor the treatment to the patient’s specific needs. This individualized approach to health care delivery was compelling and it moved me to think about attending osteopathic medical school.

Prior to being eligible for acceptance to an osteopathic medical school, I returned to college to complete prerequisite science and math courses. Afterwards, I completed four years at the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale, Arizona. Upon graduating, I chose the Osteopathic Neuromusculoskeletal Residency (ONMM) at SBH from among the handful of residencies across the country training specialists in ONMM. This program, started by Dr. Hugh Ettlinger, had a reputation for being the best in the country.

Now, as an attending physician in the ONMM department at SBH, my manual diagnostic skills allow me to look below the skin’s surface to find the root causes of my patients’ ailments, the culmination of a comprehensive medical education complemented by a foundation in the humanities. I enjoy providing individualized care for my patients, and offering them a non-invasive, non-pharmacologic treatment option to restore their function and improve their health.