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No, I can't fix you (you're not a machine).

No, I Can’t Fix You (you’re not a machine).

‘Can you fix me?’

I hear this type of thing all the time. This is a difficult question to answer. Certainly I want to give the impression I can help, but fixing someone, that just doesn’t happen. Just the other day a friend of mine was complaining about his back. The quote from above was his exact words to me.

It would have been so easy to answer him with a resounding ‘yes’. After all, I help people every day, I’m sure he would’ve felt better after seeing me. But this wouldn’t have been an honest answer. So this is the conundrum I faced: answer with an affirmative, bring him in and perhaps gain a new patient. Or give him a more honest answer and risk turning him away.

It’s easy for us to think there is a quick fix to most of our aches and pains, especially with such a vast array of techniques all promising to relieve our troubles. There is myofacial release, active release, trigger point release. We have dry needling, joint manipulations, adjustments. Don’t forget structural integration, functional integration, postural rebalancing. The list is seemingly endless.

As with most problems we encounter in life we turn to the experts for answers. When our car breaks down we take it to a mechanic, when our bike needs a tune-up we bring it to the bike shop, when our iphone is acting wonky we spend four hours on the phone with apple care. The experts can fix these problems. So it’s understandable to expect the same from our healthcare providers.

There’s an analogy frequently used in my profession: the human body is like a machine. This suggests the body, like a machine, can be fixed. I don’t like this analogy. It’s never resonated with me. This is why.

Humans are living beings with nervous systems that have feelings, sensations and thoughts that influence how we move and interact. Last I checked machines still couldn’t feel or think. Machines are predictable, humans not so much. If we replace a faulty part in a machine, we can be confident that machine will run properly. Replacing a part in a human is not as predictable.

The human body can adapt. We get stronger and more tolerant when we are exposed to stress. This is called the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) and it is the core of all types of training. Humans are resilient. Machines do not become stronger with more exposure to stress. If anything, they become weaker.

Oh, and one more thing, machines don’t experience pain.

So the human body being compared to a machine is not a very helpful analogy and in fact can be harmful.

Ok, we’re not machines, but what’s the harm in thinking we can get a quick fix from the ‘experts’? There are a few reasons:

  • It implies we are somehow broken or faulty.

  • It can create a dependency on a certain technique or therapist.

  • We can lose internal locus of control.

Feeling broken:

This lowers our self-confidence. I’ve written before about the nocebo effect and how therapists’ words can have a profound effect on the outcomes of treatments. When we are in pain our spirits are low enough, we don’t want to be told we are damaged. We want to be reassured by our therapist that we’re going to be ok. Pain is a normal part of life, it doesn’t always mean our tissue is damaged and certainly doesn’t mean we’re broken.

Creating dependency:

Regularly I hear comments like this: “I need to see you before I get on that plane” or “I need to be fixed before my game this weekend”. This is great for my ego and my bank account but can lead to problems for some patients. Feeling dependent on a certain treatment or therapist means that we would go to great lengths to receive it. It’s not always easy or convenient to fit a treatment into our busy lives. Things we value most may end up being sacrificed.

Locus of control:

Finally when we put too much faith in the ability of others to ‘fix’ us we lose internal locus of control. Wikipedia defines locus of control as “the degree to which people have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control”.

Having internal locus of control means we can get there on our own. It means we control our own destiny. And doesn’t that sound better that relying on someone to do it for us?

I know. We’ve all felt a ton better after getting a massage, and sometimes it’s easy to think we’ve been fixed. But remember, there was nothing broken to begin with so nothing needed to be fixed.

So what’s happening then? If we haven’t been fixed, how come we feel so much better? That, my friends, is the million dollar question and I will try my best to answer it in a future post.

And about my friend who asked if I could fix him? I told him ‘no’. There were too many people around for me to elaborate, so he now probably thinks I’m a lousy therapist. He would be wrong. I’m a great therapist. I just can’t fix people.

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